The Muskeg Connection: A Petersburg summer

The Muskeg Connection: A Petersburg summer

Petersburg is home. I grew up here, left for college, and have been back for almost five years. The way life shifts each season is still a miracle to me. Part of that miracle is all the fabulous people life brings my way when the temperatures rise.

The inspiration for this column came from Joe Sykes, a KFSK radio intern who lived in Petersburg the summer of 2015 after his graduation from Columbia Journalism School. While he was here he started a wildly popular interview series called, “Cannery Tales.” The profiles featured some of the hardworking people who traveled to our community to do the dirty work of processing fish. Some stories were beautiful, a few were heartbreaking, but all were a personal look at one of the hundreds who share my island for a few months of their lives.

In a way it’s like summer camp for adults. A single personality can have a lasting impact. As an intern, Sykes woke up in the early hours to deliver the morning news. His dry British accent would interject between news stories for the daily weather and marine report.

During a rain spell, he’d say things like, “It’s another dreadfully rainy morning out there today, just terrible. Can barely see across the street. Tomorrow might not be better, we’ll see though.” It was a hilarious way to wake up on a dreary day, and it was a delight to get to know him over the course of a summer.

And just like summer camp, it eventually came to an end. But with the technology of today, we can stay connected in ways that were much more difficult before. Thanks to social media I know Sykes has continued his producing work and now works for the podcast 99 percent Invisible (99percentinvisible.org). I get to see when he’s done a new story and he’s able to watch life go on in this Southeast island town.

I work at Sing Lee Alley Books and Gifts year-round. When the season picks up I meet cannery workers and yacht owners, hunting guides and fishermen. The small cruise ships who visit Petersburg bring a manageable crowd to town on an almost-daily basis. I’ve met passengers from all over the world and hardworking crewmembers, some who are in Alaska for the first time and others who’ve been coming here for years: people who once called this place home but have since moved away, and others who look around that first season and don’t know how they’ll ever leave.

I’m curious about every single one of them.

I want to know more about what brings people here. I want to know if they’d think of staying, and where they go instead. I want to hear some of the stories they’re carrying as they travel through our archipelago and share them with you. I’m a bookseller, so I’m always curious about what they’re reading.

I’m also interested in finding a way to call things for what they are, even when it’s hard. That gets into why I’m using our obscure-yet-beautiful landscape as part of my column’s name. One of my other gigs is helping out with some of the cruise ships that make it to town. The ships carry close to 70 guests at a time, folks who go on flight seeing tours around LeConte Glacier, bike through town or browse our shops. They also offer a hike. Many of the naturalists call it a “Bog Walk,” because the name rolls off the tongue and they don’t have to explain what the muskeg is until people are walking through it. But this year, first day of the new season, I heard it.

“Ladies and gentlemen, if you’re interested in joining the Muskeg Walk, meet us on the dock with your lifejacket in 15 minutes.”

The expedition leader walked off the boat to meet the passengers, and I couldn’t help but thank him. Muskeg! He called it muskeg! It’s such a simple thing. Calling something for what it is, instead of going for the easier answer. After all, shouldn’t we try to do the harder thing if it helps us come to the truth of the matter?

Everyone has a story to tell. I’m looking forward to sharing a few with you this summer.

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