Alaskan Canneries & Alt-Weeklies Revisited

High Plains Reader, September 7, 1995

Dreaming of Dead Fish

Diary of a mad fish butcher in Alaska

Every generation has its strange assortment of jobs providing young people a break from college or a hiatus from joining the workforce — get-out-of-town vacations which allow twenty-somethings some travel and the ability to meet new people. We all knew that girl who, after graduating from high school, went straight to the east coast to become a nanny for some rich family. Or the guy who, after getting his B.F.A. in ceramics, went to Japan to teach English for a while. Or, the worst of the lot, the person who went to Alaska to work on a fish boat or fish cannery.


There are no roads. This is the first thing I notice.

Barracks at Pederson Point.


Upon getting up, I notice I have gained a roommate. He explains to me that he has been hired on with special duties; he is the Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). With a laugh, he tells me that his job is to pick up people’s truncated fingers from the floor and stitch them back on with a rusty rusty needle. I crawl out of the room to find some breakfast.


They’re not kidding about this “Land of the Midnight Sun” stuff. The sky is illuminated for about 20 hours a day during summer months and dark the equivalent during winter months. Alaska has the highest suicide rate in the union probably due to the winter darkness. The weather, though, has been beautiful, 80° F and sunny every day.


They have hired about 150 processors. Everyone is divided into three different shifts, working 16 hours on and 8 hours off. My shift is to get up at 4:30 a.m., work until 8:30 p.m., sleep my 8 hours (actually 6½ after food and shower), and get up again at 4:30 a.m. When you get off, more people come on to take your place so that the plant can run 24 hours a day. The work isn’t particularly difficult, just endless and tiresome. It’s basically like doing assembly-line work — or is disassembly line work? The difficulty lies in your hands cramping and your extreme fatigue.


The fishing veterans are already starting to intimidate us with their war stories. They go something like this: “Keep away from that machine. A girl lost a finger in that last year.” Or “Watch out for the dock. A guy fell the dock last year.” Or my favorite, “A guy bent over to pick something up here, and his ponytail got caught in this gear. It ripped all his hair off. Took half his scalp with too.”


I’ve been moved from the “slime line” over to the “case-up” department. Here I basically weigh fish and put them in boxes for 16 hours a day. I’ve developed a means to help pass the time called the “Question of the Day.” After inventing one question, I walk around asking it to 40-or-so fellow employees.

  • “In a second”
  • “Can I spend it on drugs?”
  • “That’s sick.”
  • “Am I working here at the time?”


The only variable that keeps me from packing up and heading home are the stimulating people. I’ve met such a strange variety of people that it almost seems worthwhile. Most are stalled in some part of their college education, filling the interval with traveling. Some have worked out a formula of where to make money fast and where to go to spend it on good drugs even faster, so their travel itinerary looks something like Anchorage (for fishing) to Amsterdam (for drugs) to France (for picking grapes) to New Zealand (for lounging on the beach). Oddly, about 1 out of every 4 persons here is a vegetarian. I ask one vegetarian girl how she deals with her obvious ethical dilemmas working here. She scoffs and says, “You think vegetarianism is my only ethical dilemma here? How about the atrocities against my feminism? Or my feelings about capitalism that are so exploited here? Just about any political stand I have is subverted here.”

  • “Drugs.”
  • “School.”
  • “Drugs.”
  • “Drugs.”
  • “School.”
  • “Buy books and CDs”
  • “Drugs.”


It’s scary how many people here either have or are working on a liberal arts degree. Some even have their Master’s Degree. A few are very strange people.


Today is the 4th of July. It isn’t exactly Independence Day though; it’s probably the worst day of work so far. The owner of the factory — a multi-millionaire business man from Japan — made a visit to the plant today. I hadn’t really known how “important” this particular man was until he strolled through the plant today with a phalanx of camera-wielding Japanese men thrusting their Sony video recorders like spears. Apparently, our employer is also the owner of the Seattle Mariners and owns a great share in the stock of Nintendo. He made his first money in the fish industry, and since moved into the more post-industrial world of entertainment. His major accomplishment is making Money magazine’s 500 richest people list.

DAY 10

The Japanese businessmen returned today. We were prepared this time.

  • a) 0 people
  • b) 2 people
  • c) 32 people

DAY 11

Everyone’s starting to get a bit deranged. For fear of this diary sounding a bit like Flowers for Algernon, I won’t describe how insane I’m getting.

DAY 12

The factory runs so efficiently, like a well-oiled perpetual motion machine. Our goal, really, is to get as much sushi to Japan as soon as possible. It’s strange to consider the plant only running for about one month out the year, and then lying idle and empty for the rest of the year. We go so fast — butchering salmon, stuffing them into boxes, sending thousands of pounds of them out to a waiting barge.

DAY 13

We discovered today that the inspectors felt that our plant was in such disgusting shape that they’d leave and give us a second chance in a few days. Rumors say that if they would have fined the plant for all its infractions, the factory would have been shut down.

Thaddeus on duty.

DAY 14

The rumor is that someone over in butchering freaked out today and pulled a knife on a foreman. He was out on the next plane.

DAY 15

I walked the aisles of the company story tonight looking for anything to buy. I think I’ve been raised a capitalist so long that to go for a few weeks without buying a single thing started to make me irritable. These $800 checks are piling up in my room. After work tonight, I found myself staring at them, trying to figure out the meaning of these pieces of paper I’ve been working my ass off for. They seem to make no sense.

DAY 16

The fish are finally starting to slow down. This gives us spare time, a commodity we’re not quite sure how to deal with.

DAY 17

We only work a 12 hour shift today, the first shift less than 16. I had so much extra time that I didn’t know what to do with myself. Books didn’t make sense; the ocean became boring to stare at. So we went to town and picked up some off-sale Budweiser, $32 a case. No wonder they tell you to make your money and get out of Alaska.

DAY 18

Today was my last day of work. The plane leaves tomorrow. I spent the evening wandering the tundra; saw a few caribou, a whale spout in the and a black bear. But of everything I’ve seen so far, it was the tundra that created in me the most awe. I had always thought tundra was like frozen gravel or something, when in fact it is three feet of viny plants intertwined across the landscape. If you attempted digging through the plants, you could burrow a very long time. Walking on it, though, is the most amazing sensations. It’s like pouncing on a gigantic trampoline. I’d swear that if that tiny plane on which I flew in would have crashed, we would have bounced right back up into the sky.



creative technologist, author, entrepreneur, designer, consultant

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