A group of vikings and valkyries dressed in furs stand in front of a small bus.
Petersburg’s vikings and valkyries pictured in front of their party bus. (Photo: Shelby Herbert/KFSK)

Hundreds of people flooded the streets of Petersburg on the third weekend of May to eat traditional Norwegian foods, dance traditional dances, and sling herring at each other. The small island community — known as Alaska’s Little Norway — celebrated its Norwegian heritage, which stretches back to the 1800s, when Norwegian families emigrated to Mitkof Island to harvest fish and ice from the nearby glacier. 

The week-long festival marked the coming of spring, the beginning of the local fishing season, and Norway’s Constitution Day. It started on a sweet note, with local bakers gathering at the Sons of Norway Hall to demonstrate how they make traditional Norwegian treats. Samantha Wikan-Williams was there to cut and fry dough for fattigmann, or “Poor Man Cookies,” which is type of cookie flavored with cardamom. 

“It looks like a bowtie,” said Wikan-Williams. “There’s a special cutter that you roll it out with. And then you cut it and you tuck one side inside of a little hole — and it makes it kind of look like a little pointed bow tie!”

For Samantha, fattigmann is just for special occasions, like Christmas and — of course — Little Norway Festival. It’s been a Wikan family tradition for a long time.

“This recipe is from about 1800, and it came from Leila Ohmer-Wikan,” said Wikan-Williams. “She was the only grandma I ever knew. My mom learned all the recipes from her.”

Out in the streets, things are a little more chaotic — and messy. Festival-goers line up on Main Street to compete in the annual herring toss. It’s like a classic egg toss — only, participants are throwing dead fish at each other. 

The game’s announcer boomed over the microphone as kids and adults lined up with their fish: “Make sure you give the herring a little kiss, just for good luck!”

Joel Simcoe is from Cave Creek, Arizona. He said he was in awe of how happy everybody was to be there.  

“This is so fun! It’s just a lot to take in,” said Simcoe. “There’s not a single person walking down the street that does not have a smile on their face. Everybody’s having a ball. And even the little kids walking down the street, completely unsupervised, are having a blast.”

There were a lot of unsupervised children running around. Some were licking melted Jolly Ranchers out of real clamshells — or, “Jolly Clams.” And many of the older kids are decked out in braids and bunader — a festive costume based on old Norwegian folk outfits. Brandi Thynes leads a line of Petersburg’s Leikering Dancers through the streets.

Dancing is a childhood staple in Petersburg. Alaska Senator Bert Stedman and Petersburg’s mayor, Mark Jensen, grew up in Petersburg together. While they lined up for the parade, they recalled a time when they had to put on the little blue knickers.

“Yeah, we danced down the street with the girls, like the young guys do now,” said Sen. Stedman. “We thought it was torture! And the mayor was right there with me being tortured.”

“It’s hard to say how our parents had us dressed up,” said Jensen. “Who knows what we were wearing?”

“We had some kind of blue uniform,” answered Sen. Stedman. “Same thing as today, basically.”

When asked if they still remembered the Norwegian dances they were forced to learn in their shared youth, both Sen. Stedman and Jensen replied with an emphatic no.

Markus Jahn attended the festival from Germany, to which he arrived on the MS Roald Amundsen, a new hybrid cruise ship from Norway. 

“I’m enjoying the festival, yes,” said Jahn. “You see a lot of people — see your culture here, and see your heritage. These amazing costumes — these viking costumes?! I didn’t know there were vikings right here in Petersburg!”

The vikings and valkyries were some of the most easily-recognizable locals. They were strapped with swords, axes, and horn goblets, and they’re known for riding around in a party bus — which drives revelers around town, blasting club music into the night.

The leader of the group would only identify himself by his viking name: “the Harbor Barbarian.” He had a snow-white mountain goat pelt draped over his shoulders, and says it took him a while to put the ensemble together. 

“Everything I’m wearing — I killed this [mountain goat] over at Horn Cliffs,” said Harbor Barbarian, pointing to his cape. “I did. And I shot my wolf [pelt] out the road. And my deer [pelt] was taken on Prince of Wales,” he said, indicating other furred garments in his costume.

But the vikings aren’t just here to party and look cool — they treat the group like a kind of seasonal civic organization. They hold a free dinner for the town, which, this year, is an actual boatload of cooked shrimp and crab. The scary men and women in furs and face paint also join in the traditional dances — and let the kids beat them up with pool noodles in a series of festival games. 

“My favorite part is actually interacting with the kids and just kind of being ambassadors,” said Harbor Barbarian. “We want to make sure that we show a good face for the town. There’s a lot of folks in town that are here just for a day and we want them to feel special.”

For many festival-goers, Little Norway marks a triumphant exit from the bitter winter season. For others, it’s about celebrating a unique way of life — like Adrianne Schwartz, who returned to her hometown from Juneau just for the event. She said the tradition ​​means everything to her. 

“Growing up in Petersburg, learning to do the Norwegian dances and all of those things — the baking and being involved in commercial fishing and hunting — it’s important to me because it’s a different way of life,” said Schwartz. “We grow up knowing how to take care of ourselves.”

The Little Norway Festival is held in Petersburg the third weekend of every May, coinciding with May 17th — which is Norway’s Constitution Day.