Page the Second


A fronte praecipitium a tergo lupi. (In front of you, a precipice. Behind you, wolves.)

Friday, July 27, 2012

Pt. 2--My Green Alaska

Home sweet cannery--Uyak Bay
I left you standing on the beach at Uyak Bay cannery. The waves are gently nudging the sea plane closer to the pebbled shore. On my first full day in Uyak we were having a fantastic time diving off the boat. I lost a contact and there was no way to find it in the icy, deep water. I had to go blind until my mom finally sent me another pair. The night I got my new set, I lost another contact, this time in a can of salmon. I was so bummed that I wouldn't be able to see well for the whole rest of the season. I should have taken a pair of glasses. Hindsight.

Queens of the cannery
I was in a bunkhouse with about nine girls. The odds for a college girl were fantastic as there were some ninety guys. Many of them were from the UW rowing crew, which means some pretty steamin' muscles, I tell you. They would spend breaks jumping rope on the dock for strength training. Ah the shows. Ah the drooling.

The cannery ran thusly: First the fish were unloaded from the boats and then went by elevators to huge holding tanks and then to a machine which slit the fish down the middle and cut the head, fins, and tail off. Then the fish went by conveyor belt down the gut line, where people took over when the machine failed (often). They removed the blood line and fins still attached, emptied out the guts, and sent the eggs or male equivalent to baskets which went to the egg room.
Egg room Sue

Once all the viscera was removed, the fish went into a hopper which fed to another conveyor belt (important for later). That belt led to the elevator which led to the can machine where it was crammed into cans.

Next came the patch line (my bailiwick) where those cans not full enough were filled with ground fish. We cut protruding bones, inspected cans for dents or cuts, and re-filled them if they were too full. All of this at the rate of three cans per second, about fourteen hours a day, seven days a week.
The can line--next, the ovens

Then the cans went into the lidder to get lids and get sealed, then they went to the can catchers to be put into big metal trays, and then into the giant ovens to be cooked.

The view from the patch line
After that, the beach gang came and picked up the stacks of steaming can trays and forklifted them to a stack in the warehouse.

Katy and I in our gear
We had to wear full rain gear in there as there
were guts and water everywhere. The cannery stank of fish at first. After our noses overloaded the stench got bearable. And after a while we stopped wearing all the gear, except on days when it was storming or snowing. Then the cannery was icy and despite two pairs of gloves, our fingers ached with cold.

Gearing up
There was a grumpy girl named Jenny on the patch line who always insisted on wearing the full gear, despite it not being fashionable. I have to admit that fish guts often appeared as if by magic on the back of her coat. I suppose if I were wearing a full load of fish guts on my coat, I'd b
e grumpy too. I can still smell the stench of the gurry.

Mug-up (break) on the dock
At first I took every chance for a break. Often the lidder got bunged up when we missed a bad can. The machinist had to come un-muck it and we'd get a welcome reprieve. I was reading Philip Jose Farmer's book To Your Scattered Bodies Go (a book someone had left in my room at the boarding house), which provided me with hours of speculation.
Jumping with the rowing crew

I also read scriptures. But when my book ran out, I started going down to gut fish (five in a minute was my average) or fixing the machine. I got so I could un-muck the machine before the machinist even got out of his little room.

Sunday on the dock
As the long lines of cans snaked past my eyes, I went on trips in my head, sang all the songs I knew the words to, or made up silly operas and sang them at the top of my lungs. No one could hear me, after all. They'd look up and see me laughing my head off at my own dorky opera and wonder why I was cracking up.

The Cross Sound's skiff I painted
View from "Cannery Mtn"
That first year we didn't have much to can. The fishermen were on strike until late in the season. I worked to find anything at all to do extra. I re-painted the shopping carts for the store. I painted and fiberglassed the skiff of my favorite fishing boat. I wanted to get on the beach gang because they always had work, but they only allowed guys on there.
So there was plenty of spare time that season.

Waiting for mail
Kevin, my climbing buddy
I went climbing in the mountains in back of the cannery. One of those stories is here. We also went out on the fishing boats sometimes, when they were staying close. When the fishing is on, they stay out for sometimes three months at a time and only drop fish to a tender boat like the Mitrofania. Sometimes, though, something would break and they'd come to Uyak for parts. Or to see girls. Or to walk on dry land. Or to eat in our fantastic mess hall. Or to see a doctor for fish poisoning.

The Cross Sound and Bill
My favorite trips out were fishing trips. One time we went exploring islands. We found one out in the bay and decided to land. I was digging around on the beach and found a whole bank of clams. We were hungry, so we decided to eat some. We had nothing to cook the clams in until someone suggested the battery casing from the skiff. I can't believe how good those clams tasted just cooked in sea water.

Lobster traps
As we were sitting there moaning about being full as ticks, we started hearing a crashing sound in the brush. One of the guys grabbed the battery casing with his shirt and we took off down the beach for the boat. I looked back and saw a large Kodiak bear coming down the beach for us. We scrambled out to where we'd left the boat and realized it was now afloat several yards from shore since the tide had come in. We all dove in and swam for the boat. I don't think we could have gotten the casing back on the battery any faster. Luckily the bear turned back to go check out our fire and the litter of clam shells.
View of the mtn from Uyak Cannery

Another day (the day after we fiberglassed the skiff) my friend Bill Day (a fisherman from the boa
t I liked) and I took the skiff out to test it. I had his rod and had caught a cod I was proud of. Bill said, "That's not a fish. Give me that." And he hacked my gorgeous cod in half and threaded it onto the largest dang hook I'd ever seen, called a jig hook, which was attached to a rope.
"What the heck are we going to catch with that?" I asked, worried suddenly.
Bill just smiled and said, "You'll see."
We rowed to a set of pilings some hundred yards out in the bay. "Throw the hook over," Bill said as he tied the boat to the pilings. Just as he was tying the rope to the hook off on the boat, I felt a mighty jerk on the rope. "Here we go," Bill said like he was getting ready to jolt down the log ride at Disneyland.
Before halibut--after, too busy
Actually the next few minutes were very like that log ride. The little skiff plunged and bucked as the halibut fought to free itself. That flat monster was as big as the whole skiff! I could see it was only hooked in the lip. "Let me bang it on the head with an oar!" I screamed, knowing it was about to swamp the boat.
"No. It'll wear itself out and we can haul it in."
I wasn't nearly as sanguine about Bill's sanity when, after we'd finally hauled that sucker into the boat and slit its throat, it was still flipping blood all over half an hour later.

We had to row clear back against the current with a flapping huge fish only lightly tied to the boat, which was rocking like the gondola on a ferris wheel. I was really glad I could swim well, though I knew the water was snow melt and utterly frigid and a swim clear back to the boat wouldn't be anything I'd like to try for long. I tell you what, though, that halibut tasted like manna from Heaven! That night we had halibut, venison, clams, lobster, baked potatoes, and salad. It was all I could do to roll my chuggy body off that boat and back to the bunkhouse.

There was a tiny sauna there at the cannery. I suppose it allowed us to sweat out the stench of fish some. I didn't use it much because the fishermen would often go in there buck naked. On occasion we girls would clear the naked ones out and go in. After getting pink-hot, we'd go dive off the dock into the bay. No pictures of naked fishermen here...:o)

One time I'd dove deeper in than I'd gone before. As I was coming up, I saw a shadow as big as a large canoe. I thought it looked funny for a canoe and we didn't have one. Then it tipped a little and I saw its dorsal fin. It was about a fifteen foot shark! I was out of that water fa
ster than I went in! Everybody on the dock laughed at me, saying it was a salmon shark. They only eat salmon.
"Right," I said. "What's to stop it from thinking my arm's a salmon?" I never swam around the dock area again. Too much chum--fish guts and junk--goes into the water there. After that I only snorkeled and dove off the boats or from the islands in the bay.

I had never understood how full the Alaskan water is of marine life. It teemed with fish. We'd buy a little spool of line and a hook and tie a rock on it and just toss the line into the bay. Before the hook had hit the bottom, there was usually something on it. Often it was only an ugly old bullhead, but sometimes there was something else. The snorkeling was great. I'd stay in there almost long enough to get hypothermia looking at wildlife.

There were clear jelly fish by the tons. They were the bane of the fishermen's lives. The guys would try everything they could think of to stop the stings from getting them. Every time they winched up a catch, the nematocysts rained down, stinging everywhere they touched. I helped with
a couple of loads and it was distinctly unpleasant. We had to wear full rain gear, a ski mask, goggles, and Vaseline on every other exposed spot. One time when we were snorkeling, I wasn't watching well enough and my heel came in contact with a jelly. My heel was numb for three months!

About a month into my stay at Uyak, I got a much-forwarded letter from my mom asking where the heck I was. Luckily, I sent my reply along with a can of hickory-smoked red salmon. The smoker out back of the cannery got a good workout. I opened one of those cans of smoked salmon the night I got engaged to my ex and shared it with a couple of friends from Alaska. Good stuff, Maynard!

Egg room kings
The cannery's real money-making venture were the boxes of salmon roe. A 3 1/2 x 8 x 16 box of prime roe brought in about $350 from the Japanese at that time, and we had stacks and stacks of them. The girls in the egg room would take the roe out of its 100% salt solution bath after twenty minutes, pack it between layers of salt, and nail on the lid, all to the harrying of the Japanese egg room bosses. "Too full! Too full!" or "Not enough salt!" or "Go faster!" I was really glad not to be in the egg room, although there you didn't have to wear earplugs.

Sakura Maru--fetching the eggs
The day the ship Sakura Maru came to get the egg boxes was a big day. The massive ship snugged its bulk into the dock, where it towered above the gawkers. The beach gang worked like ants to bring the stacks of boxes wrapped in cellophane out to the dock to be loaded. We could hear nothing but the drone of the forklifts and the yelling of the Japanese crewmen as the flats lifted into the air.

Sealand Barge
The other big excitement was the day the Sealand barge came. It contained 100 semi-shells, which we filled with the pallets of canned salmon. That thing was even more massive than the Sakura Maru. The beach gang worked like crazy trying to load the semis quickly. At one point the two forklifts had a giant CRASH, throwing dented cans of salmon all over the warehouse. The cannery boss yelled so loudly we could hear it clear out on the dock. I was glad at that time I wasn't in the beach gang, although the guys on there were too hot to believe.

The end of the season party is a huge blow-out. The cannery boss buys enough cans of beer to fill two huge hoppers. I begged him for a few cans of root beer and in his customary warped sense of humor, he put four of those cans of soda somewhere in the hoppers of beer. After hunting for well over an hour, I finally gave up and went off to find out if I could get a ride to town.

I was hoping to get work on a fishing boat for the herring season, so I didn't want to wait during the stormy season for a questionable plane trip back to town. I finally got a ride on the Mitrofania, a tender. Just as we were about to leave port, four other girls decided to ship out too. I was relieved that I wouldn't have to sleep with my knife, but the girls were all completely snockered.
Mitrofania--a tender

That night we had waves as tall as one-story houses. The other girls, after the initial wave from the boat side, went straight to bed after barfing several times each. I, on the other hand, was booze-free and jonesing for excitement. I went out to the bow and it was just like riding the Ghostrider roller coaster at Knottsberry Farm. We rode up on the tip, then plunged down into the trough, with a roll to the side tossed in. I was covered in spray and loving it. One of the crew fetched me inside after a while, though. He told me the crew were all worried I'd fall off the boat. Chickens. We didn't stop pitching until late that night when we stopped at Larsen Bay. By morning the water was glassy and calm.

I never did find a boat willing to take a girl on, although I was strong, used to fishing, a fair cook, and great with a knife. Back then there was still some superstition about women on boats. I ended up going back down to the Lower Forty Eight and home.

I didn't tell my parents when I was coming home; I just walked in the door. They all yelled because they didn't recognize the smelly girl with the wild hair still wearing muck boots and a Kodiak hoody. It took me a few minutes to convince them it was me, not a hippy off the street. I suppose I deserved that.
The mountain from the cannery--how I miss it


  1. Good thing you were all young and could run from that bear. SCARY!

  2. So what's the story about the guy with the air conditioned work clothes. Apron and boxers. ROFL

  3. Jay was the brakeman and salter. It was his job to make sure the machine was adding salt and to stop the conveyor belt if he saw something wrong.
    We all did wacky things out of sheer boredom. On this particular day he was protesting pants. I believe those were his swimming trunks. Poor Jay was often in on our fish-end lobbing, but a little more paranoid than we patchers were.
    I usually wore two sweatshirts instead of the slicker. Slickers didn't help much anyway, except on days when it was snowing.