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Monday, July 30, 2012

Pt. 3--From Up Here You Can See

Water so cold it gave you frostbite
My second season on Kodiak was just as adventure-fraught as the first, although I knew a little more what I was in for.

We flew out to Uyak this time in the guts of a huge military chopper. Despite the earphones, I was nearly deaf by the time the helicopter landed on the beach, and the view was of the side of the chopper as there were no windows. But I loved every minute of it, except for the possibility of other people puking in the hold.

I landed with all my own luggage this time--a backpack and my guitar. I ran up to the bunkhouse hoping my friends from UW would be there, but almost none of the same girls were there. I was libera
Uyak from the mountain
lly bummed, but soon made friends with the newbies.

The cannery was under new leadership. The new owner was much harder to get along with. His wife was in quality control and was often grumpy. I'm not absolutely positive of the reason, but it might have been the frequency of the practical jokes we were always playing on every QC person who came through. We'd leave fish guts on their scale, or fish eyeballs, or heads. We had too much time to come up with endless iterations on the theme. Also, everyone who came through our
Lady QC
section got pelted liberally with the little ends of the fish (the section next to the tail). Come on, you can't have a bunch of teenagers doing a deadly boring job for 14-16 hours a day, seven days a week and escape their otherwise active imaginations.

This time there was plenty of work as the fishermen were no longer on strike. So it meant almost non-stop bludgeoningly hard work. I also volunteered for clean-up detail to make extra money. That meant that I dragged into the bunkhouse in the small hours of the night, exhausted, stinky, and totally soaked. My pictures from this year mostly involved people sleeping on the dock during fifteen minute breaks, or playing jump rope with boat ropes.

At first, the clean-up detail included my friend (and totally hot crush) Chris. We had a blast in more ways than one. Clean-up involved spraying down the cannery and all the machinery with fire hoses and then steamers. We figured out that if we aimed our hoses through the fish chutes on the slime line, the stream went down, hit the lower conveyor belt, and bounced back up through the chute on the opposite side of the slime line. We'd lay in wait until someone went past the chute, and then let them have it in the face. That's why I was never dry when I went to bed. It was a major water fight every night.

Loads of Filipinos worked there and were on clean-up detail. One of them, a guy named Baby (his real name), would sit up on top of the fish elevator and snipe with his hose. The rest of us tried our best to knock him off, but he never let loose. He was whip-fast with a knife too. The Filipinos would sharpen the rounded slime line knives into a point and keep them strapped to their legs with homemade sheaths. They'd pull them on us at the least provocation. Baby was no exception. We had to be very careful how much we teased him.

Chris ended up getting fish poisoning (It's a condition in which fish gurry gets into a cut or opening in the skin. It can be extremely painful and at times a deadly botulin.) and had to go back to the Lower Forty-eight. I was sad to see him go. We'd had a blast together. His replacement was a girl whose name escapes me because I disliked her immensely, both for replacing Chris and for being such a barf. She'd get livid if she got the least bit wet. Then she'd go tell on everybody so that soon clean-up detail was a joy-less chore.

(My fisherman friend from the Cross Sound, Bill Day, also got fish poisoning. His was a much worse case and he ended up having to go home to Maine, never to fish again. I missed his sunny smile.)

The steamer wand from clean-up detail came in handy for more than clean-up. Our fishermen would go out and get crabs and we'd steam them in the sink and go out on the dock and eat loads of those things in one sitting, tossing the shells in the water. It ruined me for the pitiful seafood we get down here in the Lower Forty-eight.

Aussie Clive on the slime line
The new owner noticed that when our line went down, I'd get to the machine to un-muck it faster than the machinist. "Cut it out,"he said "Since we pay the machinist a heck of a lot more than we paid you."
I told him "You should hire me because I'm faster at it. I'd love getting $50 an hour more."
The owner decided that instead of volunteering to go where we wanted, we had to go to the slime line and gut fish every time the line went down. It was decidedly less fun to be forced to gut fish instead of taking a nap, reading, talking to the cute can catchers, or talking to our friends in other parts of the cannery. It's not like he wasn't getting his money's worth out of us.

Clark the Machinist
Clark the Machinist (he took care of the chink machine--it put the lids onto the cans) was also trying to quit smoking. I gleefully told him I'd help him out. So Clark was always finding his cigarettes dipped in machine grease, fish guts, or water. He'd come past the table and see a fish head with one of his cigs in its mouth. I think the topper came not from me, but from a seagull.

One day when we were outside, Clark was smoking and a seagull pooped all over his head and cigarette. The look on his face was priceless!
"See. Not even the gulls want you to smoke those things," I told him.
He did end up quitting. The onslaught was simply too much for him.

Going to the egg room
The Japanese dudes from the egg room would have parties to which they invited the egg room girls. I was usually on clean-up detail so I rarely got to go. But one day it worked out, so I went. Those guys were completely loony! They'd make these stews containing all kinds of crazy stuff I'd never like to eat again: roe, star fish, bull heads (ugly fish), any other fish they could catch, and the crowning disgusting bit--the male equivalent of roe. Those sacs usually went out to the bay with the rest of the chum, but those Japanese guys consumed them! I never again ate anything they cooked.

"Injun" in the skiff
Sometimes the Cross Sound guys (Injun in particular) would go hunting. The deer were little and sometimes Bill and Injun could rig it where they would roll right down the hill and into the boat. At least that's how they told it. All I know is that we'd have parties on one of the islands out in the bay and delicious venison was one featured part of the feast. Those parties were kind of fun, although they also featured all kinds of liquor and pot--none of which I ever imbibed in. There were times when I was the designated captain just by virtue of being the only non-wasted person there.

This was a questing time for me. I wanted to question everything I knew and make certain I knew it, not just my parents. I studied extensively on my infrequent off time, and had plenty of time to think about what I knew and how. It made me certain of who I was and why I was doing what I did. I realized that the experiences I was having there in Alaska would be much of what would keep me sane when I was wading through babies and dirty diapers. How prophetic!

A union organizer came to camp to unionize all the fishermen and cannery workers. I didn't want to unionize. Most people didn't. But we found out later that we probably wouldn't get to come back unless we did. I figured I'd rather find work down home than be told by a whole new bunch of guys what to do. I understand that the question was moot a year or two later, but the Exxon Valdez trashed the fishing fields and Uyak cannery went belly up.


They got a little plane to ship us out at the end of the season called a Goose. It's almost like a Harrier in that it only needed about fifteen feet of beach in which to take off. I was the only girl with nine guys (they had been drinking at the end-of-the-season party the night before), so the pilot designated me his co-pilot. I was over the moon happy about that! I sat there as we took off, the cannery growing small behind us.

View from the Goose
As I was reading the little plaques on the control panel, I noticed that one of them featured information about a bad engine.
I tugged on the pilot's shirt and asked, both curious and a little worried, "What's this about a bad engine?"
"Oh it just goes off mid-flight sometimes," the pilot announced cavalierly.
I don't know why I wasn't petrified, but I wasn't. The pilot was obviously used to it and capable. But something goblin-like got into me and I turned around and told the guys. One of them was African-American and turned a livid green and began puking all over the plane. I've never seen that color on a person before. That was it for the others. Barf flew everywhere. I was greatly glad to be up front where none of the chunks nor their stench reached.

We had to wait several hours for our plane to pull in to Kodiak airport, so we took a hike up the nearby river. The salmon were spawning and the guys nearly went nuts pelting the poor ragged fish with rocks. The river was thick with bits of flesh and skeins of eggs. The bears were out in cohorts, batting the salmon onto the bank or straight into their mouths. I wasn't about to get close enough for a good picture and I was out of film.

I was waiting near the baggage carrel at SeaTac Airport for my luggage to come down the chute, rightfully worried about my guitar. But when my pack came down, it was proceeded by all my underwear and other clothing from the main part of my pack. Thanks, baggage guys. I hope you wet your pants giggling. I waited until every other snickering person was gone before claiming my panties. There are no photos of this part...;o)

Me in Alaska
I loved that time in my life. It was difficult and petrifying and exhausting both in body and spirit, but it was also the greatest explosion of self-awareness and testimony in my life. I was free and the vistas of possibility spread out at my feet. I reveled in my strengths and worked on my flaws. I recommend all my children do something like this (or a mission) before they hunker down into adult life.

5 comments:

  1. Funny how it's hard to convince our kids about how wonderful (and trying) those real life experiences can be.

    Hope you find the scanner disk soon.

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  2. What an amazing experience. We loved going to Alaska but a vacation there can not possibly compare to your experience.

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  3. It was one of the most explosive growing experiences of my life and I wouldn't have traded it despite the back-breaking work, gritty boredom, stench, lack of church, and homesickness. Thanks for coming on this journey with me!

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  4. What a cutie! Love the scenery. Not the much the yucky fish stuff. lol

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  5. It's annoying that none of the really exciting stuff got documented pictorially. For one thing, I was too busy running from bears to take THEIR pictures, and often didn't have my camera around. There were others with cameras, but I haven't talked to any of them since leaving the cannery. I don't think Tracy even has Kodiak pictures.

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