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.
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. The best examples of rosemaling are seen along Sing Lee Alley, the center of old Petersburg. Most of the street is built on pilings over Hammer Slough and dominated by the Sons of Norway Hall, a large white building that was built in 1912 on pilings. Hammer Slough itself is a delight to photographers providing colorful images of Petersburg’s waterfront.
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.
Boasting the largest home-based halibut fleet in Alaska, Petersburg’s fishing fleet catches enough fish to support four canneries and two cold-storage plants. The canneries sit above the water on pilings, overlooking boat harbors bulging with vessels, barges, ferries and seaplanes. The harbor is busy but not deep so Petersburg cannot host large cruise ships. The majority of visitors arrive by the Alaska Marine Highway ferries, a number of small cruise ships and daily jet service.
Things to do
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. Nearby LeConte Glacier discharges icebergs to the delight of visitors. To the south is most of Mitkof Island, where a road system leads visitors to U.S. Forest Service campgrounds, hiking trails, fish ladders and a hatchery and a trumpeter swan observatory.
LeConte Glacier lies 25 miles east of Petersburg. Day cruises to view the glacier and flightseeing excursions over the glacier are popular. More adventurous travelers can join guided kayak trips to view the glacier and the seals that often gather on its icebergs. Closer to Petersburg, there are more opportunities to kayak, hike and rent public-use cabins. For lists of trails, cabins and outfitters contact the Tongass National Forest’s Petersburg District Office.
Norwegian culture in Petersburg can be seen at its best in mid-May when the town stages the four-day Little Norway Festival, featuring Norwegian costumes, a parade, games and dances. The highlight of the event is the wonderful seafood buffets and shrimp feeds. You’ll never indulge in shrimp, crab and halibut that is so fresh.