PUBLISHED: 5:24 PM on Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Going for the GROG
Petersburg's berserkers aren't so bad (once you get to know them)
Editor's note: Only Viking names are used to protect the innocent (and not so innocent) who had to return to work on Monday.

PETERSBURG - Wood-built homes line the North Bay of Petersburg, some with dull and chipped planks that stand testament to the city's history. The smell of saltwater sweeps up to the docks, and the aroma of fresh salmon permeate from the near-by cannery that helped draw the city's first settlers from their Norwegian homeland a century ago.

photos by Charles Westmoreland
High above Nordic Street, just outside the downtown Federal building, two flags flutter in unison to the ocean breeze: one Norwegian and the other American. The street is desolate and quiet, except for the faint echo of polka music and children playing several blocks away where a strip of the road has been cordoned off for the Little Norway Festival.

Further into the heart of downtown, where vendors line the sidewalks selling jewelry, food and clothing, children dressed in traditional Norwegian attire run across the street holding handfuls of cotton candy while others try to climb onto a chunk of the LeConte Glacier on display outside of the Beer Garden.

photos by Charles Westmoreland
  The Viking Frodo Boda Baggins somehow ended up in Fengsel (jail) during the Little Norway Festival last weekend, and didn't like being taunted by children. Vikings and Valkyries sold arrest warrants for donations. One Valkyrie even signed a warrant for her own grandmother to be thrown into Fengsel. Bail was usually set from one beer to a pitcher, depending on the offense.
And even further still, in a small pub called the Harbor Bar, frequented by fishermen and town folk alike, sits the Viking King, Androg the God of Grog, in a corner booth where he is surrounded by his clan dressed in hides, horns and steel.

"Skoal!" they yell together, drowning out the music playing in the background, as they toast another fishing season, another festival and another gathering of the Vikings and Valkyries.

Petersburg's Vikings, in all their ranting, grog-swilling and fish-eating glory, are a mix between the grand marshals of a parade and team mascots - except the Vikings are more a star attraction than sideshow act during the festivities. As unique as the Norwegian cuisine, period clothing and artwork are, it's the Vikings and Valkyries that keep things lively and unpredictable.

"It's like being a host to a really big party, where you can walk up to anyone and they want to chat," said Visquine, a Valkyrie now living in Juneau. "And it's like a reunion for those of us who have moved away."

Any Viking will say that being a part of the annual event, which turned 50 this year, is better than being the town's star quarterback or prom queen. Tourists want their picture taken with them, and the children want to be them.

"Money cannot buy this situation," Androg said. "You come out in a bear hide on a hot day and swill cold beer with the most beautiful women in the world."

Little Vikings

A sense of responsibility comes along with the grog swilling (which there is always plenty of) and hide-wearing, including being an ambassador for the town and role model to kids. To kick off Little Norway, the Vikings and Valkyries visited the elementary school to get Petersburg's youth excited about the four-day event. Children in the school take classes on Norwegian dance, culture and heritage. Many of today's Vikings did the same when they were in school.

"The people in the community that are keeping the programs alive are doing a great job," Androg said. "If it weren't for that, these kids wouldn't want to be a Viking or Valkyrie. It all starts down in the grade school. "I want the younger people coming up to know they need to carry this tradition on. I don't want it to die."

In fact, the festival seems more alive than ever. Harald V, King of Norway, sent a letter to the residents of Petersburg praising and acknowledging their effort in keeping Norwegian tradition alive. He also sent a representative to the festival for the third straight year. Hege Haaland, consul to the Royal Norwegian Consulate General, said her first visit to Petersburg was a memorable one, to say the least.

"This is a great event," she said. "It's rare you're outside of Norway and find a place that shares Norwegian traditions like they do in Petersburg."

Saturday's pageant, where Haaland passed on the King Harald's kind words, opened with the Norwegian national anthem followed by dancing from dozens of children and a performance by the Kodiak Island Drummers, who were special guests during the festival. Both the dance coordinator and the drum ensemble encouraged participation from the Vikings and Valkyries, who were cheering and stomping from the bleachers.

As a way of saying thanks, the Vikings and Valkyries ended the pageant by presenting a golden keg and corset to event coordinators. Janet Holton, one of the key people behind the event, was served a warrant for "working too hard" and would later have to serve jail time.

Viking tradition

The Petersburg Vikings and Valkyries have their own traditions, culture and hierarchy, much like their ancestors a millennium ago. Not just anyone can wear animal hides, horns and claim to be a Viking.

King Androg, a Viking for the last 25 festivals, and the Queen Valkyrie decide who is initiated into the clan. Rookie Vikings and Valkyries are forbidden from wearing horns or armored breastplates their first year, and also are subject to minor hazing such as running errands or refilling swilling mugs. In the Viking community seniority counts for a lot.

"It was humiliating," said second-year Viking Brewstekha about his initiation last year. "You have to wear ... bells around your neck, too. Everyone knows you're a rookie. They can hear you coming."

The King and Queen also ensure a code of conduct is followed. Vikings who disobey, or step over the line of what is considered acceptable.

"If somebody is insubordinate or doesn't follow traditions; I can take one horn, then take the other horn, or even banish them," Androg said.

Vikings and Valkyries are normal people, too (during the other 361 days of the year), but something changes inside each one when it's time to play the part.

"When you put on hides and furs and corsets, you morph into a different person," said Angellush, a Valkyrie. "It's like bringing out the animal in you. But some people can't handle it."

Today's Vikings are more restricted than their predecessors 40 years ago. In those days, just about anything was fair game

Petersburg Mayor Al Dwyer was one of the original Vikings, and remembers those years of the Little Norway Festival as a different age. For example, the Vikings once abducted former Alaska Gov. William Sheffield and brought him back to Petersburg by helicopter for the festival.

"I was a Viking 30 years ago, and in those days you could do a lot more," he said. "We would run up into the plane and take the stewardesses and take them downtown, and then bring them back before the plane left."

Viking Vocab

Swill: drink

Swilling mugs: Horns, cups, boda baggs, beer steins - anything that holds grog

Grog: Anything you can drink that goes

in a swilling mug (often alcoholic)

Boda Bagg: A canteen made of animal skin - handy for carrying grog

Skoal: Vikings' way of saying "Cheers"

Fengsel: Jail

Random Quotes

-"You know you're a Viking when: You think looting and pillaging small towns is a good way to meet people."

-"I want all things manly on my plate. Extra testosterone on my potatoes."

-"I want my steak criminally rare."

-"You! Photographer! Get on the Viking Bus, you're coming too!"

-"Can I steal a Norwegian baby to put on the boat with us?"

-"May the concrete always be solid enough to sleep on."

- "You've been buying your own beer? That's disgraceful!"

Did You Know?

• The Vikings cruise town in a bus. One was donated from Sitka and the other from Juneau. It's stylishly decorated.

• The Viking Bus has a designated driver.

• Most of the Vikings at the festival hunted or trapped the furs they wear.

• The King Viking hands out names, and it could take "five minutes to five seasons" for him to decide on someone's name.

• When a Viking is "lost in combat," it often means his wife won't let him play with the other Vikings anymore.

• The Vikings and Valkyries prepare and host a 150-person feast. No silverware allowed and people must sing for napkins.

A community united

About 1,000 visitors flock each year to Petersburg for the Little Norway festival. The Vikings love the attention, and playing the role of host to travelers, but say the festival is about celebrating their heritage and sense of community - not exploitation of the event itself.

"We're all fishermen or Coast Guard here, and this is us blowing off steam because we've worked in a dangerous environment our whole lives," said Buckstrap, a senior Viking. "This has a lot to do with our fishing community, and it's the community's way of saying good-bye before we go out all summer to fish."

Says Androg: "We love having the tourists here, but we'd have just as much fun if no one came. As long as people are here for the right reasons it's awesome. But we don't want it to become a commercial event like Christmas. That's what makes it magical for the people coming - they see the authenticity of everyone involved and how much everyone in the community cares about one other."

Charles Westmoreland is managing editor of the CCW. To read is travel blog visit