July 27 – The day started out cool and rainy, typical weather for this time of year (we had definitely been spoiled by the nice days in Skagway and Haines). When we finally got motivated enough to venture away from the campsite we went to the nearby Crystal Lake Hatchery. This hatchery is operated by the State of Alaska to insure a bountiful King Salmon harvest. While there were no guided tours you could wander around and see the operation. There was an area about the size of a football field that contained 20 rectangular concrete tanks, each one full of salmon fry. The fry hatched back in January and will be released soon. A large building housed the incubating eggs, but we weren’t allowed in there. There was also a fish ladder leading from the stream to a holding area where the adults are held until having their eggs and milt harvested. We peeked inside the window of the harvesting room – it wasn’t high tech like you might expect – just a few tables and plastic buckets to put eggs in. The weather started to clear while we had lunch and we decided to do a little kayaking. On the way in we ran into (almost) a group of grazing deer with fawns. We put the kayaks in at the boat ramp in the center of the main harbor. We explored a small slough (stream that fills with saltwater at high tide) and saw some tidally challenged bicycles. We then headed up the infamous Wrangell Narrows (which don’t border Wrangell at all). The narrows are well named, slimming down to under 300 feet wide in spots with rocks and shoals making the channel less than 100 feet wide. All of the waterways around Petersburg are quite narrow and there is not enough room for the big cruise ships. There can also be a strong current, but we timed our paddle so that we were going against a slow current which would carry us back to the harbor when we turned around. We were hoping to see whales in the narrows (they are often seen), but had to settle for a seal, and a sea lion.
We pulled the kayaks out at around 7:00 and were going to head back to the campsite, but it was absolute dead low tide and we had been told that in order to see the petroglyphs you had to go at low tide. Since there were still several hours of daylight left we headed over to the beach where they were located. Unfortunately, the only directions to the petroglyphs were, “walk across the mud flats to the petroglyphs.” The map showed an ‘X’ in the middle of the bay as the location. We walked all over the beach and mud flats for almost an hour searching for the carved rocks before we gave up. While we were walking back along the beach Dave noticed a giant boulder with a 3 foot high carving (the other petroglyphs we have seen were on rocks so we were only looking on rocks). It was the petroglyph, believed to be a depiction of the Tlingit Indian creation story. We could make out a few faces here and there but that was it. We tromped back across the mud flats started the half hour drive out to the campground.
July 28 – It was another cool and rainy morning, but Stacie had seen some ‘sucker holes’ (sunny spots in a cloudy sky that make suckers think it’s going to clear up.) We went into town to send a bunch of pages (the only internet place was closed weekends) and also made some phone calls trying to arrange a tour of one of the salmon processing plants. We were unable to contact the salmon plant tour person so we headed out of town to do some exploring by truck (we were a little tired from our 5 mile kayak the day before). We drove the road until it ended on the South end of the island. We stopped at a few viewpoints, but didn’t see anything exciting. We had soup and popcorn for lunch and headed back into town to try to reach the salmon plant again.
We were able to reach the tour guide and she told us to be at the plant in twenty minutes. The guide was a member of the family that started the company as a shrimp cannery almost 100 years ago (it is now in its third generation). The company did not can anymore, instead they were pursuing the fresh and frozen markets (more profitable). The plant we were touring only cleaned the salmon and then sent them (fresh or frozen) to brokers who would distribute them. If the broker wanted salmon fillets then the cleaned fish were sent up the road to another plant that did filleting. The process actually starts at sea when transfer boats sent by the plant pick up the salmon from the fishing boats (saving them a trip back to port). The transfer boats also take ice out to the fishing boats to help them cool the catch. The salmon are then sucked out of the transfer boats with a giant hose and pumped onto a table where they are sorted by species. The tubs of sorted fish then go to the processing room. The tub is picked up and slowly dumped out onto a special conveyor belt that is corrugated to hold the fish upside down. The first stop is the heading station where the head is chopped off in a pneumatic press. The knives on the press will cut off anything that is placed under them so the operators must wear shackles with a short cable attached to the table to make sure they don’t cut off any fingers. The fish are then placed back on the conveyor and are worked on assembly line style. One station only cuts open bellies, the next pulls out guts by hand, and then there are several stages of scraping to get all the blood vessels out from along the backbone. To improve speed each station has several people working on several fish. After the final scraping the fish fall into a washing chamber where they are cleaned up. The washing chamber ejects the fish onto another flat conveyor belt. Along this belt workers pick the fish up and sort them by size and quality. While it may take a few minutes for a fish to move through the process, the number of workers results in fish being cleaned at the rate of one per second. This plant also took the eggs from the salmon they processed and packed them for export to Japan. So on the fish processing line, there was one person with the glamorous job of sorting through the guts as they came down the chute and saving the egg sacks which were put in a special tube that pumped them to the egg room.
Depending on species, the eggs are packed in one of two ways. Most are packed in their sacks so all that happens in the egg room is a cleaning and grading of the sacks as they come from the processing room. The eggs of the more exotic desirable species are separated from the sacks and packed individually. The separation process is fascinating. The first step is to place a load of sacks on a special table that has hundreds of egg sized holes in it. The sacks are then gently rolled by hand (the rollers are brought from Japan and have been trained for two years) to press the eggs through the holes. The eggs then fall into a rotating cylinder where they are washed to remove membrane. The eggs are next transferred to large vats filled with a brine solution and stirred. The solution toughens and flavors the eggs. The eggs are actually stirred with racquetball rackets which catch remaining strings of membrane. When the timer rings, the eggs are quickly scooped out of the vats and placed in drying racks. Before the racks go into a cooler (and ultimately the packing room) a worker inspects the eggs and removes any bad or broken eggs with tweezers. The entire process is constantly monitored by a Japanese caviar master.
There was still lots of daylight left after the tour and there were more roads that we could explore. We drove out to a road that wound through some ridges and had an overlook with a view of Leconte Glacier. On the drive we saw a bear in the road and later a porcupine! Both of them were fast moving and Stacie couldn’t get pictures. The glacier overlook was a turnaround on an old logging road that gave a glimpse of the glacier in a valley between two mountains.
As we mentioned earlier the Norwegian community is still very active and each Monday night they have a ‘traditional smorgasbord’ (for the tourists). The menu featured salmon, halibut cakes and meatballs (so Dave could go). There was also entertainment with children performing traditional dances. Dance costumes are specific to each community and in the old days you could tell where someone was from by their costume. The Petersburg costumes are hand embroidered with images of the local flowers including the forget me not, fireweed and skunk cabbage.