Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Cannery

When I was young, long long ago, I went to Alaska.

I wanted to go. I was messed up, like many people, from childhood and looking for an escape. Alaska, with its wild beauty, called to me.

I first went up to take a job I found after answering an ad in the Oregon State University student paper. "Work in Alaska. Restaurant In Seward seeks workers. Room and board provided."

I got the job without much ado.

However, once there, I soon learned the room provided was the basement of my boss's house and that 12 people would share those two rooms. Board was anything the MiniMart restaurant served--fast food and beer.

However, for a young person, this was a dream job! I got to see Alaska.

I was a rookie to Alaska. Within the first week up there, I had a terrifying close encounter with an Alaskan Brown Bear that left me with nightmares for years. Before leaving Alaska for the last time, I would suffer frostbite to many of my toes, that caused me so much pain I had to cut the toes out of my boots to stand walking and was in pain for months. I suffered no permanent damage, however, and consider myself lucky to still have ten toes.

I met fabulous people, like the man who picked me up hitchhiking, outside of Anchorage, who said he was only picking me up because there was a rapist murdering women around Anchorage whom he picked up as hitchhikers.

He took me first to the Kenai River, to go salmon fishing, in the dusk of long daylight hour evenings. He needed someone to watch his back, he said, for bears. So that was my job. But my job became then to save him, when he hooked into a King Salmon and got pulled off his feet into deep water. His hip waders filled with water.

He was freezing when we got him to shore. It was me then who drove him, in his car, heater blasting, down to Seward and that basement apartment, where my co workers and I got him into a warm shower, then gave him some of our own clothes so he could drive home to Anchorage in something dry.

There was the teacher from Anchorage I met, with a friend and co-worker. He had just bought a sailboat. and took myself and my friend out on Resurrection Bay. He had no experience sailing and a horrible wind blew up. The boom was ripped from his control and swung around cold cocking me in the head, knocking me out. We made it to shore. For months afterwards, I had problems and likely had gotten a concussion in this adventure.

I cross country skied, one winter, when I came back to help run the restaurant, after my boss got breast cancer, out beyond the face of Exit Glacier, with a friend. But my skis collected the sticky snow in foot long cakes, along their bottoms, making the going so hard, we were long into the dark when we finally made it back out.

I went back and forth to Alaska, working various jobs, over five years. I wanted to make some money in the end, so I applied for a job with Seward Fisheries, a salmon canning plant. There was also a cold storage side to the plant, but the jobs were in the cannery side.

Cold storage paid more.

I'd made no real money working the restaurant job. If one wanted to eat anything but fast food at the restaurant, you paid a price. There was only one grocery store in town and the fresh food came in once a week and was quickly gone and was extremely expensive. I didn't drink away my money like most of coworkers did. I'd sometimes awaken in the night, to vomit dripping down from the occupant of the top bunk in the basement apartment.

The next time I went to Alaska, I applied and got the Seward Fisheries job. They said I could make up to $6000 in the two and a half month season. If the fishermen had good luck, that is.

I had tried to get a job first on a cannery ship. The money was better but those jobs were hard to get. Even cannery jobs were hard to find. Most canneries offered room and board, but not Seward Fisheries. Local housing was hard to find and expensive, so, if you already lived in Seward, or had somewhere to live, you had an "up" in getting a job there. Many of the workers, from out of state, most young and college students, camped out for the summer. This was an accepted practice, even expected.

After long hours, when too tired to make it back out to my shack in the woods, I slept in someone's car or in some strangers' tent. This too was considered normal for workers.

It was summer and I worked the slime line. I was dressed head to foot in yellow rain gear with rubber boots adorning my feet. I was living out off Nash Road in a visquin roofed 5 foot by ten foot shack out on the edge of a bluff over looking Resurrection Bay and Mt. Alice.

I didn't mind the rough living so much. I was young, after all.

The slime line manager yelled at workers continually, like a drill Sargent, sometimes two inches from your face. "That fish is clean enough," he'd yell. "That fish isn't rotten, run it through."

He once fired a guy on the spot for moving from his tub to turn around and check the clock to see how close we were to break time.

We lived for the breaks. The beheading crew were always dismissed first for break, making everyone else jealous. The lines at break became long for coffee and pastry. If you were at the end, or near the end of the line, once you got your coffee and doughnut, you might have five minutes left on break. We'd gulp black coffee and cram the donut into our mouths between gulps, washing it down with the dark thick brew. Others grabbed coffee and ran out the side door for a quick smoke.

Then the horn would blast and we'd have to get back to our tubs. I had on my rain gear, and yellow rubber gloves. I would clutch a knife and open a hatch that would dump salmon into a freezing water filled tub. I would then scrape any guts and scales remaining on the fish into the other sink before tossing it back on the conveyor line.

All the slimers were constantly covered in fish guts and scales. We were constantly sprayed with water from a hose, from the waste down, by the cleaner crew, to wash away fish guts and scales. We were yelled at if we accidentally cut and punctured our rubber gloves. Those with fish allergies quickly found out they had fish allergies and were forced to quit.

There were machine accidents. One woman got her arm caught in the beheading machine. She had reached in, to re-align a fish. She'd get yelled at if too much was cut off. The machine chomped her arm. They air lifted her out.

I was put on the can inspection line once, after 10 hours on the slime line. I was supposed to watch for irregularities in the lid, already sealed on the can and remove every 7th can to inspect it, by running my finger around the edge.

However, already tired out, the monotony of watching cans go by, put me into a trance and then a sleep, on my feet. Other workers thought it was funny to try to push me over, standing there, asleep on my feet. I was henceforth removed from the can inspection line. I am no good at such jobs.

The drill Sargent yelling in my face stopped very suddenly for me. Not so for the others. I got lucky. My neighbor, up near the shack, was an upscale artist, whose husband ran a local trucking company. She was well known, and was also a photographer. She came in to take cannery photos one day and took one of me, with the screaming manager watching. Seems he knew her, and, when she said hello to me, and indicated to the manager that we were neighbors, henceforth and thereafter, he treated me like royalty, offering me over time in the best jobs.

The season was not a good one. Fishermen did not bring in big loads of salmon that year. I made about $3000 total in two and a half months of the season.

At the end of the season, as planned by myself and a co-worker, we headed home together. First, we hitchhiked back up to Anchorage and out beyond, into Canada and then down to Skagway. We sat in one place for over a day, on a remote road, by a road pole littered in graffiti from other hitchhikers, languishing in that spot, fearing they'd die before they got a ride. Two Japanese doctors picked us up, in the end. Our backpacks were bigger than they were. They had to take pictures with us and our packs.

We got to the town on the Canadian end of the Chilkoot trail. Whitehorse, was it? I have forgotten it's name now, so many years later. My friend had no birth certificate with her, and almost was refused entry, first into Canada, then back into the US.

We then took off on foot, hiking the Chilkoot trail backwards, headed to Skagway, in SE Alaska, where we intended to catch a ferry down to Seattle.

My friend was not in shape. It was September. Snow was falling. We couldn't even find the trail often. We stayed in one cabin on the Canadian side, empty of hikers this time of year, that was over run in rodents crawling over us as we tried to sleep. From there, we headed up the steep rocky pass. Snow was falling heavily. The trail was marked in piles of rock every couple hundred feet. It became an ordeal, since my friend was exhausted. I would go forward in the snow, to find the next trail marker, leave my pack, go back, find her, carry her pack as we went up to the next marker.

But we made it up the pass and down it, on the US side, to another trail cabin. We ran into the trail ranger there.

When we finally got to Skagway, I discovered my friend had brought no money for the ferry, but had spent her money drinking during the summer. I was furious and considered leaving her there. Instead, I bought her a ferry ticket. She promised to pay me back but she never did.

I should have left her there to suffer the consequences of her actions.

We were hard pressed by local authorities however, who didn't want broke "outsiders" stranded. So, under their pressure, I paid for her ticket. We stayed in a $5 a night coed youth hostel for three days waiting for the ferry. There was no privacy, just bunks, for men and women. One room. One shared bathroom. Was fun.

We slept on the backpacker deck of the ferry on the trip down. It was glorious. My mother met me in Seattle. I had a flight from there back to Oregon, but unbeknownst to me, we would miss the flight, because the ferry hit a fishing boat in the Wrangle Narrows, delaying us. So my mother, somehow got word of this, probably through my brother the travel agent, and drove up to meet me right there, on the docks, when the ferry pulled in from three days at sea. My mother, she had this adventurous nature she could only cut loose to show when away from dear old dad. Later, we would drive the Alcan together. She loved it.

My cannery summer memories came flooding back when I saw that a seafood processing company is recruiting for its Dutch Harbor plant. They say a person can make $13,000 in five months.

Room and board provided.

Ha!

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