From Wrangell, the Alaska Marine Highway ferry heads north to begin one of the Inside Passage’s most scenic sections. After crossing over from Wrangell Island to Mitkof Island, the vessel threads through the 46 turns of Wrangell Narrows, a 22-mile channel that is only 300ft wide and 19ft deep in places. So winding and narrow is the channel that locals call it ‘pinball alley.’ Others refer to it as ‘Christmas tree lane’ because of the abundance of red and green navigational lights.
At the other end of this breathtaking journey lies Norwegian-influenced Petersburg, one of Southeast Alaska’s hidden gems. Peter Buschmann arrived in 1897 and found a fine harbor, abundant fish and a ready supply of ice from nearby LeConte Glacier. He built a cannery in the area, enticed his Norwegian friends to follow him here, and gave his first name to the resulting town. Today, a peek into the local phone book reveals the strong Norwegian heritage that unifies Petersburg.
The waterfront of this busy little fishing port is decorated with working boats and weathered boathouses, while tidy homes and businesses – many done up with distinctive Norwegian rosemaling, a flowery Norwegian art form – line the quiet streets. Petersburg has Alaska’s sixth-largest fishing fleet and sends more than 55 million pounds of salmon, halibut, black cod, shrimp and crab annually to the town’s four canneries and two cold-storage plants. The canneries sit above the water on pilings, overlooking boat harbors bulging with vessels, barges, ferries and seaplanes. Even at night, you can see small boats trolling the nearby waters for somebody’s dinner.
The town lies across Frederick Sound from a spectacular glaciated wall of alpine peaks – including the distinctive Devil’s Thumb – that form a skyline of jagged snowcapped summits. Nearby LeConte Glacier discharges icebergs to the delight of visitors.
Without a heavy dependency on timber, Petersburg enjoys a healthier economy than Wrangell or Ketchikan, so it doesn’t need to pander to tourists. Thus the lack of a hostel or even a camping area within town but also the heavy cruise-ship traffic that Juneau and Skagway experience. That makes Petersburg a joy for most independent travelers, who will quickly discover the locals are friendly and their stories interesting.