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Petersburg to Ketchikan, I

September 9, 2012

Even into the present day, Alaska is a boom and bust state, says John McPhee in *Coming into the Country*. It begins with Russia and the fur trade–otter in particular, but also mink, bobcat and fox, which are trapped in such numbers that populations are wiped out before they have a chance to collapse. Gold strikes begin soon after the US acquires the territory; as these fizzle lumber harvests boom, then salmon and halibut fisheries, and now oil–each cycle leaving the state with a staggering, temporary wealth.

And like a scar worn with pride, each town along my transit claims at least one part of the story for itself, if only to have something to tell the tourists. Sitka, the fur capital; Petersburg, home of the Viking fishermen; Wrangell, gold rush crossroads and logging boom town; Ketchikan, all of the above.


From Petersburg the most direct route south is via Wrangell Narrows, a harrowing, twenty mile shoot of rapids and shoals in its day, but now dredged for ships in the tight spots and so well marked as to be but a fun ride for the small boat in clear weather. Here the tide flows briskly in from both ends toward the middle, so Murre and I depart mid morning on August 31st on a half flood and catch the beginning of the ebb at red marker 42. Wrangell Narrows is a marine highway: it is not unusual to jockey for position with a cruise ship or a large tug and barge, but today our company is three other sailboats after the same favorable tide, and a small fleet of fishermen heading for some southern bight. We are flung out the other side at two in the afternoon. Murre and I make Sokolov Island Cove by early evening.

Next morning a thick, low, stagnant fog. Unable oftentimes to see water past the bow, I motor slowly the last ten miles to Wrangell entirely by radar. We are inside the harbor breakwater before it is visible.


Once an author has set a book in motion, pages must be filled, filled regardless, and this is no less true with guide books. Mine calls the people of Wrangell the friendliest in southeast and full of wry humor. “Unafraid to meet your eye,” it says as if this is a characteristic entirely missing elsewhere in Alaska. But I fail to notice any particular friendliness. Wrangell’s people are ashy-white, an effect of substituting cigarettes and whisky for sunlight, I suspect, and they go about their own business without much regard for this visitor.

Humor is only in evidence on the blind side of the Fenimore’s Bed and Breakfast where a sign declares to no body in particular, “Voted #1 by select members of immediate family,” and on a bumper sticker stating flatly, “Guns don’t kill people, guns kill dinner.” Then there is the subtle jab made by putting the Catholic Church at the corner of Church and Grief Streets, but the Catholic school squarely on Grief.*

A quick scan of the town suggests Wrangell has never left the frontier stage. Many of the old store fronts appear to have been pulled from the set of a classic western with the buildings themselves restored in correlated siding. New concrete streets and garnet-lined sidewalks (a once-working garnet mine is close by) were being poured as I toured, but I could imagine them turning to mud in the first good rain anyway.

Wrangell is where gold rush miners come ashore to begin their overland journey into the Yukon; later it is one-upped by a port further south whose overland route it shorter, and the town economy crashes. For a time it becomes a major logging hub, home to the largest mill in southeast. When that is shuttered Wrangell crashes again. Neither boom community had bothered to build a proper town. And now residents are left with rebuilt clapboard structures as their heritage. All this makes the new, first-rate museum all the more welcome.

In the evening I walk to the Marine Bar and Liquor Store, which is also a restaurant, a laundry, and a place sea-weary fishermen and sailors can bathe.

“Would you like a beer?” asks the bartender not looking up from her smartphone.

“Yes, but I’d like a shower first.” I say.

The man next to me breaks into a great guffaw. “Funniest thing I’ve ever heard,” he says. “…but I’d like a shower first. Whoo Haa.” He doesn’t look up from his phone.

I eat at the bar. No one talks. The Seattle Seahawks win their football game. No one cheers. Karaoke Hour, which follows, fails to attract participants; even the moderator prefers the company of her beer to announcing songs no one sings.



*Sadly, this joke suffers from what I can only guess is a deliberate attempt to obfuscate the intent by spelling the name on the street sign as GREIF.

  1. GoodGreif permalink
    September 10, 2012 11:31 am

    Understandable confusion for a transient to misunderstand the difference between ‘grief’ and ‘greif’ in Alaska. If you google “Petersburg Alaska Greif” you will find that the local hospital offers Greif counseling on an outpatient basis. This is because Alaskans don’t actually suffer grief, but are sometimes affected by bouts of greif. Grief counseling, it’s all weeping and Kleenex. For greif counseling, you get an all-body rubdown with sandpaper and then are pushed into an ice-cold pool of water–and your sissy problems are gone.

  2. Bruce permalink
    September 10, 2012 12:28 pm

    The Seattle Seahawks.

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