Petersburg Travel Guide

Overview

A fishing village founded more than a century ago by Norwegian fishermen, Petersburg is about halfway between Ketchikan and Juneau at the northern tip of Mitkof Island, and is surrounded by the Tongass National Forest. It's more of a working town than a tourist mecca, and Petersburg's work is fishing. More than 400 commercial and sportfishing vessels ply the waters around Mitkof Island, providing employment for most of its residents.

The Tlingit people had long used the island as a fishing camp when Norwegian adventurer Peter Buschmann stopped there in the 1890s and noted its proximity to the LeConte Glacier. With an inexhaustible supply of glacial ice and abundant fish, the island impressed Buschmann as an ideal spot to build a cannery. His instincts proved correct. With help from several hundred fellow Norwegians and the Tlingit population, he built Petersburg into one of the most prosperous fishing villages in southeast Alaska. A historical marker indicates the exact spot of Buschmann's cannery, across the street from the present-day Petersburg Fisheries on Nordic Drive.

Today, the pretty little town still has a strong Norwegian flavor: Rosemaling (a painted flower pattern) decorates buildings, the grass lawns (a rarity in Alaska) are clipped, homes are well-kept, and the streets are clean. Petersburg can be reached by air, Alaska Marine Highway ferries and small cruise ships.

Geography

Located at the northern tip of Mitkof Island, Petersburg is near the summer feeding grounds for hundreds of humpback whales in Frederick Sound and the gateway to Wrangell Narrows, a 20-mi-/32-km-long tidal waterway too narrow for large cruise ships. Dotted by navigational markers that make it look like a Christmas tree lane at night, the passage challenges boaters with 8 mph/13 kph currents and tides that change the water level by more than 20 ft/6 m in a day, from a high of 19 ft/6 m to a low of -4 ft/-1 m.

Hilly and heavily forested Mitkof Island has lots of muskeg, relatively flat, moss-filled spongy bog that's wet and hard to hike on. Its highest point is Crystal Mountain, which rises to 3,317 ft/1,011 m. Petersburg is close to the Stikine-LeConte Wilderness Area, which includes LeConte Glacier, and to 9,077-ft/2,767-m Devil's Thumb, a precipitous Canadian border pinnacle that challenges climbers.
Petersburg is located in the heart of the Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the U.S. It is halfway between Juneau and Ketchikan. There are three boat harbors, and some of the town is on pilings built over Hammer Slough.

History

Fishing lured Alaska Natives to the Petersburg area 2,000 years ago. Two ancient, heart-shaped stone fish traps and petroglyphs are remnants of the Tlingit fishing area at Sandy Beach just north of Petersburg. Abundant fish, timber, a natural harbor and chunks of ice from the nearby LeConte Glacier (25 mi/40 km away) attracted Peter and Petra Buschmann, their eight children and family friends from Norway to Wrangell Narrows in 1897. They built a cannery, sawmill and dock, founding Icy Straits Packing Co., eventually home to eight seafood-processing plants during Alaska's cannery heyday when salmon and halibut were packed in glacier ice. Petersburg was incorporated in 1910.

Petersburg has one of the largest halibut fleets in the world and is ranked among the top 10 most valuable Alaska fishing ports. Alaska's first shrimp processor, Alaska Glacier Seafoods, was founded there in 1916. Buschmann's Icy Straits Packing Co., now called Petersburg Fisheries, a subsidiary of Icicle Seafoods, has operated continuously since its founding.

Sightseeing

Take photographs of Hammer Slough, the Sons of Norway Hall, the Viking ship Valhalla, and the Raven and Eagle totems at the corner of Nordic and Haugen Drive. Don't miss Bruno, a black bear sculpture in Centennial Park on Nordic Drive that makes local dogs growl. Tour the streets of Petersburg with a walking-tour map from the visitors center.

Also, explore the types of fishing boats in Petersburg's harbor: longliners, trollers, gillnetters, seiners and crabbers. See the 2,000-year-old Tlingit fish traps at Sandy Beach, visible at low tide, and look for whales at Outlook Park's Whale Observatory, which overlooks Frederick Sound, home to at least 500 whales in the summer.

Nightlife

Dining

It's a casual town, and the restaurants reflect that—you don't have to dress up to get a good meal in Petersburg. Because it's a fishing community, fresh seafood is always on the menu (and it won't be slathered in trendy sauces).

Some of the best food served in Petersburg is during the Little Norway Festival, held on the third full weekend in May. Locals bake krumkake (a Norwegian cookie), fattimand (poor man's cake) and other delicacies made with lots of "butter and love." They're sold during the festival's traditional luncheon and Scandinavian-style show.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$25; $$$ = US$26-$40; and $$$$ = more than US$40.

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