Here's how the system works: fishing trawlers would crawl to the docks where our work began. We would get the fish from the boats to the dock. A team would sort the mass of fish into different salmon species and put them onto conveyor belts heading into the network of buildings. Once in the buildings, we'd clean them, chop them, put them into cans, and bake them. We'd also harvest the roe and pile tons of processed fish into a mammoth, ice cavern until they could be shipped to consumers.
When we worked, we worked hard. Normally from 7 am - 7 pm until the load of fish had been processed and frozen. When all the fish had been dealt with, and the boats were empty, they headed back out to sea. And that's when we had some precious down time.
I value your reading time, so I'm just going to try and cover a lot of memory with a few of the highlights of the some of the cool stuff I saw:
Several of the hippies on board and I would play hacky-sack (I'm embarrassed to even write that, but we were all poor and all we could afford was basically kicking a bag around). We would play on a lush green bank surrounded by pines next to the gorgeous waterway. In those pines, full-grown bald eagles would sit 15 feet off the ground and watch us. It was jaw-dropping seeing these rare creatures just feet away. (Later, on the return boat ride home, I would accidentally kick the sacred hacky-sack over the side of the ship and into the north Pacific ocean. I would then be surrounded by a pack of angry crew members who had nothing else to now occupy their time.)
That gorgeous waterway we lived beside was like a parade of miracles. We sat on the green grass at the rivers edge, and on the far side - roughly a half mile away - the emerald forest went straight up the hillside. The water would flow right to left, and as we sat there we would watch robin's egg-blue icebergs float by. We were also amazed at the jellyfish that would undulate just under the waters surface, as they were the size of a bean bag chair, and were amazingly colorful: bright blues, reds and yellows.
Several of us went hiking out in the Alaskan wilderness. We found an isolated dump in the middle of a clearing, and moments later discovered a mother black bear with her cubs foraging. Fortunately, I had been reading a book about bears that was very descriptive on the "when nature attacks" chapters. I calmly and quickly led the charge in backing away.
Once while walking through the town I heard a hiss and felt a thunk as I passed a 4-wheel drive pickup. I bent down to see what it was, and a porcupine the size of a labrador waddled off between two shacks. I then saw that it had somehow shot a barbed quill and sank it into the thick rubber heel of my standard issue Helly/Hansen boots. I had to get pliers to pull it out. That barb was about 9 inches long and had a needle point.
Working in the factory was also amazing. A few of my jobs included:
Climbing an ladder up and into a 12-foot tall stainless steel vat where a conveyor belt would dump cleaned salmon until I was chest-deep in them. With my regulation hoe (I laughed typing this; I'm sophomoric, and the word "hoe" will always make me laugh. Just like the word "Uranus".), I would (for hours on end) ensure that the salmon exited the small opening at the bottom on their way into the chopping device.
I would stand at a long table (again, covered in rubber, gloves, hardhat) with spoons dangling from surgical tubing; that allowed water to spray from the spoons bowl, which made scraping the guts from the salmon more efficient. We handled thousands of these per hour.
I would work in the minus-40 degrees farhenheit product storage ice-cavern. This required special suits that covered everything but your face, and I pushed loaded carts through ice-rimed walls and permanent visibility hampering fog. It was here I spied a 6-foot tall frozen sea creature leaning against a wall. It had been caught in one of the nets and set there out of the way. It was big enough to swallow a human and looked like something prehistoric. Still have no idea what it could have been.
When we had down time, we would - of course - hit one of the few local taverns. As you can imagine, with work this hard and a job force to match, it made for some interesting evenings.
Some beer was brewed locally, but most had to be imported from the US (what the locals called "the lower 48"). So, like everything else, it was super expensive. This was a LONG time ago, and back then, a pitcher of their worst was $13. And that's where everyone spent their money.
It also lead to some job openings.
To get back on the boat to sleep, you had to pass security on the gangplank. One night in particular, the ships second-in-command (to the captain) was working the plank. He was extremely important, as you could imagine. One of the roughnecks I worked alongside - who, like many others I worked beside, had a criminal record. On this particular evening, he also had a bellyfull of beer - and didn't like being told he was drunk and therefore not allowed on board. So he hit the co-captain and knocked him out. Right there on the gangplank. I believe he's still in an Alaskan jail.
Another night, another co-worker (after an evening of expensive beer) stole a local's truck. Ran from the police. Drove the truck INTO someone's house. Dug his way UNDER that person's house. And I believe he is also still inside an Alaskan jail.
And then there was the day my friend Will confronted one of the Mexican immigrants on board if they had stolen his prized Walkman. We knew he did it. This guy had been bragging about it in his broken english to anyone who would listen. And I was standing there as Will asked him to return it and he pulled a knife out and tried to stab him. We did not get the Walkman back.
But the CRAZIEST job I had was this:
When the fishing trawlers would pull up loaded with their catch, we had to get the fish from the boat onto the dock to be sorted. The dock, however, was 30-feet above the waterline. So here's how we did it:
A 20‘ x 20‘ floating dock was moored far below and would tie up to the incoming trawler. I would stand on this dock, alongside 50 feet of coiled "suction hose" that went up to the sorting tables. The hose was about 3 to 4 feet in diameter, where you could barely get your arms around it.
When the ship docked, and the crew went onshore to burn off energy, I went to work. (Sometimes, before they left, they would set up a pot on deck and boil up some of the Alaskan crab they had just caught hours before. Now THAT was awesome.)
In the middle of the deck was a square hatch, about 3 feet by 3 feet. That hatch was the only way into the ships hull, where they carried everything they had caught at sea. Now, this hull is full to the top with cold water and tons of fish (that by now, is supposed to be dead). So I'd drop the suction end of this giant hose into the opening and monitor it as it sucked up all the fish, water and whatever else was in there all the way up to the dock so it could be sorted.
Now, the hull was so big, this took awhile. And the suction process was so violent, that it turned the water in the hull a frothy pink-grey. You couldn't see a single thing in the water.
As the level dropped, I'd monitor it until there was about 3-4 feet of water left. Then - are you ready for this? - I'd hug the hose like a tree and slide down into the inky darkness.
Now let me explain what that's like.
This is the INSIDE of the ships hold. THE ONLY LIGHT is coming from that small square that's now 15 feet or so above my head. You literally have no idea what you're dropping into. And I can't get out without help from way above. I'm also standing in 4 feet of cold ocean water - topped with a thick nasty foam - and I'm standing IN, ON, and AMONG thousands of cold slippery moving giant fish forms all pressing against my way-too-thin rubber suit.
My job at this point was to keep the hose moving and keep the fish going up. It's also the type of job you should threaten your children with when they won't go to bed.
Now, you're all by yourself down there. You're feeling (can't see, remember?) a mass of squishy, squirming icy bodies moving under and around you. And while they're SUPPOSED to be dead (remember when I said "supposed to be" earlier?), some inevitably WERE NOT. How does one discover this, you ask? You discovered this when - in the frothy, freaky gloom - you see something jump serpentine out of the muck and it quickly slides back underwater before you can fully focus on it. Yeah. I'm still dealing with that.
When the water lowered to a foot or less, I then had to get down on my hands and knees and make sure the hose got every single fish. That's cold, hard cash to the guys on the boat, so they're REAL CLEAR about making sure you got everything. (I may not have mentioned, but social etiquette wasn't big with this community.)
You had a real incentive to get that job done so you could signal up for them to pull you out. I would ride out of the darkness and back into the blinding sunlight. And as my eyes adjusted, the blues and greens of Alaska would look even more vibrant and alive than they had before.
(I have one final installment to this story. For those nice enough to read it, thanks for your patience. This is the first time I've ever written about this experience and its been fun to remember.)
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