U.S. North to South 2015: Petersburg, Alaska

Matt Gasnier
by Matt Gasnier

After stopping in Juneau, we now take the Alaska Marine Highway — the ferry in simple terms — on a little over five hour sail to reach the next town in our journey: Petersburg, definitely the most picturesque fishing station I got to visit in Alaska.

Nicknamed Little Norway and founded in 1897 by Peter Buschmann, who gave the town its name, Petersburg still displays a very strong Norwegian influence, with many buildings decorated with flowery Norwegian rosemaling paintings. In fact, many of Petersburg’s residents can trace their heritage back to Norwegian ancestors and there was a time when Norwegian was still commonly heard on the street.

Home to less than 3,000 inhabitants, Petersburg gets all effervescent around 5 p.m. when everyone is out to buy dinner before falling back into sleepiness. Fishing is the backbone of the economy here, with 123 million pounds of catch landed in 2013. Renting a car for the day allowed me to explore Mitkof Island on which Petersburg is located and tick one of my goals for this trip: spot a bear in the wild!

The main reason behind Petersburg’s picturesque status is the fact that no 2,000 passenger-cruise ship stops here: the passages to reach Petersburg from the South are way too narrow for this type of vessel. They’re called the Wrangell Narrows for a reason. Only the Alaska Marine Highway ferries come here, and that’s how we reached this secluded spot.

But back to what we’re here for. What are the most popular vehicles in Petersburg?

As opposed to Juneau, there is no car dealership in Petersburg and the road network only extends to the island on which the town is located — Mitkof Island — but no further! This means all vehicles here had to be shipped here by boat. Travelling to Petersburg can only be done by boat or plane, with flights to Anchorage or Seattle.

Petersburg inhabitants hold on dearly to their cars, as evidenced by the solid number of 1980s Toyota Tercel wagons and hatches spotted in town. However, the most endearing vehicles were 1970s and 1980s Ford F-Series and Dodge Ram pickup trucks valiantly cruising the town and logging roads around it.

According to the State of Alaska, 1,728 passenger vehicles, 1,444 pickup trucks, 167 snowmobiles and 1,437 boats were registered in the Petersburg Borough as of 2013. It sure seemed like nearly all those passenger vehicles were hidden somewhere I couldn’t find them as 75 percent of vehicles on the road were pickup trucks. This is the highest percentage I have witnessed in all of Alaska.

If a pickup truck was on sale in the U.S. at some stage in the past 30 years, you can be sure at least one example of it still survives in Petersburg. Even the slow-selling pickups that were destined to be discontinued enjoy a second wind here; Ford Explorer Sport Track and Honda Ridgeline, I’m looking at you. The Nissan Titan, about to be relaunched in December year, has also enjoyed a very satisfying career in Petersburg as opposed to the rest of the country.

Mid-size pickups have also been extremely successful here, rivalling the full-size ones in number. The most successful of them is the Toyota Tacoma, distinctly more frequent on Petersburg streets than the full-size Tundra. Accordingly, the Dodge Dakota was also very popular looking at the number of them surviving now, and I have spotted a solid number of Nissan Frontiers (all generations) and Chevrolet Colorados (previous generations) as well as one new-generation Colorado.

Onto the full-size pickup category: the Ram should honour its #1 Alaskan title (see all sales figures here) in Petersburg as well but it is not clear-cut. The Ford F-Series is giving it a run for its money. I spotted a multitude of workhorses all through town, mainly Ford F-250 and F-350 heavy duties, and even one F-550 on the harbour! I also spotted one shiny new 2015 F-150 belonging to the State of Alaska.

Yes, there are vehicles other than pickups in Petersburg, but they are rare. The first different type of vehicle I noticed was, logically, full-size pickup-derived SUVs such as the Dodge Durango — but no current generation examples. There are also passenger cars. Subaru is strong here with the XV Crosstrek well represented, but nowhere near as dominant as in Juneau or even Anchorage.

One passenger car I got to drive around was our rental for the day: a 2010 Chevrolet Impala. Last year, when I took the wheel of Albert, my Ram 1500 Tradesman, I was surprised at how manoeuvrable it was for a full-size pickup. This time it was the reverse. I was expecting a relatively nimble car, but everything inside made you feel like you were actually driving a truck: the seats and steering wheel didn’t adjust well, the driving position is awkward with the wheel sitting way too high — even though I’m no midget. The brakes were weak; the wipers tired. Not impressed at all.

Our Impala nevertheless took us to the wilderness, with all logging roads on the island perfectly drivable during this time of year (early fall). Eerily majestic landscapes of endless pine forests, fjords, glaciers, alpine snow caps and quiet lakes await you here. And the drive was very fruitful with wildlife; bald eagles, beavers, deer and porcupines all spotted all in the space of a couple of hours, in addition to the much-treasured black bear cub I mentioned earlier.

About bear encounters: there is a sign in one of the only restaurants in town that says “don’t feed the bears, no matter what they say”. And you better not because it is illegal in Alaska, as is harassing wildlife. Mitkof Island is populated almost exclusively by the black variety of bears.

Even though the likelihood of being injured by a bear in Alaska is about 1/50th that of being injured in a car on a state highway, coming across a cub is particularly dangerous. Why? Because it almost certainly means you find yourself between the cub and its mother and that’s an invitation for her to attack. I may not be happily writing these lines if mother bear had shown herself. Fortunately, she remained hidden and allowed us a precious ten minutes of observation before the cub crossed the road back into the depths of the forest.

On arrival late at night, in the middle of a raging rain, we were met by a rather taciturn hotel receptionist I had to wake up from his torpor for him to come pick us up at the ferry terminal as agreed (even though Petersburg is tiny, you won’t go far without a car). I soon learned that he was the exception in town: some of the most friendly and helpful people on my entire trip were found in Petersburg, with a sense of humour that never leaves them, as seen on the front window of one of the few hardware stores in town: “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it!”

Without the very detailed explanations from the Scandia House receptionist upon picking up our rental, we would never have seen all the wildlife we spotted and probably wouldn’t have ventured so deep into the forest. Even the ticket controller on the ferry out of town stopped us to eagerly enquire whether we had fun in Petersburg. She wouldn’t take just yes for an answer, she wanted to know more. Did we see any animals? Her day was made when we proudly announced that yes, we spotted a black bear cub, among many others. High five to you, Petersburgers!

Next we continue down South via the Alaska Marine Highway to Wrangell and Ketchikan, our last two stops in Alaska.

Matt Gasnier is based in Sydney, Australia. He runs a website dedicated to car sales statistics, trends and analysis called BestSellingCarsBlog. The website features sales data for 190 countries worldwide including 80 countries updated monthly.

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  • Lou_BC Lou_BC on Oct 29, 2015

    The photos remind me of Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii). The Alaskan Panhandle isn't that far away. Most of the locals had older vehicles. Running on the beaches is hard on vehicles combined with lots of rain. Another factor is limited roads. The author needs to stop into Hyder Alaska and get "Hyderized".

    • Dig Dig on Oct 29, 2015

      "Hyderized" in Hyder. Been there and done that. The ferry doesn't go there. Too bad. This is an entertaining series of articles as Mr. Gasnier has traveled through my neighborhood though should have flown into and driven from Fairbanks down to Anchorage instead of flying. Skipping the "Haul Rd" from Prudoe was a good idea and not for the timid. It is tough to be a car enthusiast in SE Alaska!

  • Corey Lewis Corey Lewis on Nov 03, 2015

    The twin Tercel 4WDs and the Legacy Outback, that guy's got the right idea!

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