Alaska Small Ship Cruise-Day Six-Petersburg and Whales M/V Island Spirit

Jason takes us on a short hike today. We’re lucky again. The sun is out, and it’s warm enough for short sleeves. We strip off our layers as we go.

The first stop is at the local radio station. A bright young Boston intern gives us a tour. She allows as how she loves it up here, but admits she’s yet to experience a winter. The station is subsidized by the government. I marvel at this, since everyone says that Alaska is hurting economically due to the collapse of oil prices. I guess subsidized news must be a basic right these days. Before we leave, I ask her if she has heard anything more about the bear mauling near our last stop at Tenakee Springs. She tells me that both people will survive, and that the suspected reason for the attack was that the group got between a mother and its cubs. It still wonder why the guides aren’t armed.

Our route goes through town before it hits a nicely maintained city trail through muskeg terrain. Muskeg is a native word for a combination of fen and bog which is covered with mosses and sedge. We meet some people from another cruise line along the way. They’re the first we’ve seen from another ship since we left Juneau. The route is a few miles in length, and we’re rewarded with the sight of a black-tailed deer and some beautiful vistas of the 10,000 foot-tall Alaska Range looming over the evergreens as they rise up through the clouds. These mountain peaks are as sharp as a serrated knife and covered in snow near the top. They rise straight up out of the sea, through some thick fog, and high into the clear blue sky like living giants. This is pure Alaskan frontier beauty.

In town, I amble into the True Value hardware store. Front and center as I walk in the door is a Noreen .50 caliber rifle mounted on a bipod. It looks to be about 4 feet long. I pick up one end and figure this beast must weigh 40 pounds. I’m not sure what kind of prey you hunt with it, but it costs $2,000, so you have to want it pretty badly-I’m guessing mostly for bragging rights down at the lodge. I take the opportunity to buy some souvenirs. I show my T-shirt to the checkout girl. It’s a knock-off of the Starbucks logo, with the Starbabe holding a rifle in each hand. Surrounding her are the words, “I love guns and coffee”. I tell her I bought it just to piss off the liberal progtards on the ship. She laughs and says she left Portland to escape that type. Another reason to love Alaska-conservative women! Yes, they do exist! Better reason to love Alaska…where else can you find a crew-served weapon at the local hardware store?

I talk to some of the locals about the sports complex I’d walked by. Who does the town play? They told me competitors arrived by ferry from other small towns (however the ferry service is in danger of being cut back). The main sport is baseball played on a gravel park, which makes it pretty easy to maintain, I guess.

As I head back, there are signs of activity all over the harbor: men are busy with maintenance chores on the boats. I’ve been told that they’re in between some commercial fishing seasons, so most of the big boats coming and going are tenders for larger vessels at sea, but the bulk of the fleet is docked at the moment. I also glimpse a few live-aboards. I wonder how long they stay up here. It seems like a great life to me! As we draw up our anchor and leave the harbor, we spot a giant sea lion catching a fish only a hundred feet away. A seaplane roars into the sky against a backdrop of green mountains, pale blue skies, and deep blue water.

I’m sorry to be leaving Petersburg. It’s a pleasant, quirky little city, and the few tourists here have a minimal impact. The economy is “real”: one out of every three jobs are in the fishing industry, and many of the rest are in forestry and/or government. That kind of economic diversity means Petersburg has a viable future, and maybe it can serve as a model to save other small towns in Alaska.

Out in the sound, we see whales again, but this time we manage to get within 50 yards or so. I get to see one breach far in the distance, but closer up they’re bubble-net feeding or simply cruising along close to the surface.

We also pass by a lighthouse. As we sound our horn, the light keeper waves to us from his lonely outpost. I wonder if I’d like it, stranded out here in the middle of a rough ocean passage with no human contact for weeks at a time? I probably would, at least for a while. Maybe something like that is even more necessary in the modern world, which unrelentingly presses in on us from all sides at all times. In any event, I doubt the job will be available much longer. The need for lighthouses passed away long ago when satellite navigation became available. I’ll be sorry to see them close, though, and for the same reason I hate that the clipper ships are no more: they represent the end of a romantic era when iron men challenged the sea with nothing more than the ability to jam the wind in beautiful wooden-hulled sailing vessels and a lighthouse to keep them off the rocks. Somehow, the image of a giant steel cargo ship guided by GPS to its destination just doesn’t compare.

Later, we moor in a tiny cove. Happy hour is over at 7 for most of the guests, but John (an Aussie) and I stay out on deck until 11, drinking cheap Chardonnay and howling at the moon. We’re determined to stay up later because it’s just too depressing to watch everyone else drop off at 8 or 9 like we’re on some Holland America “living burial at sea” program. So now we’re considered the party animals because we’re not in bed an hour after dinner. Somehow, I’m OK with that.

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