28 May 2013
27 May 2013
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
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
19 May 2013
17 May 2013
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