PETERSBURG, Alaska -- As in many other century-old ethnic
communities across the nation, second- and third-generation
Americans here in Alaska's "Little Norway" are trying to hold onto
There is little in the scenery to distract them in this
endeavor. "It's as close to Norway as you can get," said Linda
Quarles of the Petersburg Chamber of Commerce. "The tall mountains,
the water, the glaciers are very Norwegian."
Access to the water and ice is what appealed to Peter Buschmann,
a Norwegian immigrant, when, in 1896, he founded the town and
settled it with Norwegian fishermen and their families.
Today, the town flourishes as a center for commercial fishing and
seafood processing and is a favorite among tourists who come to
observe a small fishing community at work against a backdrop of
It is a short walk around town. Those who head to the beach will
stumble across petroglyphs of ancient native rock carvings.
At low tide, they can see five tidal fish-traps made of rock and
wood that Forest Service archaeologists determined are a couple of
thousand years old.
At high tide in Hammer Slough (pronounced Slew), the historic
district, the coastal waters reveal reflections of the 25
Norwegian-style houses and warehouses set on pilings along the
Though few in number, other houses in town are identifiably
Norwegian, as well. Such homes generally are characterized by their
brightly painted sidings trimmed with rosemaling and topped with
red roofs, according to Quarles.
Many storefronts and the harbor office also carry the
distinctive rosemaling floral motif, while inside some houses built
by Norwegian tradesmen, there are the deep, narrow staircases
consistent with Norwegian homes.
Indeed, an interest in things Norwegian has been revived in the
last couple of years, according to Dave Berg, owner of Viking
The Norwegian Museum here is getting people to record their
Young parents have resurrected Norwegian names for their
children, such as Jacob, Helmer, Sigrid, Erik and its feminine
The Sons of Norway conducts lessons in the Norwegian language
for adults and children.
A number of families each year vacation in Norway. Ten members
of one family made the pilgrimage last year, Quarles said.
And a young local woman of Norwegian ancestry teaches Norwegian
dancing, and parents and grandparents teach their children
It is this pride in their heritage that impels Petersburg
residents to come together each year on the third full weekend of
May for the Little Norway Festival, the biggest event on the
The weekend is chosen to coincide as closely as possible with
Syttende Mai (the 17th of May), the date of Norway's independence
from Sweden in 1814. This year, the event will take place May 18 to
Along with crafts, a parade and a seafood feast, the Norwegian
dancers will show what they have learned, and a "style show" will
feature Norwegian costumes, some of which were handed down through
generations, some of which were ordered from Norway and some of
which are homemade.
Norwegian food, including beer bits -- halibut fried in deep
fat, similar to English fish and chips -- and an ample supply of
Norwegian cookies are menu favorites at the festival's various
venues for dining, which include a cannery cook house.
The town's major festival attracts a good number of tourists, so
anyone planning to stay overnight should make reservations in
Petersburg has three hotels that total less than 100 rooms, 18
bed-and-breakfasts and three parks for recreational vehicles --
Tonka View and Twin Creek on the Narrows, about three miles from
town, and LeConte, 30 miles out, named for the glacier visible at
spots along the coastal highway.
The town also has a variety of restaurants, although the one
most written about, the Homestead, is soon to be turned into a cook
house for a cannery.
Providing eating and sleeping space for transient cannery
workers is a priority here.
The population in summertime swells, not with cruise ship
passengers but with seasonal workers, for whose labor the
processing plants compete.
In economic importance to Petersburg, the seafood business is
paramount and tourism seems hardly to count at all.
Despite its distinctive ethnic makeup, its scenery, the
multitude of boat charters running glacier tours and the
world-class kayaking outfits operating here, Petersburg draws few
tourists in comparison with other towns along the Inside
The reasons are these: Petersburg is accessible only by air or
sea; has no deep-water port, and sits on the northern tip of Mitkof
Island in the Wrangell Narrows, the single most difficult
navigational stretch in all of southeast Alaska.
The ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway System stop here twice
a day, May through September.
The active Elderhostel groups who come here arrive by ferry in
spring and fall, Berg said.
Accommodations on the ferries usually are booked solid for
Petersburg may be "off the beaten path of the large cruise
ships," as Berg said recently, but six small-ship lines dock here
They are the Seattle-based outfits: Alaska Sightseeing/Cruise
West, Alaska's Glacier Bay Tours and Cruises, Special Expeditions
and Society Expeditions; plus American Safari Cruises of Linwood,
Wash., whose two small luxury ships carry only about 12 passengers,
and Clipper Cruise Lines of St. Louis.
Petersburg Visitor Information Center
Phone: (907) 772-4636