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A Year in Southeast Alaska

How I ended up in a fishing village & what I did there

The beginning

As my four-month Politics & Journalism Internship with the Chicago Tribune in Washington, D.C., drew to a close, I knew I'd have to find a job somewhere. I wanted to stay in journalism, and I had to face the facts: The New York Times and the Times of London weren't exactly breaking down my door.


I'd have to start small.


Leafing through the Editor & Publisher classifieds one morning, one ad stood out from the rest:


  1. "ALASKAN WEEKLY looking for general assignment reporter to cover bustling fishing town in Southeast..."


If I'm going to start small, I thought, why not go to Alaska?


So I took the reporter's job with the Petersburg Pilot, a weekly paper with a circulation of 1,619, on an island of 3,419 souls. I hadn't been farther west than Iowa in 10 years, and I had never lived in a town with fewer than 100,000 residents. And yet, on Jan. 16, 1995, I landed in Petersburg, Alaska, where I was to stay -- and work -- without a break for more than a year.


The Pilot

I wasn't alone at the Pilot -- my editor, Lori Thomson, made up the rest of the newsroom staff. We also had a pressman, three advertising and office staffers and the owner-publishers (a husband-wife team). For the first six months, all went as I expected: I reported and wrote between 12 and 18 stories a week, including everything from the police log and high-school basketball coverage to two or three front-page stories each issue.


It kept me busy enough. We could only count on breaking news for one front-page story a week. Together, Lori and I had to search for another two or three. That, plus run-of-the-mill council and advisory-board meetings, the bustling summer fisheries and close coverage of downtown businesses, made for a full paper, as well as a full week. All the while, we kept an ear out for KFSK-FM, the local public radio affiliate, and the thrice-daily news reports that often sent us scrambling to rewrite a story or find a new angle for one we hadn't known about.


Then, in late July, Lori took a job with the Juneau Empire, leaving me to fill the Pilot single-handedly until the publisher could hire another reporter.


For the next six months -- until reporter Jerry Blair arrived in December -- I did everything but run the press, sell ads and (except occasionally) lay out the paper. Mostly I reported, covering everything and digging up front-page news and features as well.


The news

Shortly after I arrived in Petersburg, Lori told me that, early in her own tenure at the Pilot, she noticed that the paper provided a lot of material for the Anchorage Daily News's statewide roundup of local-interest stories, which usually featured the quirky and surprising. She wondered if all Alaskan towns provided so many tidbits.


Nope, the section's editor told her. Just Petersburg.


Despite its small size, Petersburg is among the busiest fishing ports in the United States. It ranked ninth in the volume of seafood landed in 1994 and 11th in the value of its catch (up slightly from 1993). It claims fame as home to the world's largest halibut fleet, and that lucrative fishery has helped make many of the town's fishermen wealthy.


Understandably, fishing news was vital. I quickly learned which kinds of fishermen catch which kinds of Pacific salmon, how to get sensitive catch information from cagey canneries and fishermen and, of course, the difference between a trawler (who drags the bottom for fish) and a troller (who uses hooks and lines to catch fewer fish in better shape and with less waste).


At the same time, I covered the city and its $21 million budget, followed one of Alaska's first stalking cases through two trials (and one hung jury), and profiled some of the town's more colorful residents and veterans. When a humpback whale breached and landed on a local man's charter boat, I wrote the story. When the city tranquilized more than 30 black bears living at the municipal dump and flew them to another island, I was on hand, taking notes and pictures. And when 14-year old Iza Froehlich died of an unexplained heart-attack on her way to school, I covered the town's grief. In all, I wrote at least 800 articles for the Pilot in 1995, including about 150 longer features or in-depth stories.


The island and its people

Mitkof Island is, Petersburg tourism brochures once said, "just" 800 miles north of Seattle. One of the few Southeast towns without a deep-water port, it's usually ignored by all but the most adventurous small cruise ships. And, according to a survey by the city in 1995, that suited a little over half the residents just fine -- many didn't particularly want tourists. Others say tourism is the only hope for diversification, that fishing could go the way of logging, which has dwindled to near non-existence in Petersburg and shrunk drastically elsewhere in the region.


The tourism debate is just one of the several issues splitting the town along its generational and political faults. For years, one of Petersburg's most tedious debates was also its most contentious: how to run a water line and road from a new water reservoir to the town's water-treatment plant. Pro-development residents wanted it to open up new subdivisions; pro-environment residents didn't. This one issue led to two city-council turnovers, a ballot proposal and even a council recall attempt in the late 1990s. In the end, the developers won out, and today a new road runs where once a boardwalk led hikers and mountain-bikers across muskeg and rain-forest to the rocky beach of Frederick Sound.


Then there's the park expansion proposal, and whether or not to build a deep-water port at all. Throw in the decision by the U.S. Postal Service to move the post office, and you had enough controversy to keep Petersburg's citizens busy for years.


The town was -- and largely still is, I’m told -- split into a number of factions: The descendents of its Norwegian founders tend to like it more or less the way it is, and don't want major changes (like more tourists), though the younger ones wouldn't mind a few more amenities (stores, maybe some fast-food joints), Those who arrived in the 1970s and during the state's oil-, logging-, and construction-boom of the 1980s tend to favor heavy residential and commercial development in Petersburg, and back logging interests much of the time. But many environmentalists arrived in Petersburg at about the same time and since, and they prefer leaving the town, and the wild, the way it is. Rarely do the three groups see eye-to-eye (although the old-timers make up something of a swing vote), and almost every issue splits the town nearly evenly.


All of this is set against a backdrop that can only be described as lush: The town is built up to the calm waters of the Inside Passage and backed by the brown-green scrub of muskeg, or peat bogs. Rising above the town behind it is wooded Raven's Roost, and across the Wrangell Narrows are the steep, forested slopes of Petersburg Mountain and Kupreanof Island. Spanning the eastern horizon is the immense Coastal Range, its jagged peaks marking the border with Canada. Summer brings (in good years) deeply blue skies and 18 hours of bright sun. Winter brings thick, moist snow, cold, and just six or seven hours of tepid, cloudy sunlight a day. Spring and fall are just wetter and rainier than the other two seasons. Many residents spend a month or two "down South," which can equally well mean Seattle as Belize.


Sharing the island with people are black bears, porcupines, deer, wolves, a few moose, countless waterfowl, bald eagles, crows and ravens, and, of course, its waterways teem with the trout and salmon that make it a popular fishing area. The residents split their time between being mountain-men concerned only with hunting, fishing and maintaining their houses and boats in a sort of modern-day survival, and living the close, gossip-ridden small-town lives of a Sinclair Lewis novel.


Through all of this, I reported and wrote away. The paper grew gradually, from a regular 16 pages to a regular 20, swelling to 24 at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The summer and its attendant bustle came and went, and hundreds of transient cannery workers and fishing-boat crewmen with it. The fall drizzled drearily on.


After six months of filling the paper on my own, it was time to go. In October, and again in November, the Juneau Empire offered me a reporting job. Reluctant to commit to spending another year in Alaska, I turned the offers down and applied to Columbia's graduate journalism program. I also sent out resumes and clips to newspapers around the country.


Finally, in January, I packed up my belongings, gave away the scant furniture I had acquired, sent my cat to live with my parents, and headed back to the Midwest. I went slowly, taking the state ferry to Bellingham -- technically riding a part of the Interstate Highway System -- and then traveling by bus, train and rental car back to Illinois by way of Portland, Sacramento and San Francisco.


At dawn, pulling out of Omaha on Amtrak's California Zephyr, I saw the broom-like elms sticking out of flat, brown fields, and I knew I was back in the Midwest. Soon, though I didn't know it looking out into the February grey, I would be heading East again, farther this time, to New York City and a grueling nine months at Columbia University.