NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier
May 6-16, 2013
Mission: Hydrographic surveys between Ketchikan and Petersburg, Alaska
Date: May 19, 2013
Weather at port. Taken at 1600 (4:00 in the afternoon)
Latitude: 56.8044° N
Longitude: 132.9419° W
Overcast skies with intermittent rain
Wind from the SW at 6 knots
Air temperature 7.2° C
Log: Petersburg: Completing the journey
No Teacher at Sea journey would be complete without immersing oneself in the people whose lives are dependent on that sea. Such an opportunity presented itself as we made port at Petersburg, the town that was “built on fish” (Little Norway Festival Pageant). We pulled into Petersburg during the annual “Little Norway” cultural festival held over Syttende Mai weekend celebrating the signing of Norway’s constitution. Since 1958, Petersburg has celebrated this powerful conjunction of Norwegian heritage and the vital role of fish and the fishing industry.
Like many small towns, the Little Norway festival gathers the community together for a parade, softball tournament, dunk stand, food booths, walk/run, and pancake breakfast. Unlike other towns, Little Norway is graced with music from the Pickled Herring Band, a herring toss (think water balloon toss with fish), fish barbecue, and wandering Vikings willing to raid any party along their way. The closing song at the festival pageant seems to capture the spirit of Petersburg.
I Love Humpback Salmon
I love humpback salmon
Good ol’ humpback salmon
Caught by the Norkse fisherman,
I like shrimp and shellfish
They sure do make a swell dish
I think the halibut is grand!
I don’t like T-bone steak
Cut from a steer in Texas
But give me fish!
And I don’t give a damn
If I do pay taxes!
I love humpback salmon
Good ol’ humpback salmon
Caught by the Norke fisherman!
Today’s Petersburg brings together the native Alaskan traditions with the heavy Norwegian influence. A pair of towering totem poles on one end of town capture the history and contributions of the Tlingit hunters and fishermen that roamed these parts since over 2000 years ago. Coming into Petersburg we encountered several icebergs calved from the nearby LeConte Glacier. It was the presence of this clean source of ice that led the Norwegian Pioneer, Peter Buschmann to recognize the potential for the use of this ready supply of ice to pack fish and in 1897 started the Icy Strait Packing Company. He went on to add a sawmill and dock, and the town of Petersburg was launched. By 1920, Petersburg had become a town of 600 people and growing – majority of which shared Peter’s Scandinavian descent.
Fishing is and has always been a constant presence throughout Petersburg’s history. At one end of town lies the Fisherman’s Memorial Park committed to the memory of those lives “that have been lost at sea and/or spent much of their lives working directly in the fishing industry” (Plaque at the base of the statue of the fisherman). On the other end is Eagle’s Roost Park highlighting the “outlook point for wives awaiting their husbands return from fishing” (plaque at Eagle’s Roost Park). Centered within are the present day canneries and businesses that keep this unique community vital. A plaque honoring a Petersburg pioneer states, “When he taught us to fish; he taught us to appreciate the rewards of patience. When he taught us to row; he taught us the power of perseverance and hard work.” Seems these words have served this community well.
One gets a picture of the culture of a place by strolling through its shops. Unlike Ketchikan with its cruise line stocked gift shops, the merchants of Petersburg carve their own personal niches into the culture of the community. I have always enjoyed strolling through hardware and grocery stores. They serve as reflections of the life and values of the surrounding community. The Petersburg True Value hardware store shelves are stocked with the necessities of life for this fishing community. Along with nails, screws, and Weber grills you might find in any hardware store, here are rows and rows of waterproof gloves, bib overalls, jackets, flotation gear, rope of all kinds, snaps, and chains that are needed for the boats on their fishing journeys at sea. Along with the groceries one might expect, the Petersburg IGA stocks supplies of hardy Carhartt mariner clothing, washing machines, recliners, and iPhones. Each gift shop in town is unique, serving as markets for locally crafted goods by area artisans. There isn’t a place in Petersburg for the nondescript big box retailers of larger cities. These merchants stock all the supplies necessary to keep the pulse of the lifeblood of this community going. In so doing, they keep alive what makes this community unique. Not unlike the life I experienced on board the Rainier, Petersburg is an island community that has learned to rely on itself for the safety and well-being of all its members.
The festival comes to a conclusion with the annual fish barbecue held at Sandy Beach park. The event centers on all the grilled salmon, black cod and rockfish you can eat – hot off the wood fired barbecue pit. To a Minnesotan so far from the sea, this much seafood all in one spot grilled to perfection was truly a great way to being to a close my time in Petersburg.
Tomorrow I fly out on what I was told was the milk run, leaving Petersburg for a 34 mile flight to Wrangell, then 83 miles to Ketchikan, on to Seattle, then finally home to Minneapolis/Saint Paul. I leave behind the life and work of the Rainier, the majestic views of the Alaskan landscape, and a glimpse into the quaint Norwegian community that was built on fish. I take with me the memories and stories of my little slice of life at sea, and all insight gained from the deep cognitive stretching obtained at the hands of the mariners, survey technicians, and NOAA Corps on board the Rainier. A special thank you to NOAA and the members of the Rainier community for making this powerful Teacher at Sea adventure possible.
Addendum: Monday, May 20
I met Rob Thomason, the Petersburg school superintendent, at the fish barbecue and was invited to the school for a tour and visit. This morning I took him up on his invitation and was treated to a two-hour tour of Stedman Elementary, Mitkof Middle, and Petersburg High School. The Petersburg schools’ match the charm and close knit community atmosphere of the town itself. During that time I was witness to many of the things that make this school special. Earlier that morning, a high school class had boarded a boat for a trip to a nearby glacier to conduct field studies. Between the schools was a boat the high school shop class had manufactured. Students in an elementary class were making fish prints – painting a fish and pressing a white t-shirt onto its surface. I naively made the comment, “That looks like a real fish.” He smiled and nodded. In the back schoolyard was the construction of a new greenhouse for the schoolyard gardens. We stopped in a culinary arts class and were treated to a plate of freshly made sushi rolls. Both buses are parked in a single garage. Class sizes are in the upper teens/lower 20s. Everywhere I looked, students were engaged in their learning. The taxi driver bringing me to the airport had just picked his kids up at the school. Without hesitation, he shared his opinion that the Petersburg schools were the best in the country. With district NCLB passing rates in the high 80s, perhaps Petersburg Public Schools are on to something – low class sizes, authentic learning experiences, strong community support, stable faculty and staff, and a positive, nurturing learning environment committed to all students. Thanks for the visit.