29 December 2013

A Death On The Dock

It was a beautiful late summer day. Salmon season was ending and the seiners were coming into the harbor after two months of fishing on the Sound. A seiner was docked at the crane and having its nets and a small skiff lifted up onto the pier. The Kaylor T had made its last contracted trip and the big tender was next in line. The captain was in the Fisherman's Lounge. He wanted a huge section of steel housing removed from the deck and put into storage at the cannery until next season.

The Plant Manager directed Francisco Flores to get the old mobile crane truck. The captain of the Kaylor T was an old friend. There was no reason to call him from the lounge to move the tender to the dock-mounted crane.

Francisco Flores advanced the old mobile crane to the edge of the dock above the Kaylor T and secured the stabilizer legs. He extended the boom out and began to lower the hook. It was low tide and the boat was far below the dock in the water. Francisco Flores let out a lot of cable to get the hook down to One-Eyed Eddie. The section of metal housing they were to move covered half the deck. Nobody had any idea what it weighed. Eddie secured the big four-ways sling to each of the corners and clasped the hook to it. "Winch up! Winch up!" Eddie yelled, signaling with his index finger.

Francisco Flores began to slowly bring in cable, lifting the massive section of ship housing up off the Kaylor T. It was halfway up to the dock when they heard it. It started as a wail, just audible over the engine of the boom truck. The wailing grew louder and louder, and then it was an ear piercing screeching. The Dock Lead yelled at Francisco Flores to put it down, put it down! The front stabilizing legs on the boom truck were bending, the steel shrieking, and as Francisco Flores lowered the load, the legs snapped, pitching the boom truck forward, skidding across the pavement and crashing into the low wooden barrier at the dock edge, and Francisco Flores was ejected from the cockpit of the crane truck out over the edge of the dock.

His head hit two rungs on the dock ladder before he landed on his back on the deck of the Kaylor T. Francisco Flores had fallen more than thirty feet. His hard hat lay beside him, cracked in half.

Eddie was the first to him. The left side of Francisco Flores' head was cleaved open and there were bits of brain in his hair. He lay upon the steel cover of a fish hold, blood pooling under him. His eyes were open and he seemed to respond as Eddie knelt beside him, talking to him.

Someone pulled Eddie away and the lady from human resources kneeled down and started pumping his chest. Blood sputtered from Francisco Flores' mouth. Eddie yelled at her to stop; his back could be broken and the CPR could kill him. But she continued pumping his chest, and listening for breathing, until finally Francisco Flores groaned and the last air went out of him. There was nothing more to be done.

On the dock the Plant Manager had called over two forklift drivers. He told them to pick up and move the damaged mobile crane truck. He wanted it moved off the dock and taken across the street and put inside the welding shop.  He wanted it moved as quickly as possible.

The forklift drivers had just gotten the mobile crane truck off the dock when an ambulance and two police cruisers arrived. On the deck of the boat the EMS team declared Francisco Flores dead. There was nothing to be done for him. The police officers were furious. The mobile crane had been moved, disturbing the accident scene. The Plant Manager was told he was likely to be charged with evidence tampering.

The company lawyer was immediately dispatched to a tiny pueblo in Chihuahua, Mexico to deliver the bad news to the wife of Francisco Flores and his four children, as well as a check for $25,000, if only SeƱora Flores would sign three documents, inconveniently written in English, a language she could neither speak nor read. The cannery pledged to put up half the money for the funeral and the lady from human resources, who had unsuccessfully performed CPR on Francisco Flores, collected the remainder in worker donations.

A meeting was called on the dock. The Plant Manager announced that in memory of Francisco Flores the mobile crane truck would no longer be used. He explained that Francisco Flores had made a grave error in attempting to lift a load clearly in excess of the capacity of the mobile crane. It never should have been attempted. The lady from human resources added that Francisco Flores had been negligent in filling out the daily safety checklist and signing his name to it, as all equipment operators are required. After the meeting, One-Eyed Eddie dropped a pallet of frozen herring on the Plant Manager's BMW and got himself permanently banned from driving a forklift.

Today, in the employee break room, there hangs on the far wall in the corner and only partly obscured by the Pepsi machine, a framed photograph of Francisco Flores standing on the dock and smiling broadly, and beneath it the caption, "We Will Always Remember, 1970-2012."

23 December 2013

Pitching Fish

It was the fifth boat of the day. I was crouched in the corner of the ship hold, my hard hat pressed against the ceiling. Beneath us were thousands of pounds of halibut and black cod hidden under ice.

"Send down the weapons! Send down the weapons!" Jorge shouted up to crane operator.

The large metal bucket containing plastic shovels and ice picks descended into the hold.

We each took a shovel or ice pick and started to break apart the ice and shovel the chunks into the bucket. Hunched over in the cramped space it was difficult to work quickly.

The bucket filled and Jorge shouted, "Cease fire, men! Cease fire!" He shouted at the crane operator, "Up! Up! Up!"

The bucket craned up out of the hold. We continued to break apart the ice with our shovels and picks.

"Coming down! Coming down!"

I looked up and the bucket was coming down through the opening and I crawled to the side. We filled the bucket with ice. We filled buckets with ice until we dug down to the black cod. The next empty bucket came down and the Filipinos started pitching black cod into it.

"Cod! Cod!" Shouted Jorge.

There were black cod flying over your head, behind you, past your face. You dug through the ice and grabbed them around the tail, one in each hand and pitched them two at a time into the bucket. You gripped them hard or they slipped from your hands. You pitched them as fast as you could.

We pitched the center of the hold so that the bucket descended to the floor. Then we pitched the sides. My clothes were drenched with sweat under my raingear. The level of fish had dropped and I was able to stand up.

We worked through the twenty-five thousand pounds of black cod and reached the halibut. The halibut you grabbed under the chin where they were gutted, or by the tail if they were smaller, and heaved the big flat fish into the bucket. The big ones needed two guys to lift them and a few had to be roped through the mouth and craned out.

We finished pitching the halibut and shoveled the last ice off the bottom of the hold and we climbed up onto the deck. It was cloudy and the light was fading. Beyond the bay were black clouds over the snowcapped mountains. A storm was blowing in from the Pacific.

We weren't on break for long when the crew chief came in and told us there were seven more boats to pitch. Breaks would be short for the rest of the day. It was time to go back out. We quietly pulled on our raingear.

It was dark now and the wind was blowing a gale. Sleet stung at my face. I put on my life jacket and hard hat and descended the ladder onto the boat with the others. A deckhand positioned a floodlight to shine into the hold. One side was a bin of black cod and the other was halibut. There was little ice. I lowered myself down and climbed atop the black cod. We waited quietly. Jorge yelled for the bucket.

The bucket came down and we began pitching black cod into it. The gusting winds rocked the boat and we often lost our footing and fell. We worked down through the cod and pulled the bin boards and handed them up to the deckhand. We filled bucket after bucket. Then we started on the halibut.

As the first bucket of halibut lifted out of the hold, the boat rocked hard and slammed against the dock piles. I grabbed a bin board to keep from falling, and something fell into the hold and hit Jorge and he went down. The little Mexican lay face down not moving. Next to him was a big halibut, at least a hundred pounder. The bucket was twenty feet above us, swinging wildly in the wind. One of the Mexicans talked to him in Spanish. Jorge mumbled something about his tomato farm in Mexico.

We didn't touch him. After a few minutes he sat up on his own. The halibut had glanced off the back of his hardhat and landed on his lower back. Two of the Mexicans got out of the hold and we passed Jorge up to them. They helped him to the infirmary and we finished pitching the halibut.

After the next boat, two Filipinos quit and went back to their rooms. It was very cold and the wind and sleet pounded the last boats. There were only four of us pitching. I didn't feel my toes. My hands hurt so much I could hardly grip the cod to pitch them. Nobody said anything. The pitching went very slowly. We didn't finish the last boat until after two o'clock in the morning.

01 December 2013

On Farm Raised Salmon

All Atlantic salmon are farm raised. All supermarket filets labeled "Wild Atlantic Salmon" come from fish farms. There are currently no legal commercial fisheries in the Atlantic Ocean. 90% of available salmon on the US market comes from Atlantic fish farms. Of this total, 30% come from hatcheries and the rest are raised in offshore aquacultures called “open net pens."

In order to maximize space up to a million salmon are crowded into the net pens. Crowded conditions, a diet of corn and soy pellets, and massive amounts of salmon excrement in the water necessitate the administering of antibiotics and pesticides to combat disease and parasites such as sea lice. Copper sulfate is also added to the water to control algae accumulation on the nets. Many net pens are placed in estuaries that historically are home to native wild salmon runs. Enormous amounts of feed and excrement escape the net pens, along with the pesticides and antibiotics, polluting these estuarine environments. Broken nets have led to farm raised salmon colonizing and crowding out native wild populations. To protect its wild salmon runs, Alaska has banned net pen salmon farms.

Not having an ocean diet of crustaceans, algae and other sea nutrients, means farm raised salmon contain none of the omega oils and carotenoids that function as potent anti-oxidants. These carotenoids also act as a natural pigment on salmon meat, responsible for the distinctive red and pink color. The corn soy pellet diet of farm raised salmon results in meat dull gray or light brown in color.

Focus group research conducted by pharmaceutical giant Hoffman-La Roche concluded that consumers connect deeply colored red salmon meat with higher quality, freshness and a better taste. Consumers shown salmon fillets matching the hues on the Hoffman-La Roche SalmoFan™ Color Wheel preferred Color 33 by a two-to-one margin. To replicate this color in farm raised salmon, Hoffman-La Roche has produced an astaxanthin pigment (petroleum based) which is added to the food pellets.

26 September 2013

Alaska Work Totals

Days Worked: 98
(May 22 - August 27; no days off)

Total Hours: 1120

Average of 11.4 hours/day

Max Day: 18 hours

Minimum Day: 8 hours

28 August 2013


Stories of Alaskan fish processing to appear in the coming months. 

26 August 2013

Illegal Activity

            White meat humpies (pinks)

06 August 2013

Salmon Season

                   Salmon tenders

              Metal tote of pink salmon

         A professional forklift operator

22 June 2013

Front Dock

                       Front Dock

My forklifting experience got me the opportunity on the front dock, but I did not do any forklifting for some weeks. A young man named Chris was the other new addition brought on because he came from Maine, as did Gil, the crew chief. We were brought on and in the first days we were tested. 

We were sent down into the ship holds of every boat. We went down with the team of Mexicans or Philipinos and Chris and I didn't get a break or a boat off. We were sent down into the thousands of pounds of stacked halibut and black cod and rock fish and the thousands of pounds more of ice, and we had to pitch and shovel it all out into the heavy metal totes and buckets lowered into the ship hold by crane. 

Your joints felt like they were being torn apart, your fingers and wrists ached, you got ice in your boots and your toes went numb, your back hurt from being hunched over in the tiny ship hold, but you kept pace and pitched fish into the bucket and then you broke the solid ice with a chisel and you sweated and shoveled it out. 

Gil told us after the first day to come back in the morning at 8. Another day of pitching and shoveling in the holds and we were told to come back again. Then one day we had five boats and we made seven trips down into the holds and it was after dinner, after 13 hours of brutal work that day, that just Chris and I were sent into the final ship hold, a tiny, narrow hold containing halibut mixed in with the dangerously prickly-spined red rock fish. 

There was slush and fish guts up to our knees in this hold and we had to dig down into it--unable to use a gaff hook-- feeling for the prickly rock fish, or feeling for the chin of a halibut. The work went slowly, but there was the feeling that this was to be the final test, that this day and this last ship hold would get us confirmed. 

Our raingear covered in fish guts and slime, our clothes sweated through completely underneath, our rubber gloves torn to pieces by rock fish spines, fingers and hands burning from the pricks, we had the hold cleaned out and came out after 10 pm. Nobody said anything to us. Then Gil said we were on tomorrow at 8 am. Keep coming in at 8 unless someone tells you otherwise, he said. In the first few weeks that was how it went on the front dock crew. 

10 June 2013

The Summit

photos taken from the summit of Mt Marathon

05 June 2013

Mt Marathon

Photos from my ascent nearly to the summit of the more than 3000 foot peak. Loose bedrock and unmelted snow where it became dangerously steep forced me to turn back. I feared a wrong step would lead to settling all accounts with the Lord. I could just see the Pacific Ocean beyond the last mountain pennisula. It is all good country here and unspoiled. 


Treacherous loose bedrock led me to concerns of causing a slide or avalanche

Today was a day off as no boats were scheduled to arrive and the salmon have yet to come in great numbers. Each July 4th there is a famous race up and down Mt Marathon. Jose, the Mexican security chief, described it to me as a string of colorful ants ascending the mountain. Later, at 10pm, fireworks are shot over Resurrection Bay, despite the bright sunlight of the Alaskan summer.  

(Update: it is not a day off. Salmon boat with 10,000lbs that we are going to pitch by hand at 1pm. Then a 3pm boat with halibut and black cod and rock fish. There is always work on the front dock.)

02 June 2013


The Alaskan Railroad ends in Seward. 

28 May 2013

Resurrection Bay

27 May 2013

As He Lay Dying

We had an eight o'clock boat with 15,000 pounds of halibut and 5,000 black cod and some skate mixed in. There was a lot of ice too, but not frozen solid and we did not need the chisels to break it apart. We worked down in the ship's hold tossing halibut, digging for them in the slush, dripping sweat, gripping them underneath the chin where they had been gutted, and heaving them into the large metal tote that was dropped down into the shiphold by a crane operator on the dock. The operator was one of our crew and the captain looked on and reminded us to watch the hull when we had to knock apart the ice. 

We came out a few hours later. I was drenched in sweat and I climbed back up the ladder onto the dock and took off my rain jacket and pants and gloves and cotton liners and our hard hats. My wool sweater was soaked through. We sat in the breakroom and were drinking tea and Gil, the chief, came in and said there were reds. Some boats had caught the first salmon of the season and they would be in after lunch and who wanted to go unload them. I volunteered. There wasn't any job or hours I would turn away from and I wanted to see salmon.

After lunch we put on raingear and lifejackets and descended down the ladder onto the first boat and I saw them down there in the ice-less hold flopping, silver and flopping, good sized red salmon, beautiful to look at. Everyone was looking into the hold at them. They were something to behold. The season, the madness of salmon season, was imminent. The captain looked on proudly. He knew his was the first boat to bring them in. 

We descended into the shiphold and Esteban reminded us to look among the reds for the King Salmon, that special rare fish that we were required to separate from the reds. He described the King to me, speckled back and a long silvery shining streak through its middle down the length of its body from the mouth to the tail, but I still wasn't sure I would recognize one. 

The first tote was lowered down and we were the four of us to each throw in 25 reds for 100 in total. The subsequent totes could contain any number. 

I started in digging and throwing the elegant fish into the metal tote and they were slippery and it was hard to get them by the tail and some were still struggling, still remembering they needed to get to somewhere and then to go back up the river and to mate and then to die. 

And then I found one. I knew instantly I held a King in my hands. His mouth was black and he was massive and dotted with silver and a perfect silver line down his middle to his tail that glinted in the sunlight. His gills were pumping and his eyes still bright and I held him a moment, heaving and majestic, and I held him in my hands watching him die, the great king taken from the river and the sea and diverted from where he had to go, that place he had to go without any choice, without any analysis. I held up the King Salmon to the captain and he reached down into the hold and took him from my hands. The great 10,000 year salmon run was beginning again in the Alaskan north.

21 May 2013

Getting On A Crew

The bus left Anchorage on a road that followed the bay and we were surrounded by snowcovered mountains. A white bearded man with badly bowed and arthritic knees operated the bus and he pointed out nesting swans and eagles. There were tourists heading to Seward to board a cruise ship, a long haired biker who worked in engineering at the fishery, two forest rangers and trail cutters who were dropped off at a forestry service station, and an African from the Congo and a fellow from Oklahoma who had both signed on to work as I had in the fishery. 

Sitting in front of me was a Hindu family. The wife was very unhappy with her husband. She had just overheard the Canadian couple behind them discuss the cheap price they had paid for the cruise ship and she was disgusted with her husband for paying many times that price. The Hindu woman refused him to sit with her. Their son took many pictures of the snowcovered mountains which the mother told him were not very good. 

The road traveled away from the bay and we went slowly up a steep pass and we passed by three fully loaded touring cyclists and then down, descending, back to the bay and marshland and there were the dead-looking, scraggily, gray trees I had seen outside Ushuaia, Argentina. I supposed they were trees that only grew at the ends of the earth. 

We continued through more uninhabited country through the mountains until a US Forestry Service station and we stopped to let out the forest rangers. Some time after we arrived in Seward and the harbor, where there were many smaller boats and the cruise ship awaiting the Hindus and Canadians. 

It was short ride to the fishery where the African, the fellow from Oklahoma, the long haired bike and myself were let off. A short Mexican in a cowboy hat greeted us. The biker was not a new hire. The Mexican was called Jose and he showed us our rooms inside the cargo container village. I was to share my room with the Congolese, who was called Dieudonne, or 'God Given' from the French, but said he was also named Jean-Paul but that we could call him Paul. Paul and I did rock-paper-sisscors for the bottom bunk and I defeated him. Jose told us to eat dinner and then he would take us on a short tour of the fishery. 

At dinner the Oklahoman who was called Mike but said to call him Vern explained that his wife had just left him. She stopped paying the mortgage with the money he gave her and then took the three kids to Arkansas while he was at work welding school buses. He didn't know why she left. Soon after the bank took his home because of the unpaid mortgage. Then he was arrested and beaten by the police. There wasn't anything to do then but go to Alaska. I told him it was a good plan. 

We finished eating and Jose took us through the fishery. There were a number of departments that reported to crew chiefs who wrote up the next day's workload and hours on chalkboards in the break room. Each crew chief had his framed picture hanging above his chalkboard. Because only a few boats of fish had come in and salmon season had not yet begun, there was not much work up on the boards. 

The next day two women who ran human resources and the infirmery had us sign paperwork and we received our time clock cards and were fitted for rubber boots and rubber overall pants. The rest of the uniform consisted of rubber gloves and cloth liners, a rain jacket, ear plugs, a hair net, beard net, and a hard hat and life jacket if you were working on the boats that came in with fish. The more senior of the women said that they were short forklift driver and after her presentation I approached her and explained my exerience operating all types of those machines. Indeed, I had seen out front at least a dozen small forklifts and couple of the larger models. Before I could even explain or ask to demonstrate that I could pick up quarters with the forks, she said I needed to go down and talk to Gil, who was the crew chief of the Front Dock. It was hard manual work outside on the docks throwing fish from boats and weighing them and separating them and then moving them into the cannery. Gil ran a tight crew and always found his workers hours and they were very loyal to him for it but this year due to changes in the visa laws he was short forkliftdrivers. 

I found Gil inside his office eating and he opened his window and we spoke through the window screen. He was a bald stout man from Maine and I explained my forklift experience and he said that upon taking Wednesday's mandatory forklift class that I should come see him. I said that I would and thanked him and met up with Paul back at the cargo container and we went to dinner. 

Over chicken and potatoes and a salad of greens I explained to Paul what I was starting to understand. There were a number of crews with some workers churning vats of salmon roe all day while Japanese men berated their performance in Japanese and made wild hand signals, and also more interesting crews where the work was variable. Front Dock was one such crew, but there were others. I knew I did not want to churn fish eggs while Japanese men yelled at me and fork lifting was my way to avoid it. Paul would have to find his own way, but it was hard when none of the work had really started and it had not been explained to us. What little was written on the break room chalkboard was comprehensible only to the initiated. Also crew chiefs like Gil were very careful who they added to their crews. There would no doubt be a trial period and then perhaps he might take me on. I did not know how it would go but I was becoming more certain of where I wanted to work. 

20 May 2013

In Seward

Living inside cargo containers until a June move to the tent city. 

To Seward

19 May 2013


17 May 2013

To Alaska, USA

Gear: clothing (t-shirts, 2 pants, underwear, wool socks); silk shirt base layer; wool sweater; Carhartt heavy coat; 2 sweatshirts; wool slippers; fleece headband; fleece scarf; wool cap; rain poncho; baseball cap; 20degree sleeping bag; thermarest groundpad; compressible pillow; 2 towels; flip flops; plastic silverware; cooking set; cup; bowl; camping stove; mosquito net; mosquito repellent; flashlight; alarm clock (batteries); small notebook; camping mirror; 2 5liter MSR water bags; coffee filter; lock; knife; pen; ipod; ear buds; Bluetooth rubberized keyboard; toiletries

iPod and rollup wireless keyboard replaces the netbook computer for word processing;
also functions as a free wi-fi cellphone and camera

11 May 2013

La Recoleta, otra vez

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