At the north end of the Wrangell Narrows, a 22-mile channel that is only 300 feet wide and 19 feet deep in places, is Petersburg, the center of Norwegian culture in Alaska.
ABOUT PETERSBURG (TLINGIT: SÉET KÁ)
Petersburg lies across Frederick Sound from a spectacular glaciated wall of alpine peaks—including the distinctive Devil's Thumb—that form a skyline of jagged snowcapped summits. This community of roughly 3,000 is centered around its busy and scenic waterfront, which is lined with wharfs, working boats, and weathered boathouses, while tidy homes and businesses—many decorated with distinctive flowery Norwegian rosemaling—line the quiet streets.
THINGS TO DO
The heart and soul of old Petersburg is Sing Lee Alley, a picturesque street built on pilings over Hammer Slough. The Sons of Norway Hall, a large white and red building with colorful rosemaling, was built in 1912 and is a National Historic Site. The social hall still serves as the center for Petersburg's Norwegian culture. During the summer, visitors can stop by to watch Norwegian dancers and enjoy Norwegian pastries. Hammer Slough and Sing Lee Alley are a delight to photographers who want to capture Petersburg’s colorful waterfront.
Bojer Wikan Fishermen's Memorial Park is located along Sing Lee Alley. Built on pilings over Hammer Slough, the memorial features a nine-foot bronze sculpture of local fisherman Bojer Wikan and honors all his fellow crewmembers lost at sea. Also on display is the Valhalla, a replica of a Viking ship that was built in 1976 and purchased by Petersburg two years later.
Petersburg’s outstanding Clausen Memorial Museum is home to an interesting collection of artifacts and relics, much of it related to local fishing history. Exhibits include the largest king salmon ever caught (126 pounds), a giant lens from the old Cape Decision lighthouse, and a Tlingit dugout canoe. Outside is Fisk, the intriguing fish sculpture that was commissioned in 1967 to honor the Alaska centennial.
Norwegian culture in Petersburg can be seen at its best in mid-May when the town hosts the Little Norway Festival celebrating Norwegian Independence Day. This four-day event features Norwegian costumes, a parade, booths, games, and dances. The highlight of the event is the wonderful seafood buffet and shrimp feeds, where you’ll indulge in the freshest shrimp, crab, and halibut.
LeConte Glacier is the southernmost tidewater glacier in Alaska and is only 20 miles by boat from Petersburg. Icebergs that have calved off LeConte often float into Frederick Sound and can be seen from the Petersburg shoreline. There are a variety of ways to experience the glacier from Petersburg including flightseeing, kayaking, and day-long charter boat cruises, some of which include whale watching in Frederick Sound.
PARKS & PUBLIC LANDS
Within easy walking distance of downtown Petersburg is Eagle’s Roost Park, a small park with a picnic table and benches. Its most popular attraction, however, is the Narrows Viewing Platform, an excellent place to view eagles roosting in trees or feeding in Wrangell Narrows. You can also follow a trail down to the beach to explore tide pools at low tide.
Outlook Park is a marine wildlife observatory located halfway between town and Sandy Beach Picnic Area on Sandy Beach Road. The covered timber-frame shelter was built by a local shipwright and is modeled after the Norwegian Stave Churches. It is equipped with free binoculars to search Frederick Sound for humpbacks, orcas, sea lions, and icebergs or for viewing the snow-covered peaks of the Coast Mountains and Devil's Thumb.
Sandy Beach Recreation Area is a beautiful day-use area only two miles from downtown. The extensive tide flats are the sites of ancient Alaska Native petroglyphs and 2,000-year-old Tlingit fish traps seen snaking across the mud at low tide. Sandy Beach is also a great place for tide pooling on medium to low tides. Three picnic shelters, picnic tables, a forest trail, and restrooms are available.
South of Petersburg, at mile 14.5 of Mitkof Highway, is the mile-long Blind River Rapids Boardwalk that winds through an interesting stretch of muskeg to a set of rapids on the river and a scenic area. In July, the river is busy with anglers trying to land king salmon.
Surrounding Petersburg is Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the United States, offering endless opportunities for hiking, kayaking, camping, fishing, wildlife viewing, and staying at one of the many public use cabins. A Tongass National Forest Visitor Information Center is located downtown Petersburg and is a great place to stop for information, maps, and books on this vast wilderness.
One of the most popular activities in Petersburg is whale watching. From mid-May to mid-September, humpback whales migrate through and feed in Frederick Sound, 45 miles northwest of town. The peak feeding period is July and August when you also might spot Steller sea lions, orcas, and seals. Charter-boat operators offer six- to eight-hour whale watching tours from Petersburg.
Home to the largest home-based halibut fleet in Alaska, many visitors arrive in Petersburg hoping to catch one of those bottom feeders. The town boasts a large number of charter fishing guides who are more than happy to take clients out for a day on the water with hopes of catching a Pacific halibut that can weigh anywhere from 100 to even 300 pounds, or king and silver salmon.
Petersburg is the staging point for a number of interesting trips for kayakers. The most popular destination is LeConte Glacier. From town, it takes one to two days to reach the frozen monument, including crossing Frederick Sound north of Coney Island. If the tides are judged right, and the ice is not too thick, it's possible to paddle far enough into LeConte Bay to camp within view of the glacier. Kayak rentals are available in Petersburg, but travelers can also arrange a boat transport to LeConte Glacier to avoid paddling Frederick Sound. Guided trips are also available.
GETTING TO PETERSBURG
Petersburg is on an island and is only accessible by water or air. The harbor is not deep enough to accommodate large cruise ships, so the majority of visitors arrive by plane, the Alaska Marine Highway, or small cruise ships. Scheduled non-stop flight service is available on Alaska Airlines from Juneau and Wrangell, offering easy connections to the rest of Alaska and the Lower 48. The Alaska Marine Highway ferry stops in Petersburg several times a month, and the town is a port of call for Inside Passage itineraries for several small ship cruise companies.
Tlingit people have been hunting and fishing in the Petersburg area for over 2,000 years. The town of Petersburg was founded by Peter Buschmann of Norway in 1897. The town’s fine harbor, abundant fish, and a ready supply of ice from nearby LeConte Glacier led him to build a cannery in the area. He enticed his Norwegian friends to relocate and gave his first name to the resulting town. Today, Petersburg’s Norwegian past can be seen from its street names to its phone book.
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