Fancy-free summer travel can be so much fun when you meander as a stranger into one of America’s lively small towns — especially when you encounter a festival or other special event.
In many small towns, holidays and civic celebrations are special, with parades, family gatherings, local entertainment, and contests attracting much of the population. And this was certainly the case with a spirited log rolling competition on the very chilly waters of Petersburg, Alaska.
Most small towns of America are not on the beaten tourist track. In Alaska, big ships get you to some communities in the Inside Passage of Southeast Alaska. Small ships and the ferries of the state-run Alaska Marine Highway can get you to even more.
You can’t do much better than a port stop in Petersburg, where the town’s Norwegian heritage is on full display and shore tours include kayaking among icebergs at LeConte Glacier; humpback whale watching; heading out to sea to catch halibut or salmon; or just hanging around town, eating an occasional homemade Norwegian pastry to accompany your choice of numerous varieties of locally caught fish.
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Greater Petersburg has a total population of about 3,000, many of whom turn out for special celebrations, such as the Independence Day parade along downtown’s two blocks of businesses on Nordic Drive, which looks a bit like the street scene from TV’s old “Northern Exposure.”
On our July 4 visit, my wife and I were warned not to be late for the 11 a.m. start of the parade, as the finish would not be much later than the start.
First came two vintage fire trucks, including a retired 1928 Model A Ford. Three grand marshals — senior citizens Patti, Roxy and Gloria — waved American flags from truck number two.
Petersburg’s parade participation is a homespun affair. The Humane Society was well represented by a woman who pushed a flag-festooned baby carriage containing a small dog; a group of children performed a street dance; and the local Erickson family dressed in American flag suits. Some Ericksons, including a drummer, stood atop giant spools, rolling precariously down the street — “Fools on Spools,” they call themselves.
After the parade, most of the crowd moved to the fishing wharf for an afternoon of spirited competitions. Dozens of competitors, of various ages and species, joined the herring toss. Participants each threw three fish from a slimy pot on the dock toward an innertube placed in the water, while gulls and an occasional eagle circled overhead, and a sea lion cruised mostly below the surface, consuming errant throws.
The climax contest was the log roll.
Two men or two women at a time stood balanced atop a wet, oversized log, which they rolled with their feet in an effort to send their opponent falling into the frigid water. Spectators lined nearby pedestrian bridges and walkways to cheer their favorites.
Just stepping onto the log from the dock, then maintaining balance as the log was pushed out into the water by dockhands with poles, looked like a challenge. Then the log began to turn.
David G. Molyneaux
Just stepping onto the log from the dock, then maintaining balance as the log was pushed out into the water by dockhands with poles, looked like a challenge. Then the log began to turn. Two safetymen in a Zodiac kept their eyes on the rollers.
Some contests were over nearly as soon as they started but in two battles not only did a nimble log roller remain dry while an opponent plunged into the seawater, but the winners also were able to remain standing on the log as it was pulled back to the dock for the next round, to great cheers.
A local reporter wrote that resident Sue Erickson had been the overwhelming favorite for Log Roll champion of 2017, as she was in 2016. But near the end of the hour of matches on the rolling log, she lost to Briana Bode and fell into the water. Skipper Erickson (these Ericksons are related in name and skill), who had won in the men’s bracket, then beat Bode in the championship roll.
Petersburg, which is on an island between Ketchikan and Juneau, is off the main grid for the bigger cruise ships because of its location and water depths. But it draws as many as 100 small ships each summer, as well as regular stops of the Alaska State Ferries (www.AlaskaFerry.com).
Small ship cruise lines stopping in Petersburg include Un-Cruise Adventures, the French line Ponant, German line Hapag-Lloyd, Silversea, Alaskan Dream, American Cruise Lines, and Fantasy Cruises, as well as the vessels operated by Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, including a new expedition ship, the National Geographic Quest, which began sailing in Alaska in late July (www.expeditions.com/daily-expedition-reports/182210).
Some ships overnight in Petersburg, some don’t, which is important to know so you can time activities, from deep sea fishing to watching the July 4 fireworks. If you are traveling by ferry, check the schedule. When our ferry left Petersburg at 10 p.m., Alaska skies still were dusky. When fireworks began at 11 p.m., we were out of sight.
David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com.