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The next Alaska gold rush won’t be for the shiny nuggets that drew tens of thousands to the territory in the late 1800s. It will take place among the emerald green, forested slopes of Southeast Alaska’s Rainforest Islands. Here, a mother lode of tourism adventures, accessible from the towns of Petersburg and Wrangell, await discovery by enterprising travelers.
Unfortunately, most tourists flying to and from Alaska’s largest cities never see Petersburg (population: 3,273) and Wrangell (population: 2,400). Located about 700 miles north of Seattle, these communities are roughly 40 miles apart on Mitkof and Wrangell islands. Currently, the bulk of Alaska tourism focuses on heavily promoted mega-attractions along established transportation routes. These encompass the major highways of Southcentral and Interior Alaska, with the Marine Highway of the Inside Passage serviced by the cruise ship industry. Big companies still favor these popular and profitable routes because they are able to entice hundreds of thousands of visitors each year to visit destinations such as Glacier Bay and Denali National Park at a price cheaper than visitors would pay on their own.
While large-group cruise-tours remain a favorite choice for many first-time Alaska visitors and families, there’s a growing preference among baby boomers and Gen Xers with disposable income. Recent trends indicate a shift away from Alaska’s customary and traditional large-group tours to individual and smaller group tours, and this market shift offers potential profits for agents. Today’s travelers disdain sharing a ship with 2,000 people or riding for hours on buses. They are individualists who will pay extra to experience smaller scale, sensational adventures that don’t visit the same old tourist sights.
This is why Petersburg and Wrangell are ideal for a new bonanza in Alaska tourism. Their attractions can’t be mined by the passengers that flood into the streets of a major cruise port.
I wanted to know firsthand if these small cities might rival major destinations. So, like a tourism prospector, I scheduled 12 days this summer to explore the blue-ribbon attractions of this area.
Petersburg’s CharmI began by scheduling a day tour to LeConte Glacier with Tongass Kayak Adventures’ guide Scott Roberge and three other clients. LeConte is a lesser-known attraction when compared to the state’s easily recognized and top-visited glaciers, but personally, I rank LeConte among Alaska’s most accessible glaciers. In particular, LeConte’s “shooters” — elongated shards of glacier ice that calve off the glacier face far below the ocean’s surface — provide a truly remarkable experience. Often, this buoyant ice resembles a Poseidon missile shooting out of the ocean before crashing back into the sea. Between shooters, I photographed endless numbers of seals and their pups on countless ice floes.
The only competition to Tongass Kayak Adventures’ excursion was another small tour boat from the local charter boat fleet. Throughout the day, the fjord-like bay was our own private wilderness to enjoy. We kayaked for hours in the sunlight, paddling by the exposed crowns of massive iceberg sculptures, their craggy, sapphire blue countenances shaped by tide and temperature. Sadly, most of their beauty would melt by summer’s end. Not seeing huge groups of tourists lined up to enjoy such an impressive attraction didn’t make sense.
“About 20,000 tourists visit Petersburg each year,” said Liz Cabrera, Petersburg’s community and economic director. “Less than 5,000 arrive via small cruise ship, making this a destination for adventurous families, groups and independent travelers who want the greatest value and experience for their tourism dollar.”
Nordic culture is an integral part of Petersburg’s small-town charm. Norwegian commercial fishermen set down roots here in the late 1890s because they were able to use the free ice from LeConte Glacier to preserve their fish. Petersburg has since grown to rank among the nation’s top 25 commercial fishing ports.
I spent several hours walking the small patchwork of city streets, immersing myself in the coastal fishing culture. This was my favorite self-guided tour. The town’s 3-mile network of floating docks is port to 700 vessels, including rowboats, mega-yachts and recreational and commercial fishing vessels. Crab, salmon and shrimp fishermen at the docks were eager to chat with me. They told fishing stories, explained how they stitched their nets and highlighted their daily catches. Petersburg residents welcome and celebrate tourists who take an interest in their way of life. Local events include the Little Norway and Rainforest festivals and the December Julbukking tradition, where local businesses offer customers delicious seafood, scrumptious Norwegian pastries and warm drinks as a thank you for visiting.
Longtime Alaska travel agents Dave and Nancy Berg of Petersburg have struck tourism gold with their business, Viking Travel, an impressive brick-and-mortar agency located in the town center.
“Each year, independent travelers from outside the state are discovering the awesome attractions of our region,” Dave said. “Smaller cruise ships and groups also visit Petersburg because of our small-town charm and culture. They disperse over a huge area to enjoy flightseeing and kayaking trips, wilderness treks, salmon and halibut charters and wildlife viewing opportunities. It’s an Alaska destination the big cruise-tours don’t offer because they can’t dock here.”
The Bergs were optimistic about the current and future growth of tourism in the region and are eager to share their knowledge.
“We’re happy to help other agents learn about the tourism potential here and assist them with their clients who want to visit,” Nancy said. “It benefits everyone, because visitors return home and tell their friends, who in turn coax their friends to explore this region of Alaska while they can.”
Part of the relatively undiscovered forested slopes of Southeast Alaska's Rainforest Islands, Anan Creek Bear Observatory is one of the best spots for black bear viewing. // © 2015 Christopher Batin
Visitors can get up close to LeConte Glacier’s “shooters.” // © 2015 Shutterstock
Local fishermen in Petersburg enjoy sharing stories with tourists. // © 2015 Christopher Batin
A big catch in Petersburg // © 2015 Christopher Batin
Outdoor opportunities and wildlife viewing are highlights of the Stikine-LeConte Wilderness Area. // © 2015 Christopher Batin
Time Traveling in WrangellThe next day, I booked a water taxi across Sumner Strait to the town of Wrangell, where economic development director Carol Rushmore met me and provided further evidence of the region’s growing tourism opportunities.
“The City of Wrangell receives about 20,000 to 25,000 visitors per year,” Rushmore said. “Many find an Alaska they fall in love with, a romance of sorts that makes us remarkably attractive as a destination. Those who visit don’t forget us.”
There’s much to love because Wrangell feels like a time-travel portal: Modern Alaska infrastructure coexists with old-time frontier values that stretch back to when naturalist John Muir first visited the area in 1879. It’s a place where boats outnumber cars, grocery stores are closed on Sundays and not a single stoplight can be found on the city’s 14 miles of paved roads. During my exploratory walks, shop clerks engaged me in delightful conversations and chefs and business owners took an interest in a new face and approached me to chat.
The Wrangell Museum offers a captivating $6 million collection of Gold Rush artifacts, cultural memorabilia and other displays. Clients should plan a three-hour visit after arrival, an investment that will better help them appreciate the area and its history. It’s one of Alaska’s best museums.
Outside of town, Muskeg Meadows is a USGA-rated, nine-hole regulation golf course and driving range. With a rating of 119, the 5,920-yard, par-70 course winds through meadows and dense rainforests beneath scenic snowcapped mountains with panoramic ocean views. Visiting golfers should be aware of the “raven rule.” If a raven steals a golf ball in play, it can be replaced without penalty. (The mischievous birds focus on the white golf ball, thinking it’s an egg to steal.)
Another major regional attraction is the 448,926-acre Stikine-LeConte Wilderness Area, which is accessible by boat or bush plane from Petersburg or Wrangell. Wildlife-viewing opportunities abound in the region. I observed moose, deer, bears, mountain goats and even 30-ton whales up close. A pair of curious wolves watched our group as we fished for salmon. In the spring, the Stikine’s smelt run attracts about 1,600 to 2,000 bald eagles — the largest springtime concentration in the world and second largest concentration in North America. It’s also a stopover for about 123 different species of birds annually, including 10,000 sandhill cranes, several hundred thousand gulls and kittiwakes, as well as more than 14,000 snow geese.
An Anan Creek bear tour is the creme de le creme of Alaska black bear viewing. In July and August, Anan hosts the largest run of pink salmon in Southeast Alaska: a 200,000- to 300,000-fish buffet that attracts both black and brown bears from the surrounding area each season.
Sylvia Ettefagh of Alaska Vistas offers visitors an action-filled, one-hour boat ride to Anan Creek — stopping to observe whales — with four hours of accompanied bear watching at the United States Forest Service (USFS) Anan Creek Bear Observatory. Our group viewed 13 bears from a spacious deck and a camouflaged blind perched on a rock cliff about 18 feet above the stream and rocks where the bears fish. For the best bear viewing, dedicated photographers might enjoy spending a 10-hour day here; the USFS issues a limited number of advance permits during peak season. It’s the most entertaining and exciting black-bear fishing action I’ve experienced in one place.
The next day, I joined guide Dan Roope from Southeast Alaska Flyfishing and a group of four anglers for a week of exploring the Stikine River Wilderness. As we boated, walked and explored this watershed, we observed only two other jet boats, owned by local residents. At Chief Shakes Hot Springs, we had a USFS hot tub to ourselves, and afterward we enjoyed a crab and steak dinner at our cabin. The 70-year-olds in our group, as well as two younger family members, enjoyed “roughing it” in style.
As I was leaving Wrangell, it was obvious that Alaska’s new tourism gold rush had already begun, but it’s not too late for agents to stake their claim.
It’s hard to say when the inevitable tourism stampede will occur, but take note from savvy agents such as the Bergs. They are already cashing in on the newfound commissions from tourists who may have previously visited Alaska and now want new, adventure-rich tours. There’s also commission gold in independent travelers prospecting for a wilder Alaska, with its limited crowds and tours that come with bragging rights.
You will also benefit when clients boast to their friends about the “new Alaska” that you helped them discover.
TOUR BLAZING ALASKA
“Tour blazing” is how I define the growing trend of visitors who want to discover Alaska’s other, off-the-beaten-path adventures at destinations such as Copper Center, Hurricane, Cordova and Bettles. In short, these tourists want to be the first to dazzle family and friends with exciting experiences not commonly seen in advertisements and on television.
I’ve selected a few of my favorites from around the state. The Copper River Valley is accessible via Alaska’s 368-mile Richardson Highway that runs from Fairbanks to Valdez. Popular destinations include Wrangell-St. Elias National Park; the ghost-town section of Chitina and its neighboring community, historic Kennicott Copper Mine; and the tiny town of McCarthy.
Black Rapids Lodge is located about 30 miles south of Delta Junction. The comfortable lodge has a rustic charm reminiscent of Alaska’s old roadhouses. It features one of the best views clients can enjoy from any lodge on the road system. Family-owned, the lodge offers a variety of tours and activities, from dogsledding treks in winter to summer canoeing.
The Alaska Railroad offers independent touring options, such as the Aurora Winter Train and Hurricane Turn services. The latter provides flag-stop trips where self-sufficient clients can disembark and explore at will along a 55-mile stretch of track. South of Anchorage, I recommend the Spencer Glacier tour and its additional options of camping, glacier trekking, ice climbing and canoeing at Spencer Lake.
Bettles Lodge requires a flight from Fairbanks to Bettles, but it’s one of the best destinations to rent a remote cabin and to view the aurora borealis, engage in winter dogsledding, enjoy an Arctic Circle day tour or take the family backpacking through the Brooks Range and Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.
Cordova is accessible only by commercial air or marine ferry, but once there, Orca Adventure Lodge can arrange tours to the remnants of Katalla, a boom-and-bust town plagued by destructive storms, fires and other misfortunes from 1907 until it was finally abandoned in 1943. Day tours out of Cordova include Orca whale watching and viewing the largest concentration of sea otters in the world.
Getting ThereAlaska Airlines offers scheduled air service to both Petersburg and Wrangell. Access is also by the State of Alaska Marine Highway, smaller ferries, charter boats and small planes.
Where to StayThe Scandia House is conveniently located in downtown Petersburg, with easy walking access to the scenic harbor and downtown attractions.
In Wrangell, I enjoyed staying and dining at Alaskan Sourdough Lodge. Bruce Harding offers authentic opportunities to mingle with local folks and enjoy home-cooked meals in a fish-centric, outdoor setting. The lodge offers a variety of packages for all budgets and caters to independent travelers from around the world.
The Stikine Inn offers superb accommodations with a great view of Zimovia Strait, and easy access to all of downtown Wrangell’s sights and attractions. The restaurant on the main floor offers Alaska-sized dinners that leave no room for dessert.
Local InformationA must-stop is the Petersburg Visitor Information Center, where clients will receive valuable, local information on sights, things to do, events and free handouts on local flora and fauna.
Stop by the Clausen Museum for its fishing trivia, historical overview and collectibles. In Wrangell, the Wrangell Museum offers an experience that is sure to inform and educate. Both museums provide the information necessary to better understand and enjoy the history, culture and sights of this region.
Hiking and Biking TrailsWrangell offers several scenic hiking trails four miles from town, a five-mile waterfront bike trail and over 100 miles of remote, forest-service roads. Bike rentals are available.
FishingPetersburg Sportfishing is a small, family-owned-and-operated lodge overlooking the coastal islands. Owners Donn (sic) Hayes and son Don Hayes fish Frederick Sound and Sumner Strait, with most hotspots within 30 minutes to an hour from the lodge. Guide Marlin Benedict with Fish Wrangell offers freshwater and saltwater charter fishing, and Dan Roope offers week-long flyfishing and wildlife viewing in the Stikine-LeConte Wilderness Area.
Dan Roope’s Southeast Alaska Flyfishingwww.seakflyfishing.com
Petersburg Visitor Information Centerwww.petersburg.org
Tongass Kayak Adventureswww.tongasskayak.com
Wrangell Convention and Visitors Bureauwww.wrangell.com