Alaskan Canneries & Alt-Weeklies Revisited
During summers in college, I used to fly up to Alaska to work in fish canneries, where in a month I could make almost enough money to live for another year. I chronicled the events in the diaristic story “Dreaming of Dead Fish,” published in the Fall of 1995 in the alt-weekly that I co-edited, the High Plains Reader (which is still around).
Below is that article, the longest thing I had published at the time. It is reprinted completely unedited, despite how much it desperately needs editing. The sentence structure is clunky as fuck, packed with trite phrases like “the difficulty lies in” and “drinking my head straight.” The hackneyed prose of the conclusion makes me want to rip my goddamn head off.
And yet, with just barely enough nostalgia value to warrant republishing, I decided to OCR it into Medium. Here then, a curio that practically screams “I was written in the mid-’90s for an alt-weekly!”
Dreaming of Dead Fish
Diary of a mad fish butcher in Alaska
Every generation has its strange assortment of jobs providing young people a break from college or a hiatus from joining the workforce — get-out-of-town vacations which allow twenty-somethings some travel and the ability to meet new people. We all knew that girl who, after graduating from high school, went straight to the east coast to become a nanny for some rich family. Or the guy who, after getting his B.F.A. in ceramics, went to Japan to teach English for a while. Or, the worst of the lot, the person who went to Alaska to work on a fish boat or fish cannery.
For one month of my life I tried my luck in Alaska. After sending off for some information to a canner called Pederson Point (PPT), I was sent a packet telling me I would work about 3 weeks and make a quick $2500. What’s the catch? Only that you had to butcher salmon for 16 hours a day. It didn’t sound so bad.
I was completely miserable. Besides the normal mental fatigue of such of such as job, l also had to find out about two friends dying at home while I was away butchering millions of pounds of fish immediately sent to Japan as sushi. The work itself wasn’t too difficult, but I was always tired and being yelled at by the foremen. At times, I really thought I might go crazy, as the most basic, instinctual emotions bubble to the top of the cauldron.
But I kept a diary. It probably kept me from losing my mind. There was essentially no free time-no time to yourself, no time to read a newspaper (not that you could find one), no time to eat a meal slowly. I took time out of my sleep schedule to get down notes for a diary. Here are some excerpts from it.
Alaska is some of the most beautiful country in the world. It’s a land of spacious, snow-capped mountains, fresh air, amazing wildlife, and glacier spectacles. Seeing Alaska could be one of the greatest experiences of your life!
— travel brochure in Anchorage, Alaska
You will be cold, wet, and tired. Your body will hurt. The work is grueling.
— letter from PPT, my employer
There’s a feeling I get
When I look to the West
— Led Zeppelin
There are no roads. This is the first thing I notice.
There is scarcely even an automobile. Helicopter, 4-wheel ATV, and boat appear to be the primary choices of transportation. (Juneau, the capital of Alaska, doesn’t even have a road leading to it.)
Choppers fly overhead constantly, many of which, I am told, belong to the Game and Fish department. Already the ominous mountains and low-flying aircraft set the tone for what right now feels like a videogame for an anachronistic world. After a three day layover in Anchorage, I am flown (at my employer’s expense) into the town King Salmon en route to my final destination of Pederson Point. The meager hamlet seems little more than an airport town — an entire community designed around the transport of multiracial people to oil pipelines, gold mines, and fish hatcheries. The King Salmon Airport is like a mini-LAX — a bustling conglomeration of ethnicities including Hawaiian, Eskimo, Filipino, Japanese, and a Tower of Babel of exotic languages. While using the restroom, I noticed a peculiar graffiti scrawled in calligraphic red marker: “Would the child you were be pleased with the adult you’ve become?” I turn this interrogative around my mind until realizing I’ve been standing, pants open, in the urinal for about five minutes. My conclusion? No. The child I was would not like the stagnant adult I’ve become. But, hey, at least I’m in Alaska.
Boarding is announced for my destination, Pederson Point. Walking out of the terminal I ask where to board. When the orange-suited man points to a very small five-seat aircraft, I tell him he’s gotta be kidding. Four of us load our own luggage, strap ourselves in, and prepare for the equivalent of the scariest amusement park ride ever concocted. The plane wobbles through 15 minutes of turbulence and begins its descent toward the “runway” — a 100-yard gravel patch ending with a 60-foot cliff falling into the ocean.
We come to a stop about 20 feet before the jagged-rock bluff and one passenger says, “That was pretty close.” The pilot retorts, “Heck, we’ve been a lot closer than that.”
We are shown to our living quarters which are designed like your basic dorm room. I go straight to sleep, exhausted from my flight.
Upon getting up, I notice I have gained a roommate. He explains to me that he has been hired on with special duties; he is the Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). With a laugh, he tells me that his job is to pick up people’s truncated fingers from the floor and stitch them back on with a rusty rusty needle. I crawl out of the room to find some breakfast.
After a little exploration around camp I begin to realize what I’ve gotten myself into. PPT is a town in and of itself with about 300 people who all work for the company. There is a company-owned general store, a mess hall, a number of dormitories, and the processing factory itself. It recalls a fictional mini-communist state jokingly thrown out on the tundra. Something like Walden II.
The salmon have not entered the bay yet. They should be coming in tomorrow. (I ask myself how fish can swim a couple thousand miles and be on time every year.) Dinner is awful. Some cabbage-hamburger concoction. No real milk, only the dehydrated stuff, which tastes like ragweed. The cabbage casserole tastes like shoe leather. Northern Exposure this ain’t.
They’re not kidding about this “Land of the Midnight Sun” stuff. The sky is illuminated for about 20 hours a day during summer months and dark the equivalent during winter months. Alaska has the highest suicide rate in the union probably due to the winter darkness. The weather, though, has been beautiful, 80° F and sunny every day.
Work assignments were given out today. I’ve been assigned rain gear and sent to what is euphemistically referred to as “the slime line.” This means that after the salmon has been guillotined, slit open, and had its guts removed, it is my job to spoon out the main vein that runs along the back spine. I am covered in fish blood for 16 hours a day. It is excruciatingly boring, with moments of hand cramping to break the monotony. I’m so covered in blood that I am unable to even scratch my nose. I’m already considering quitting.
They have hired about 150 processors. Everyone is divided into three different shifts, working 16 hours on and 8 hours off. My shift is to get up at 4:30 a.m., work until 8:30 p.m., sleep my 8 hours (actually 6½ after food and shower), and get up again at 4:30 a.m. When you get off, more people come on to take your place so that the plant can run 24 hours a day. The work isn’t particularly difficult, just endless and tiresome. It’s basically like doing assembly-line work — or is disassembly line work? The difficulty lies in your hands cramping and your extreme fatigue.
The fishing veterans are already starting to intimidate us with their war stories. They go something like this: “Keep away from that machine. A girl lost a finger in that last year.” Or “Watch out for the dock. A guy fell the dock last year.” Or my favorite, “A guy bent over to pick something up here, and his ponytail got caught in this gear. It ripped all his hair off. Took half his scalp with too.”
I’ve been moved from the “slime line” over to the “case-up” department. Here I basically weigh fish and put them in boxes for 16 hours a day. I’ve developed a means to help pass the time called the “Question of the Day.” After inventing one question, I walk around asking it to 40-or-so fellow employees.
Today’s Question of the Day: In one hand I give you a ten-shot revolver with one bullet. I tell you to put that bullet in one of the chambers, spin the revolver, and slam it shut so that you don’t know where the bullet is. In your other hand, I give you a million dollars. If you put the gun to your head and pull the trigger only once, taking the 1 in 10 chance, you can have the million bucks. Do you do it?”
- “In a second”
- “Can I spend it on drugs?”
- “That’s sick.”
- “Am I working here at the time?”
The only variable that keeps me from packing up and heading home are the stimulating people. I’ve met such a strange variety of people that it almost seems worthwhile. Most are stalled in some part of their college education, filling the interval with traveling. Some have worked out a formula of where to make money fast and where to go to spend it on good drugs even faster, so their travel itinerary looks something like Anchorage (for fishing) to Amsterdam (for drugs) to France (for picking grapes) to New Zealand (for lounging on the beach). Oddly, about 1 out of every 4 persons here is a vegetarian. I ask one vegetarian girl how she deals with her obvious ethical dilemmas working here. She scoffs and says, “You think vegetarianism is my only ethical dilemma here? How about the atrocities against my feminism? Or my feelings about capitalism that are so exploited here? Just about any political stand I have is subverted here.”
Question of the Day: “What are you going to do with the money you make here?”
- “Buy books and CDs”
It’s scary how many people here either have or are working on a liberal arts degree. Some even have their Master’s Degree. A few are very strange people.
Random Character Sketch: “Crazy” Bill is older than anyone we work with; he might be in his late 30s. An extremely hyperactive coffee drinker with hyperactive intellect, Bill has been traveling around Alaska for 7 years now. He claims to have worked on Wall Street for a decade and his demeanor and intelligence tell you he’s probably not lying about Ivy League education. [Fast-forward to a dirty bar in Naknek, Alaska. We’re done working and I’m drinking my head straight with Crazy Bill. The Jack Daniels puts him in an animated mood; his slurring enhances his disclosure. He tells a long, eloquent story explicating how he’s been living in Alaska because the Feds are after him for some kind of mishandling funds or an insider trading scandal. Again, I believe every word he says.]
Today I learned that I am employed by the largest fish production unit in the world. The plant is said to make about $1 million/day and with a little calculation you see that it’s not too far off. (Keep in mind that it’s running only a month out of the year.) Fish are bought from fishermen for about 70¢/pound and sold for $15/pound in Japan. But the real profit is in the roe. The eggs from each fish are worth something like 10 times more. It’s been said that the factory’s expenses are covered by the fish and the roe are all profit. Trillions of eggs sent to Japan to be gobbled by business people and stereo manufacturers. Our real goal, then, is to get as much sushi and caviar to Japan as soon as possible. I presume they send VCRs in return.
Today is the 4th of July. It isn’t exactly Independence Day though; it’s probably the worst day of work so far. The owner of the factory — a multi-millionaire business man from Japan — made a visit to the plant today. I hadn’t really known how “important” this particular man was until he strolled through the plant today with a phalanx of camera-wielding Japanese men thrusting their Sony video recorders like spears. Apparently, our employer is also the owner of the Seattle Mariners and owns a great share in the stock of Nintendo. He made his first money in the fish industry, and since moved into the more post-industrial world of entertainment. His major accomplishment is making Money magazine’s 500 richest people list.
As his entourage scratched on notepads or dictated an audio track onto their video recorders, we performed our plebeian tasks more dexterously like animals in a zoo. Flashbulbs went off as they recorded our every act like we were monkeys picking lice off each other at the menagerie. Feeling too much like was being viewed through the plexiglas of a human vivarium, I pulled out my own Kodak, turned the lens back on the Japanese party, and shot back from the hip.
A couple of the men found this funny; others were angry. I was told to get back to work.
The Japanese businessmen returned today. We were prepared this time.
As soon as they entered, someone gave the cue and everyone stopped working and watched the fish fall off the conveyor belt onto the floor. The foreman yelled at us for that one.
Question of the Day: Which of these three is most important to you a) to be physically sound, b) to be mentally sound, or c) to be spiritually sound?
- a) 0 people
- b) 2 people
- c) 32 people
Everyone’s starting to get a bit deranged. For fear of this diary sounding a bit like Flowers for Algernon, I won’t describe how insane I’m getting.
The dreams are probably the worst part though. After you’ve worked with fish for 16 straight hours, you want desperately to get away from the denizens of the deep. But they return. In your dreams, like the universal unconscious fish dreams belt too fast the sky. Dreams of giant killer of fish; dreams of fish coming down the conveyer; dreams of orinthichthian creatures attacking from the sky.
At lunch, I overheard two people discussing what this whole place “means” — what is the purpose? why are we here?
One says, “Well, I guess you could say we’re feeding people.”
“Fuck that. We’re not feeding people. We’re fueling an economy.”
There’s a section in Lewis Sinclair’s The Jungle where the refuse from the meat packaging plant is pushed into floor vents which look like disposal units. In reality, it falls onto another conveyor belt below and is made into sausage. I had a dream last night that the collection of fish parts and entrails pushed into the drains were used below into fish-flavored Spam.
Question of the Day: What percent of time do you think that you think about important things?
Answers: Everything from 0 to 100.
The factory runs so efficiently, like a well-oiled perpetual motion machine. Our goal, really, is to get as much sushi to Japan as soon as possible. It’s strange to consider the plant only running for about one month out the year, and then lying idle and empty for the rest of the year. We go so fast — butchering salmon, stuffing them into boxes, sending thousands of pounds of them out to a waiting barge.
We go so quickly. Until today.
Every department unexpectedly shut down today, when the call of “clean-up” went out. This seemed peculiar considering we finally had become accustomed to working in the proximity of piles of fish entrails. But for 8 hours we were told to push fish guts down drains and scrub blood-stained walls. Finally, as if to supply our perplexing lag with some rationale, a woman donning an FDA hat and a man bearing a DEC jacket walked through the plant with clipboards in hand, making an inspection list and checking it twice. They made a few remarks and were off.
As the sound of their departing plane flew over, we were instantly back to work. The well-oiled perpetual motion machine back on, spitting its detritus across the Alaskan tundra.
This makes me think of The Jungle again. Apparently the Feds call ahead a few days to tell the management they will be inspecting the plant soon. This gives them ample time to clean up the fish mess that would cost them hundreds-of-thousands of dollars in fines.
We discovered today that the inspectors felt that our plant was in such disgusting shape that they’d leave and give us a second chance in a few days. Rumors say that if they would have fined the plant for all its infractions, the factory would have been shut down.
Random Character Sketch: Thaddeus has the strangest job I’ve ever known of. For fourteen hours a day, Thad walks around the camp. His job officially is watchman, but I don’t think he ever actually watches anything; he just walks. To guard against him snoozing in a comer, he must carry a time lock machine that must be checked in at various locations around camp. Thad is in has later 20s, portly but attractively so, and boisterous. He too, like so many here, is hyper-intellectual. He works for the longest running alternative newspaper in Alaska (in Fairbanks, a college town thrown in the middle of the tundra, hundreds of miles from even an ocean) and seems versed on music, literature and art. Because he is on a time schedule he can only stop and talk for a few minutes at a time. This creates a very strange rapport; Thad is the only man I’ve held 50 two-minute conversation with. For his two minutes he’d ramble on about Tom Waits or deconstruction and I’d blast about Andre Breton and the evils of Metallica. And then, like nothing, he’s gone again, walking through the night. [Later it occurs to me that his job is very much like the night watchman in Mike Leigh’s Naked.]
The rumor is that someone over in butchering freaked out today and pulled a knife on a foreman. He was out on the next plane.
The stress where I’m at, in boxing, doesn’t seem as great. The anxiety in butchering sounds worse. Here, the stereo seems to be the source of most major conflict. Put a bunch of artistic-minded twenty-somethings in a room all day with only one stereo and it begins to look like World War I. I almost got punched for saying Soundgarden sucked.
If you begin to think about these little trooper salmon swimming thousands of miles to drop off some eggs, only to die before completing their task, you can’t help but feel guilty. Today, one of the more “sensitive” liberal arts guys in butchering found a live fish come through before being put through the guillotine machine. Being a vegetarian who felt guilty about his job since day one, he grabbed the fish and ran out the plant toward the dock. The entire place began to cheer for him as he made this heroic stand to save this one fish by throwing it off the dock back into the ocean. Slowly he walked back in, shoulders sunk and head hung, as the crazed crowd continued cheering. At the sight of his sad face returning, the plant turned quiet. He threw up his arms and said with a slight grin,
Everyone laughed uneasily, but I doubt anyone wasn’t thinking of the suffocating fish flopping in the mud below the dock.
I walked the aisles of the company story tonight looking for anything to buy. I think I’ve been raised a capitalist so long that to go for a few weeks without buying a single thing started to make me irritable. These $800 checks are piling up in my room. After work tonight, I found myself staring at them, trying to figure out the meaning of these pieces of paper I’ve been working my ass off for. They seem to make no sense.
I’ve fallen into my work so much, that I’m starting to think I could do this for my whole life. I imagine children in coal mines working grueling hours for a few bucks a day. In the jarring haze of this work, I’ve begun to think that wouldn’t be so bad. I’ve started wondering what it would be like if human beings did this all the time. What we kill each other? What would be our life expectancy? In what ways would evolution take over? I began having these daydreams of people with vestigial anatomy and prosthetic appendages designed to make us more productive workers.
I heard someone at lunch talking about how refreshing a coma would be. It’s getting a little stressful.
Random Character Sketch: Eddie Sue loves fish more than any person should. She’s been doing this job for over a decade and has worked her way up to a foreman position. A radical feminist and a vociferous lesbian, she also has her Master’s Degree in American Studies. She could most assuredly work in a university setting, but loves fish so much that she spends most of her time in Alaska. I am intrigued by her feminism, but get ill when I see how much she loves this job.
We had fish for dinner today. I couldn’t eat it knowing what we do to those little creatures.
The fish are finally starting to slow down. This gives us spare time, a commodity we’re not quite sure how to deal with.
We only work a 12 hour shift today, the first shift less than 16. I had so much extra time that I didn’t know what to do with myself. Books didn’t make sense; the ocean became boring to stare at. So we went to town and picked up some off-sale Budweiser, $32 a case. No wonder they tell you to make your money and get out of Alaska.
Today was my last day of work. The plane leaves tomorrow. I spent the evening wandering the tundra; saw a few caribou, a whale spout in the and a black bear. But of everything I’ve seen so far, it was the tundra that created in me the most awe. I had always thought tundra was like frozen gravel or something, when in fact it is three feet of viny plants intertwined across the landscape. If you attempted digging through the plants, you could burrow a very long time. Walking on it, though, is the most amazing sensations. It’s like pouncing on a gigantic trampoline. I’d swear that if that tiny plane on which I flew in would have crashed, we would have bounced right back up into the sky.
Rex Sorgatz dreams of fish @fimoculous.