by Casey Sanchez

MAY THE GREAT ALASKAN ADVENTURE CONTINUE! Gear Up! It's time to start lining up your summer job in Alaska. As it is every year, it will be exciting, adventurous and extremely lucrative.

A hundred bodies spill out of the factory door for their mid-morning break. Pulling down the tops of their yellow plastic overalls, they pull out cigarettes and pass around lighters. Laughs and curses boil up from the crowd. Middle-aged Filipino men talk among themselves. Burly Alaskans stare blankly into the street as a teenager peels fish slime off her rain slicker. A man with a video camera approaches.

Announcing that he is making a documentary on cannery workers and seafood processors, he approaches Dan, an 18-year-old ponytailed kid from Denver. The documentary producer asks Dan whether, before he left the "lower 48," he had any questions about "seafood processing" in Alaska. With the reckless aplomb of an adolescent, Dan rattles off an answer.

"Yes, sir, I had three questions. First, could I get high? Second, were there any girls? Third, would I be making money?"

The goateed director has shut his camera off.

"I can't record these comments. This is an official documentary."

Unmoved, Dan replies.

"Man, then you'll never understand what it's all about.

Every year, some 20,000 people make the trek from the lower 48 to Alaska. What attracts them is money, not gleaned from high wages but dearly earned through overtime pay in a seven-days-a-week, dawn-till-way-past-dusk industry. Twice the size of Texas and only slightly more populated than Wyoming, Alaska requires the manpower of several thousand imported workers to fill its canneries, boats, and seafood processors that are spread over more than 6,000 miles of coastline.

Most journey to the chain of islands in southeastern Alaska that border British Columbia. Many are college students seeking to make a year's tuition in a summer. Some are ex-convicts looking for well-paid work that winks at background checks. A substantial number are migrant workers, such as the Filipino nationals whose families have been coming to work in Alaska since World War II. Mexican immigrants are an increasing presence, many doing rotational migration between the spring strawberry fields of California and the autumn apple harvests of Washington.

Neither an immigrant nor an ex-convict, I was a college student who needed rent money. I went to high school in Portland and I had inherited the urban myth of Alaska as a frontier land where the fish jump onto the boat, a walk-on worker earns a thousand dollars a week, pot buds only grow the size of quarters, the sun never sets, and all the summer itinerants live in makeshift villages feasting on salmon and berries. It was under this magnetic compass-pull of easy money and adventure that I left my home and set forth from Bellingham for Ketchikan, "Salmon Capital of the World."

A Hard Day's Day

After a 36-hour trip from Bellingham to Ketchikan, I stumbled off the Alaska state ferry at a very foggy 7:00 in the morning. I found a job within four hours of landing. In fact, at $7.25 an hour, I had picked up work at the seafood processor paying the highest wages in town. I calculated my overtime ($10.80/hour) and estimated my hours at 100 per week. In my pre-tax daydream, I grossed a thousand dollars weekly. In my reverie, a season's bonus would round out this Indian-summer harvest, yielding my first ever five-digit salary. Like so many who go north, I thought nothing of FICA and even less of living expenses. I had not dreamed of five-dollar gallons of milk, of 30-dollar pizzas and 10-dollar six-packs of generic beer.

As a newcomer, I would spend my first days at work on the "slime line," a cut-and-toss fish disassembly operation, so derided that status in the cannery is measured by the physical distance of your job from the slime line. At its beginning, totes of iced salmon are forklifted off the boats and propped up on top of the entry chutes. Using a plastic snow shovel, the "fish pusher" jostles the fish loose from their packing ice and shoves the salmon down the chute for entry into the "header"--an automated guillotine used to decapitate fish. Until the recent addition of hand guards at my cannery, the header was rumored to take one thumb from one worker each season. Oddly enough, it is a somewhat coveted position, particularly among the fresh-faced 18-year-olds who viciously compete to curry the floor boss' favor for a chance to operate the machine.

A team of three people will slit the bellies of the fish with knives, likely incurring a repetitive strain injury before the season's close. Next, using a serrated spoon called a "spife," workers scoop out the innards and pick out the valuable egg sacs from female salmon for the caviar department. Finally, any remaining blood is scrubbed off by washtank workers, a job held by new employees or by "delinquent" ones undergoing punishment. Washtank workers are at the bottom of the factory food chain, exposed to near-freezing, bloody water that can cause bacterial poisoning. While workers wear thick rubber gloves for protection, gloves quickly crack under the stress of nearly constant use. New ones must be paid for or old ones stomached. Depending on what catch the boats bring in for the day, workers may spend 12 to 18 hours a day engaged in such work under the watchful eyes of roving factory bosses.

Food & Lodging

After a job "interview" that consisted of proving I was an American citizen, I bought plastic overalls and gloves against the gains of my first paycheck. The cannery's bunkhouse was full, so I would be staying at a private inn that the cannery had contracted out for worker housing. I was thrilled. It would cost only six dollars a night. It was even listed in the Alaska guide published by Lonely Planet, a travel series known for its recommendations of bare-bones accommodations for budget travelers. ("The Rain Forest Inn is located at 2311 Hemlock St. 0.7 miles from the ferry terminal and half a block from the bus stop on the corner of Tongass Ave. and Jefferson St. Head to the hostel if you can, this place is, at best, rundown.")

I shared a room barely big enough to contain its contents: six bunk beds, 12 men, and a refrigerator. A couple living in a rented double down the hall worked in the cannery, along with the four women workers who lived in a room downstairs. The cannery provided no meals. I competed with 17 other workers for lunchtime range-space on the stove to boil my brick of ramen. It was a 10-minute walk to the factory. I worked 15-hour days, seven days a week. I stand 5'6", and my normal weight is 132 pounds. By the end of the season, my pants would be held up with a utility rope and I wouldn't be able to bring myself to set foot on a scale.

Some workers spurn cannery housing altogether and opt for camping in "tent cities." Makeshift villages of cannery workers, these tent cities are nomadic groupings of tents, tarps, crates, lean-tos, and even converted buses. Some villages flaunt a communal lifestyle, with salmon bakes and drinking parties. The drawbacks, though, are immediate. Personal property is easily stolen. Living outside means most things you own, including the clothes on your back, are always damp. A tent villager labors in the cannery as does any other worker. Thus tent cities invite the Alaskan version of the question about whether the glass is half full or half empty: Is it worse to wake up in a tent and slog 15 hours in a cannery, or to work 15 hours in a cannery and then collapse in a tent?

Doing Time on the Line

Work as a fish processor is nasty, brutish, and long. For the lucky storage worker, the day may be broken up by pushing totes, moving 1,000-pound carts of fish. For the workers condemned to spend a season on the slime line, there is no respite. Eighteen hours a day, standing still, cleaning fish. They become inured to the sight of blood and discarded fish heads, fins, guts, the clack of the header sending decapitated fish bodies down the line. Workers learn to ignore the physical agony of this repetitive work, the pain of their swelled wrists, trembling hands, and aching backs.

Keith Sweet flew up from Arizona to work at Silver Lining Seafoods in Ketchikan. After his first day at work, a 20-hour stretch of pulling fish off a chest-high table with a shovel, Sweet was in so much pain that he could not lie down. "I finally just let all my muscles go limp and fell down on the bed." His breakfasts consisted of Heath bars and multiple packets of generic painkillers. "That was the only reason I started eating before I went to work. I would eat one of the candy bars in the morning so I wouldn't have an upset stomach from the pills."

Whether killing pain or killing time, drug use is disarmingly casual, blurring the distinction between over-the-counter drugs and under-the-dock stimulants. The most prevalent prescription for beginning the workday right is the "superman" combo to combat fatigue and nurse hangovers: two capsules of No-Doz and two puffs off a shared joint. Repeat as necessary. Though recreational drugs may mask or amplify bodily states, they are of little use in passing the time. Inside the factory time marches on like an insane drum major. Workers attempt conversation to whittle away their shift. Yet talking while working is often an effort as arduous as the labor itself. In the heady din of the factory, conversation is a series of shouts and gesticulations.

So one blankly sings along with the piped-in music. Yet like a table scrap flung to appease hunger, it only whets the appetite. The track list repeats daily, so without even looking at a clock or watch (tucked under long-sleeve gloves), workers know every minute of the day. Shania Twain at 10:30, Cher around 2:00. Looks like we made it. Do you believe in life after love, after love, after love?

The Girl from North Country

Men outnumber women. This is an Alaskan fact of life that the summer rush of cannery workers does little to alleviate. The disproportionate number of men who head north each summer only mimics the larger social imbalance they will find when they get there. In daytime, the cold water that spills over fish washtanks may lap the boots of a Berkeley undergrad and a California felon alike. But when they return to the bunkhouse at night, they both return to disheveled rooms that smell of men.

Like the T-shirt sold in the more downscale bars and tourist booths that reads "DOWN SOUTH, YOU'D BE UGLY," men in Alaska tend to be cynical about women. By the end of my first week, several workers had already let me know about the female employee who would relieve you of workplace stress for a day's wages. Any get-together with drink and smoke is quickly and summarily tagged as one of the following: "party with girls" or the self-explanatory "sausage party."

The first Alaskan man who ever bemoaned the dearth of women to me tossed in this caveat: "Not like it matters much. Half of them are dykes anyway." This was said without malice, accompanied by the rote grimace that all the men use when discussing the losing spread of men to women. It was unclear whether the women he was referring to were indeed lesbians, or simply branded so because they preferred not to date men who live in locker rooms. I never asked.

What I then passed off as an undercurrent of misogyny I now understand as a backhanded compliment, a way of showing respect to women capable of thriving in Alaska, with or without men. Once a week or so, a pair of half-American/half-Japanese sisters would dock their crabbing boat behind the cannery to unload their catch. Men pushing carts and toting clipboards would linger longer around the deck to glimpse these women. It was never enough to call these women "cute" or "hot." Instead, they were "tough as hell." They were in fact crab fishers, which regularly appears on top-10 lists of the world's most dangerous jobs.

Frat Row Meets Cannery Row

Falling asleep becomes a chore. To close your eyes is to see only the cannery, the endless procession of salmon through chutes, salmon down conveyor belts, salmon floating in washtanks. Against this mechanization, you take up some rather human vices: drinking, smoking, and bullshitting.

Partying took place whenever and wherever it could. Almost more interesting than what went on at these makeshift parties was who attended. Father-and-son pairs from Oregon rolled joints for the assembled guests. Peace Corps teachers pissed out the window alongside ex-cons. Fresh-faced girls from Southern California flirted with burly Alaskan men. Born-again Christian teetotalers from Anchorage talked with Kansas teens taking turns on a beer bong. It sounds like a Budweiser commercial, but it was the dire conditions of cannery life, not a desire to share a good time, that brought these different people together.

These "celebrations" often took place in the same room I slept in, so I would usually attend them all. Sometimes these ragtag fiestas could get ugly. Packs of cigarettes and bottles of beer were misplaced. Money disappeared.

At one party, I heard a man shout, "I'm not a thief!" Another yelled, "You're a fucking liar!"

The first man went to the kitchen and returned with a butcher knife.

An old man stood and broke the silence. "Man we have to deal with this shit all goddamn day long in the cannery. Don't bring this shit in here. Don't bring it."

The first angry man grunted and slammed the knife down on top of the refrigerator. As it turns out, he had served two years in an Alaska penitentiary before he went to work in the canneries. The peacemaker who talked him down? He'd served six in Arizona.

What I Learned in Alaska

You had yourself a crazy lover/become unfrozen trying hard to forget her/you got a job up in Alaska/it's easy to save what the cannery pays/'cause their ain't no way to spend it/on the arctic blast.

--"Grey Ice Water," Modest Mouse

Modest Mouse's frontman, Isaac Brock, knows why people like me go to Alaska. "The money's just a justification," he told me. "To most people who do it, it doesn't sound all that bad of an idea to be stuck out on a boat in the middle of nowhere for a whole summer."

He makes it sound like poverty tourism. Perhaps it is.

What singles out workers at Alaskan canneries is that as temporary and makeshift as their environs may be, these sundry assortments of people must work and live together. This is no utopian conceit. If my experience is any indicator, "living together" in such cramped quarters may simply mean doing the least damage to one another. But getting to see a place so equalizing in its despair, so egalitarian in grouping different kinds of people together, is reason enough to head north.

Would I go back? Barring a severe recession, it is unlikely that I could work up the gumption. But do I recommend it? I'll say this: Four years later, I keep a residual pride in having tested my physical limits operating day after grueling day on scant sleep and a meager diet. I have a little better understanding of what it means to be a migrant laborer, an ex-convict, an Alaskan, and a college student. The money is long gone and though my right shoulder still pains on rainy days, my body has now recovered. What I have left is a tale to tell. Or as another veteran of the slime line put it, "It was fucked-up--it fucked me up, but it made me more interesting."

An expanded version of this essay is available in the new anthology The Clear Cut Future, available now from Clear Cut Press.

Support The Stranger