Written by Jen Finn
Land of second sons
Determination shines in Petersburg, Alaska — founded by Norwegians and thriving on fish
By Jessica Hathaway
When I stepped off an Alaska Airlines 737 in Petersburg, Alaska, I was struck by how small the airport is, given the size of the plane (a flight that nestles between the muskeag and mountains twice daily). I would soon cement the idea gelling in my mind that this town is awash in contradictions.
Known as Alaska's Little Norway, Petersburg has streets lined with perfectly appointed Scandinavian-style houses with manicured lawns and impeccable gardens. Yet, its main street (which in most parts of the country is considered the avenue of first impressions) is rather perfunctory. A string of unassuming shops and restaurants primarily cater to the principle industry in Petersburg: commercial fishing. The locals are fastidious, but above all, they're industrious.
"This is where you want to keep your boat, have it fixed and sell your product," says Mayor Al Dwyer, underscoring the town's main economic driver. In a town that boasts one commercial fishing permit for every two people, one can understand why.
"Petersburg always has been — and hopefully always will be — a fishing town," says Julianne Curry, executive director of the Petersburg Vessel Owners Association.
The people of Petersburg are at an interesting crossroads, being located in a highly marketed and marketable part of Alaska. Other Southeast towns are reaching out to the tourism industry to grab passers-through and their dollars from Alaska Marine Highway System cruises touting tours of the heart of the Inside Passage. Petersburg has gone out of its way to get itself on the map (literally: the chamber of commerce paid a fee to be included on the ferry's tourist map of the Inside Passage). However, the people of the town are so fiercely proud of their fishing heritage (and so hard at work keeping the industry bustling in town) that they tend to regard targeting tourists as a lighthearted sideline to the real business of catching and processing fish.
"This is not a lifestyle," Curry says. "This is my life."
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