Alaska Inside Passage

Velkommen til Petersburg

Sunday, July 05, 2015S.V. CAMBRIA

An orca fishing along the shore in Clarence Strait.
From Ketchikan to Petersburg, there really isn’t anything but miles along the way – not any destination anchorages at least. So we shouldn’t have been surprised when Exchange Cove, at the northern end of Clarence Strait, turned out to be a disappointment, both in terms of protection (which was fine but the anchorage itself felt exposed because of its large size) and scenery. Of course, the weather didn’t help its cause.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about SE Alaska in our short time here, it’s that it knows how to rain and can pour down in sheets. That was the case on Sunday, so we stayed in Exchange Cove and used the extra time to work on our passage through Wrangell Narrows again – what the Douglass cruising guide (“Exploring Southeast Alaska”) describes as a “piloting challenge” thanks to 58 channel markers, three sets of range finders, two areas of turbulent water and a change in tidal flow.

Come Monday morning, the rain and fog had cleared so we upped-anchor and made our way across Sumner Strait to enter Wrangell Narrows. The 21-mile channel is shallow and narrow, but it’s well-marked and less of an issue than we expected after what we’d read in Douglass.

According to the guide, you should be able to transit the entire canal with favourable currents if you enter on the last half of the flood. But we were experiencing spring tides and weren’t able to find a way to avoid slogging against a 4-knot current without stopping and waiting a couple of hours at Green Point (where the current changes direction) before finishing the last seven miles. When we got there, though, we were happy with the anchorage and decided to stay overnight so we’d have a full day to explore Petersburg – a.ka. “Little Norway”.  

In the late 1890s, a Norwegian immigrant called Peter Buschmann (along with his wife and eight children) chose a site on Wrangell Narrows to homestead because of its potential for a year-round fish processing company. Other Norwegians followed Buschmann to the area and by 1900, they’d built a sawmill, a wharf, a store, warehouses, bunkhouses and the Icy Straits Packing Company. In 1910, a city was formed and by 1920, 600 people resided in Petersburg year-round . . . today there are 3,500.

Petersburg’s economy continues to depend on fishing and its seafood processing plants but tourism also plays a role. The natural harbour is too small to accommodate cruise ships, but visitors arrive frequently during the summer months by private vessel, the state ferry and air to fish, whale watch or visit nearby Le Conte Glacier (the southernmost tidewater glacier . . . and the most active).

But we were stopping for less ambitious reasons.

We left Green Point by eight the following morning and were berthed in North Harbor within the hour. I picked up some information from the office and we set out on a historical walking tour of the city we’ve heard so much about. It turned out that there wasn’t much to see, not downtown anyway. But Petersburg has a really nice feel about it – everyone seems to know each other and is very friendly. It’s also very picturesque, particularly the stilthouses that line Hammer’s Slough.

Every now and then, we find ourselves in need of civilization – internet and phone access in particular – and this was one of those times. As it turns out, we’ve been a bit spoiled by the coastal communities in British Columbia where wi-fi is the norm. Here in Alaska, the marinas don’t provide the service and we have to use the internet at local hot spots or the library. So I left David, who isn’t much of a walker, to the computer and set out to explore the east side of Mitkof Island on foot. To do it over again, I would have rented bicycles from the office and dragged David along because the view out to Fredrick Sound was worth seeing – row after row of snow-capped mountains and high, rugged peaks providing the backdrop for a solitary humpback whale as it leisurely swam up-channel.

In fact, it would have been worth staying an extra day to do just that but an impending change in the weather brought the return of overcast skies, making it a moot point. So we dropped our lines Wednesday morning and rode the tide out into Frederick Sound – a short, but sweet stay in one of Southeast Alaska’s most favoured coastal towns.

Farvel til Petersburg!

Note: This blog was written Wednesday, 10 June 2015.

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  1. Wow, so much rain! We have had none here, and, in fact, are in a drought. Wonder how far north that extends. Those mountains look spectacular!