The Imperfect Storm: Six Weeks of Intense Labor in Alaska

A 60+ lb. king salmon: "It can bite your head off, dude."

A 60+ lb. king salmon: "It can bite your head off, dude."

Thursday, June 11, 2009: History repeats itself

So it’s really going to happen…again. In less than 100 hours I will fly to the Bristol Bay area of Alaska to work an average of 16 hours a day, for roughly two months, in a salmon processing plant. The first time I went to our largest state in order to make a bundle of money was during the summer of 2002, on the beautiful island of Sitka. I was 21-year-old college dropout with about as much common sense and developed intellect as Gary the Snail.

Monday, June 15, 2009 – Travel day/Alaskan arrival

At the airport, The New York Times headlined the on-going drama of recently re-elected Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmenidijad allegedly rigging the vote count. The vanity magazines showcased the likes of Christian Bale, Jennifer Aniston and Beyonce. My conscious certainly won’t miss the daily gamut of discouraging world news or huffy American pop culture.

I met a young man on the flight from Anchorage to King Salmon named Daniel, who later flew in what looked like an old b-11 bomber out of the King Salmon airport to his respected remote destination. The sight of one of these planes taking off into the sky sparked some sort of eerie WWII-like dejavu, for which I briefly contemplated a visit to see a hypnotist upon my lower-48 return. Judging by Daniel’s Californian patois, I didn’t flinch when he informed me of his in-flight contraband of marrywanna.

“Do you smoke herb?
“I got less than an eighth. I just put it in my pocket. Hell, they don’t X-ray that.”

We then shared a long smile when our discussion turned to imagining what it must have been like when you could smoke on a plane. He was off to some wacky sounding Alaskan fishing town (that I would have to ask him to write out on his cocktail napkin to fully understand) of Egegik. Daniel is from Sacramento and going into his 9th consecutive season. He seemed to know everybody working at the King Salmon airport, and shook my hand in wishing me well into the future. I sent him off with the same term that I seem to for everyone, no matter who or where they are in life: “Good luck.” We could all use a little bit of that from time to time.

I quickly learned that the oft-spoken verbal gesture, “good luck,” around here, assumedly refers to the immediate future, or the catching prospects for the season. The anticipation for the mother load. A rational projection seems to be three solid weeks of 16-hour shifts. For the typical plant worker, that meant anywhere from $3,000-$4,000 take-home pay.

Small-town rumors fly around these parts like they do anywhere else, of course these ones seem to be solely based around the fishing business. Some of the returning humps speak of theoretical fish patterns in regards to the season like pro football fantasy pundits making sensationalized preseason predictions: “In odd years the seasons are always good. In even years they suck.” Or “I was here last year and it was great! I worked 480 hours!” and of course, the guy who was probably held back during 1st grade but now claims he helped edit the Farmer’s Almanac assures you, “Two years on, one year off. That’s how the seasons work around here. The last two years have been good. So we’re not expecting much this year.” When I was back in Washington I was told that a newspaper report stated that the early salmon run was recording record numbers. Later on a fisherman whom I hitchhiked a ride into town from confirmed that report came from Ketchikan, AK.

I will live in a shantytown for a long six weeks. Plywood shacks. No pavement. Sand is ubiquitous. And much like the bites they dispense, the mosquitoes are the size of dimes. The male shower/bathroom trailer, in comparison to the glorified backyard storage shed in which I share with four more young male donkeys, is the highlight of the living quarters.

Yet for whatever reason, call it a jet-lagged stupor if you will, I’m not complaining about the aluminum-roof shack I live in, or its grimy parameters. I’m just describing it the best I can under a brain that by this point feels likes its deteriorated to a “Cool-Whip” like texture.

Believe it or not, my description of this place gets better. The rent is free. As are the meals, but that’s only a fraction of the silver lining itself: all four of my roommates appear to be normal, i.e., free of any drug addictions as well as no days logged in a state penitentiary. We are just a rag-tag group of regular twenty-something educated dreamers making a necessary pit stop at proletarian fantasy camp.

King Salmon, AK: there's your airport.

King Salmon, AK: there's your airport.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009 – First 24 hours

I’ve met close to 100 white male workers, all with similar names: Tom, John, Joe, Ryan or Dan. Despite having only five names to remember, I’m still having a hell of a time trying to place the appropriate name with face. I can tell my contemporaries are having the same problem. One of the Joes I met at breakfast referred to me as Bill at lunchtime. “I thought you told me Bill?” Bill or Ryan may sound alike to a Chek, but not for American Gringos like us. Since dinner, just for the sake of stimulation, I have been introducing myself as “Trout.”

Today is Wednesday, and I have worked close to two hours, none of them on the clock. Most of the charters are still getting prepped for the run and the dry dock itself-which is presently jam packed with fishing boats, but should be fully vacant by the weekend. Last night at dinner, I met some fellow humps from Pennsylvania and Florida, respectively, who joked that they needed a hand locating inventory for a few of the boats from Leader Freak’s fleet who were just hours away from bon voyage. I enjoyed their company, and I haven’t been doing anything but writing a screenplay and jotting down notes for this memoir all day anyways, so I offered assistance, further joking that I needed to add volunteer work to my resume. So for one hour, I got to do something “Alaskan,” in helping locate the appropriate bundles of netting, weighing at least 100 lbs., and wheeling them down to the loading dock.

This morning I got up and headed over to the plant’s store to round up some wet gear that includes boots, overalls and the jacket (if necessary). About 10 other men were there to do the same thing, though only 2 of them spoke English. If there is anything that America’s least populated state has in common with the most populous in the lower 48 (New York especially), is the ethnic diversity. I quickly learned that the universally comprehended English word for the foreigners is “free.” When store merchant asked if anyone wanted a pair of free used boots, we all raised our hands. When she responded with, “Who wants new boots?” Nobody insinuated. Most looked at each other in confusion and shrugged their shoulders.

Tucked into corner of campus is the mess hall, which serves three meals a day. Thusfar, the schedule goes like this: breakfast at 7 a.m., lunch at 12 p.m., dinner at 5 p.m. Each meal provides a meaty entrée, salmon, a side, soup and/or salad, bread, dessert, apple, and scoop of white rice if the mood should strike you. Coffee is always on, and surprisingly has the desired combination of strength and taste…for now, anyways.

Friday, June 19, 2009: Training Day

At 8 A.M. this morning, I was finally summoned to work. My name was put on the “fish house” list, along with a melting pot of 34 others. My immediate reaction was that of ignorance: “I guess I have to filet for the duration of the season.” Then my roommate, Chris, 21, who was also on the list and is practically a veteran worker at Leader Freak, informed me that we will be getting messy, but won’t have to use a knife. “You’ll definitely want to hang around and get the rain jacket.” Chris wanted to work in packing, but he certainly wasn’t disappointed with the alternative.

I hung around the plant for another 30 minutes, hoping someone in charge could open up the store window and sell me a jacket. The dilemma I encountered was the fact that the store didn’t officially open until 10 A.M., or when my shift began. Chris said that the Forman would understand. My response was, “Yeah, but I don’t want to be the Dumb Dick who is asking for favors within the first five minutes of the first shift.”

Speaking of Dumb Dicks, my entertaining yet overly eccentric roommate Joey, 19, was put on the fish house cleaning crew list. That shift was to begin at 6 A.M. Friday morning. Unsurprisingly, Joey didn’t get the memo. Being aloof, or “young and stupid,” had a lot to do with it. Rumor has it that he was put on cleaning crew because he pissed off our neighbor, a Filipino, who happens to be a fish house forman himself. Our neighbor (and boss), Ernesto, had been whooping it up in the room directly behind ours, presumably with his fellow natives. The noise was not an issue, as our shanty, surprisingly, is not light on the insulation. Cigarette smoke, however, gets Joey pumped up like Hitler Youth at a Nazi rally. I seriously believe that if he had his way, he would embark on a variation of genocide movement that would wipe out all cigarette smokers. Joey and Ernesto got into a shouting match, in which most of the dialogue was repeated (fuck, shit, off, piece of) and very little of it made much sense. Joey clearly let his “anti-cigarette” agenda and emotions get the best of him. In the end, he was assigned to perhaps the most rotten and thankless of duties with an employer that specializes in a smorgasbord of them: fish head, tail and gut off the floor cleaner.

As I retire for today’s installment, which I am writing on the second floor of the mess hall (which is open for our use around the clock), I couldn’t help but notice some of the music the Polak behind me has been playing on his computer: The Beach Boys, David Hasselhoff, and Seal.
I thoroughly enjoy talking to foreigners. What I find somewhat ironic, when attempting to communicate on a casual level with Euros and Eurasians, more specifically, the Russians, is that the latter is far more extroverted and folksy. The Latins, on the other hand, stick to each other like grains of wet sand.

Saturday, June 20, 2009: Fear and Loathing without Internet

Work is still stuck in second gear at best. In the fish house we processed around 21k pounds of salmon yesterday, which equates to three hours of work. My shift today begins at 1 p.m., and we’re expecting the status quo in terms of salmon weight today.

This is a great time to express my mild frustrations, or put the lack of technology in Alaska into perspective. Though I don’t keep up with the modern day tech vortex that most Americans my age do, I am an email guy. Right now I have a job status pending with CBS Sports online, as well as an application response from Sundance’s Screenwriters Workshop. I am supposed to learn of my fate by email or phone call any day. The Internet here hasn’t worked for days. Cell phones are as hard to come by around here as a two-piece bathing suit in Iran. At dinnertime, A 36-inch flat panel television was hung up in the mess hall. Watching the drudges try to configure this thing was probably comparable to the day Cro-Magnon accidentally discovered fire. A nearby Bristol Bay newspaper reporter came by to document the arrival and setup of the first county’s first flat panel TV.

“It’s an historic day,” the reporter said to my roommate.

Leader Freak’s hired tech guy, Terry, in his mid-fifties from Beaverton, Oregon, responds with, “We were going to use this screen to keep the workers informed during meal times. However, we’re using the webpage to display the news and the server is down. The router needs a new part. The problem is there’s no Radio Shack of any kind from here until Anchorage.”

And any leftover ambiguity to the Internet problem was answered right there.

With Father’s Day being tomorrow, and my sister’s birthday being today, I decided to take advantage of having what could be my last morning off by giving them both a call. I scrounged up three calling cards in the states before I left. My father gave me one that originally had 600 minutes, but presently only had 11. I chatted with my folks, and before I even got a chance to say “Happy Father’s Day,” the automated voice came on to tell me I had one minute left. I told them I would call them right back by using another calling card. The next card I got out was from Walgreen’s and it told me that I was punching in an invalid pin number. I must have carefully reattempted the 5-step process five times before I decided that I wasn’t doing anything wrong. The next and last calling card’s automated voice informed me that the number I was dialing was “temporarily out of service.”

Chris recalled what he did when this happened last season, “The library in town has great wireless. It was a Sunday and the library was closed, so I just sat outside on the deck and still got through that way.”

About the only version of technology working right now is cable television, as I am doing my best to write this post and keep up with the 109th U.S. Open, in Bethpage, New York. Other than Mike Weir and David Duval, the leader board, including the current No. 1 himself, is full of no-names. The Open is running a round behind because of a rainout on the first day. From one multimillionaire to another, Al Roker was just giving Bob Costas an update on the upcoming weather patterns for Long Island in the next 48 hours. Since some of the foreigners are in here doing their usual bit of high volume chatting (not to mention a group of Colombian youngsters getting their kicks from Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me”) I couldn’t hear what Roker was saying but the Doppler appeared to show continuous patterns of large developments of green for screen cloud movements.

The view from my room: A view of the ocean at no extra cost!

The shot from my room: Gotta be one of the only rent free ocean views in America!

Sunday, June 21, 2009: Daily Bulletin, “The Spot” in The Fish House

All over campus, Leader Freak posts a daily bulletin of events, which includes fishing news, weather forecast (more often cloudy if not raining, high in the mid 50’s, overnight lows in the 40’s), and police blotter.

Here’s what Saturday’s newsletter looked like:

Egegik district continues to fish, and we expect other fishing districts to open soon. Within a few days the entire Bristol Bay fleet will be in the water and ready to go. We anticipate a steady increase in fish from here on, so please get your rest! We are working on shift and department schedules, and will post revised rosters each morning at breakfast. We have yet to decide on tomorrows production schedule so keep checking the white board for the latest.

There are an estimated 400 drudges at Leader Freak this season. And while we are all here for the same purpose, a surge to our bank accounts in a short period of time, everyone gets the opportunity to distinguish or express his or herself via a Sharpee to the back of the rain jacket. And there are some messages that never fail to have you look twice, sometimes even stare at. The previously mentioned Russian college student, and English major, Nail, wrote, “The Rainman” across the back, and followed that with fine print that read, “That’s my name.”

It has us Americans laughing, presumably at him, including myself. However, there’s a part of me that loves Nail’s audacity. If I were to put myself in his shoes, or with the same job opportunity only in his country, I would simply write, “McCord” across the back. I knew I wanted to draw some sort of simple caricature, and since the color of my rain jacket is the standard yellow, I did my best to duplicate the “Chico’s Bail Bonds” advertisement once displayed by once popular 70’s fictional little league team, “The Bad News Bears.”

Thus far, however, with my adopted and assumedly permanent position in the Fish House, wearing my rain jacket could in fact prove to be too much clothing. The last two days, in which we worked an average of only four hours, it has been my responsibility to keep the totes full of salmon iced, sealed, and in position for the for lift to take away. The responsibility requires very little standing idly. In other words, it is a great workout; you could even call it cardiovascular. No part of the body should ever be cold. You are constantly moving and thinking ahead. I am a patient person in all aspects of life with one exception: at work.

The No. 1 priority is making sure you always have at least one tote full of ice ready to be thrown into the production line at any time. Meanwhile, I have to be monitoring the “action” tote, where the fish are plunging into off the belt. A foreigner will typically stand near the tote full of ice, adjacent to the “action” tote, and simply shovel a layer of ice shavings (which is made up of 100% saltwater) at the bottom, and eventually, the middle and top. Once the fish fill up the “action” tote, they are transferred elsewhere. While all this is happening, two more totes are being filled with ice by the suspended ice machine and its large open chute. So if you’re coming to work in a fishery for a season in hopes of honing your beat boxing skills while on the clock (or in my case, draw up the foundation for a new screenplay), don’t volunteer to be the Fish House Ice Drudge.

I came to Leader Freak weighing in at around 210.* At the rate I am going now, even before the season has officially started, it is safe to say I should leave here under two bills easy.

*On July 22 I weighed in at 180 lbs., courtesy of the baggage scale at the King Salmon airport.

Monday, June 22, 2009: The Plot Thickens?

Tonight’s dinner consisted of baked salmon, pork, au gratin potatoes, green beans, a roll, and a telltale update on the whiteboard, where most of the up-to-date working information is posted:

Breakfast: 5:30 A.M.
Fish House: 6:00
Fillet: 6:30
Roe: 6:30
Packing: 10:00

I don’t know this for sure, but if I had to bet money on it, I would say that The Run is near. By starting work at 6 A.M., they must anticipate more salmon than we can handle in a 24-hour span. Today we processed roughly 98,000 lbs. of salmon, which made it completely through the fish house in five hours.

I sent my mom an email the other day, Leader Freak’s address included, with mornings (or the possibility of inconvenient meal times) in mind. It’s not that I favor dismissing breakfast like most Americans; I actually prefer the most important meal of the day over the others. It’s just that I would rather fuel myself at the butt crack of dawn with a simple Clif Bar and a cup of joe, conveniently bypassing the Leader Freak morning mess hall hustle in the process. When lunch comes calling, then I’ll consider scarfing down a meal.

Most probably cannot understand where all this talk of skipping meals comes from, but I assure you, if my metabolism could talk, it would apologize to me all the time. It is just freakishly slow, and I owe it all to genetics.

Back to more important matters at hand: The Run. The stamped, sealed, delivered sign that we are just hours away from being neck deep in salmon came when my roommate John and I took a walk down to the Leader Freak Marina to pick up our laundry. As we passed through the dry dock, which must have had close to 100 fishing boats a week ago, was nearly empty. You had a better chance of seeing a tumbleweed roll through there than a skipper scrambling for last minute boating staples.

Yesterday, the trusty Leader Freak bulletin (and I stress the word “trusty” because the information given throughout the week has exercised substance and accuracy) presents the final clue that The Run is finally near:

The Tender Egegik Spirit from Egegik with 114,000 pounds onboard began offloading at 10:00 AM this morning. Another opening is in progress in the district and we have 20 boats fishing.

It’s important that I check my email at least once every 48 hours. With a high probability of The Run coming any day now, I decided to take advantage of what could be my last afternoon off by hitchhiking into the town library.

After about 200 yards of walking and sticking my thumb out, a red headed, middle-aged woman in a “Johnson’s Diesel” company pickup truck pulled over and cleared the passenger seat. Lori asked me which boat I was with, in which I told her I was working for the fishery.

She promptly replied, “You mean they hired Americans this year?”
“Yes, but I assure you that we are still in the vast minority,” I replied.

Lori was on her way to NAPA Auto Parts to pick up a starter. I carried what must have been a small but heavy, rectangular shaped box out to the pickup, thanked her and walked the last half-mile to the library, which was closed. But just like Chris assured me, I was able to pickup the “Martin Monsen Library” wireless party, password free, and check my email from a nearby picnic table.

As I was winding down my Internet session (with the left side of my conscience teasing with the idea of exploring the local bar scene in hopes of finding a large bottle of Alaskan Amber to take home for a nightcap turned solid night’s sleep) a coed group of four Leader Freak foreigners arrived with web surfing intentions as well. One of the white males, with an Eurasian accent, in English expressed the concern for his safety in the work area to his Colombian friends: “You saw that idiot on the forklift almost hit me!”

A look at Naknek: from midtown to uptown.

A look at Naknek: from midtown to uptown.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009: The Working Primer & Writing Primary

The onset of three week, 16-hour shift monster whirlpool is definitely less than 12 hours away.

Fish House will begin tomorrow at 6 A.M. once again, which means I will be out of bed, dressed and out of the shanty by no less than 5:40 to give breakfast a peak. The Clif Bar and coffee combination for breakfast proved to be enough fuel for the rigors of my 2,000-pound tote shifting/ice shoveling responsibilities.

By working eight hours for the first time since I’ve been here, it proved to be an excellent primer for what to expect when life becomes a living hell. The combination of leaning into the giant totes in order to spread the fish throughout evenly, shoveling the ice, and steering the pallet jack has combined to cause both of my wrists to become very sore to the extent that I look physically disabled when I try to put my backpack on. Three of my fingernails are beginning to become ingrown, and my reasoning for that is pointed to the fact that we wear a set of cloth gloves underneath our rubber ones combined with seemingly endless movement.

Some of the guys have been suggesting the idea of “pacing yourself” for the duration of the16 hour shift, but endurance wise, I have truly never felt better. I don’t get physically exhausted, but I do get sore in particular areas (thankfully not the back) and I definitely have sensitive skin, hence the hangnail.

Just to give you an example of my endurance being in tip-top shape, I managed to walk close to six miles, to and fro into town once again, immediately following today’s eight-hour shift.

Yes, I am a little top eyelid heavy now though.

And that brings me to my final concern for this installment: writing quality, or effort in general. I really don’t mean to write about this experience like its comparable to boot camp or anything, but this is as far as I ever expect to simultaneously put my mind and body to the test (unless, of course, I have a teenage girl someday). If I want to break through as a professional writer, I just have to hypothesize that any kind of writing job after this will only be child’s play. But is it even possible to write anything but gibberish for evenings upon end (because presumably I will continue to write these installments before I hit the hey), when all my mental facilities have been stuck on autopilot during the workday? Part of the reason why I like walking to and fro town is because it gives me a chance to clear my head of cobwebs, or hit the reset button, if you will. Is there an emergency switch, a spare tire, a match to light a candle for my metaphoric dim noggin at God knows what time in the morning it will be? Will I have to resort to cigs and coffee? It’s challenging enough keeping this memoir interesting on a sharp mind, though I am proud of having written nearly 5,000 words on the subject before the other shoe is about to fall.

This has breakthrough challenge written all over it: a new path towards inner realms of consciousness, and a real injection of self-esteem for a writer.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The clock will soon strike midnight on my first 16-hour day. My final duty of this long day was to stick around and help clean the machinery that makes up the fish house. The main engine hub itself is running on its 100th year. With catwalks surrounding the structure of what must be comprised of hundreds of thousands of pounds of overall iron metal, it has Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader battle scene written all over it. As complicated as it was to put together for Scott, the head mechanic, it’s even that much tougher to clean. Brush, spray, brush, spray, sanitize, squeegee, etc. Sure we are all here to log in as many hours for a generous paycheck as possible, but nobody volunteers to stick around and help clean the behemoth.

During production time, I have been fortunate enough to hang on to my spot on the end of the line; catching nearly 2,000 lbs. of fish in totes and pallet-jacking them off to the forklift drivers. The main reason why I have been able to keep this important responsibility is due to the fact that I can operate and maneuver a pallet jack with the best of them. I have given others a chance to do the same, but the needle always seems to get bumped off the record player immediately afterwards. The best way I can describe watching someone unskillfully try to operate a pallet jack is this: twister and bumper cars under a Jagermeister spell. I saw intelligent a variety of otherwise intelligent men simply expose a lack of grace and simple awareness of what is going on around them. This not only proves to work as a disservice to the production itself, but compromises the safety of everyone around them and irritates the shit out of even the world’s friendliest forklift drivers.

“Ryan you got to get on that early morning shift man. That’s when I work,” said David, a Filipino forklift dynamo, probably in his late thirties. “You do good work.”

While randomly blurting out God-knows-what in his home language, Filipino (now I know which language the Ewoks spoke), followed by chuckles and a endless horn routine; beep…beep, beep…beep, David arguably has the most essential job in the plant. A swift, speedy, accurate forklift driver must be just that, for hours upon end, during production in a plant producing MASS quantities of salmon. With totes being loaded and dumped all over the plant, these guys must get in and out of the metaphorical tote skyscrapers without running into anything or anybody. If you matched up David in his forklift and a witch with her broom in a giant cornfield maze race, I just may take the former.

The first 16er is in, as well as the first post following such a day.

Friday, June 26, 2009 – Eww, that smell

Now that four out of the five young men are working 16 hour shifts in a fishery, our room smells like a combination of a homeless guy, a senior citizen’s breath, a wet dog, gravy (which probably has something to do with my roommate Joe taking a full-time shift in the kitchen), and $7.50 an hour.

That’s right, somehow we avoided smelling like fish all together, and per hour we are barely making more than the federal minimum wage. When you come here, working just an eight-hour day is unsatisfactory. It will irk you. The only way you are going to come away with an acceptable amount of scrill is if you work just as many hours of overtime as you do regular. The ideal work week is 112 hours. If that can be managed, then you are putting yourself in the best possible situation to earn.

As for my situation at work, it happened to return back to form. As compared to yesterday, it turned out to be a complete 180. I made it back to running the totes for the forklift drivers for good. My supervisor told me to make sure I stay there no matter what. My roommate John said I was lucky, and I guess he’s partially correct, because its hard to stick out in assembly line plant work where everyone is dressed the same. But you don’t get your way in this world by being lucky all the time; you have to persist at working your ass off-doing a little extra. Everyday I show up early or work through breaks, I always make a point of staying busy, and I have developed a good rapport with the forklift drivers and supervisors.

When I showed up on time today, David the forklift driver was talking to one of the supervisors saying, “We want Ryan.”

The supervisor then put me on tote duty permanently.

Saturday, June 27

At 4:50 a.m., when my supervisor told me it was time for members of my shift (referred to as “B”) to clock out and be back at 2 p.m. the next day, I felt instant nirvana. See I can’t remember the last time I wanted to be in bed so badly, even if it was Styrofoam mattress 1 ½ inches thick lying on top of a plywood frame.

It was just one of those shifts where I swear I saw the big hand on the clock slowly moving in the opposite direction at times.

Even my roommate Joey, who gets the Light Bulb Changer Award for carrying the easiest job in the plant, taxiing empty totes from one section of the building to the other (with a pallet jack mind you), exclaimed, “Man that was a long shift!”

I replied, “I imagine we’ll just get used to it.”

And we will. This will take some endurance testing, no doubt about it. Once we get over the hump, the initial burn, then we’ll be like professional athletes who specialize in 16 hour work shifts (with coffee, cookies, and cigs posing as our version of performance enhancers). You could actually compare us to professional football players, albeit loosely; because we undoubtedly compromise our physical health and put our sanity to the test for the sole purpose of making what us humps refer to as “a lot of money.”

Sunday, June 28

When you work as many hours in a day as I have been, and your routine is nothing short of tedious, you have no choice but to get some thinking done.

“Freedom” is one of the words that I would use to best describe the state of my life (upon my departure, of course). Everyone talks about what they are going to do with their money once they get done here, and up until yesterday, I was half set on the idea of moving to Los Angeles in order to give my writing career the jolt it needed. But then all that aforementioned freebase thinking time took over.

It has always been my dream to live and become a sports reporter in New York. That is why I went to school in proximity to the Big Apple, and I love what that metropolis has to offer. I decided yesterday that I’m not ready to give up on my dreams. I want to take advantage of my freedom, while I’m still in my twenties, and play my hand. It’s time. The window of opportunity has opened for possibly this one period in particular in my life. That kicks ass.

LA just doesn’t have the same ring to me as New York does. What most attracts me about New York is my theory that it is a better place for a poor person to live. For instance: public transportation. The idea of spending an average of 2-4 hours commuting in my car about LA traffic is preposterous to me. I’m the kind of person who could go the rest of his life without a car. I love to walk, and I love to ride a train. Advantage, overwhelmingly: New York.

Tuesday, June 30

My wake up time of 1 p.m. is starting to come faster than you can say, “salmon chowder.” When I finally am able to pull my upper torso erect off the “mattress,” I notice that my calves have an ingrained marking from my boot lining, as a ring of leg hair is now missing. The next meal time is not until dinner is served at 5 p.m., so ibuprofen and coffee will have to sit in as my stop gap meal until Mom sends more Clif bars.

I will turn 29 at the strike of midnight. What will I do to celebrate? Tell my supervisor that I will not be staying after the shift is over to cleanup like I usually do. Happy birthday to me.

As far as my daily entries are concerned, it’s not a matter of will, or mind over matter, rather than plain old mental capability. When I hit the bed, I am out before I even get a chance to search for the computer, a pen, or a notepad.

Here is what today’s “Leader Creek Letter” had to say:

Fish News Update:
As of today we have processed over 3.5 million pounds of fish. That is a record for this point in the season! On a normal year we would just be passing 1 million pounds around now.* Indications from False Pass (located southwest of the panhandle) strongly suggest that more fish are on the way. There is no end to the fish in sight so keep getting as much rest as you can, take your vitamins, stay hydrated, and stretch.

There is a heat wave coming! Today’s forecast calls for sunny skies, light winds from the South, and a high of 71F. Tomorrow is supposed to be even hotter, with a high of around 74F.

Bear Report:
Tracks have been reported on the beach and near the dock of the LCF marina area. Be aware. “Hey bear!”

The “Sweet 116”** program is now in effect. If certain production targets are met during the day you will earn extended breaks, and if the total fish processed for the day exceeds 116,000 fish then you will receive a $16 bonus for the day. BUT, remember this; if you are late for work more than twice during the season then you will be ineligible for the $16 per day part of the bonus program. We want everyone to earn bonuses so please make a great effort to get to work on time.

*My theory on why we were able to set the production record at the plant has nothing to do with “The Run” and the amount of weight IT carried through the ocean and into the fisherman’s nets. By applying cutting edge techniques to production, the plant actually churns out Too Many fish in a compressed period of time. This, of course is the ideal business model for the owner, yet disheartening for the donkeys. We were already assured to get his scraps, now we are subjected to bread crust. I was told before I got here that Leader Freak was the Taj Mahal of Alaskan production plants. I found out that my source was referring to the level of sophistication applied in order to get a full salmon from the boat to a fillet in the freezer. Leader Creek incorporated a thoroughly designed strategy using customized machinery that runs close to perfection (when you consider the plant itself is running at 24 hours for close to two weeks at a time). The intricacies behind this plant’s daily production-from the omnipresent upper level management, their technicians, and the aforementioned industrial layout they monitor is the fuel to the well-oiled machine that is Leader Creek.

**In order to keep track of the magic number of 116,000, LCF used some sort of computerized device that counted every head cut off in the fish house. I ended up earning somewhere in between $150-$160 worth of bonus money (we were granted a partial bonus day), which theoretically covered my store tab ($50 for rain gear, $16 on cigarettes), and then some.

What a resume in remote parts of Alaska look like.

What a resume in remote parts of Alaska look like.

Wednesday, July 1

Now that we’re in July, or the belly of the beast, I’m beginning the countdown right now: 20 days left. Any time after that, I consider house money. Everyone I ask that’s an expert up here explains that three weeks straight of the status quo is considered a good season. Presently, there are rumors of record numbers. Yesterday, a couple of tenders brought in well over 200,000 lbs. of salmon (including one tender that currently owns the season high of close to 248,000 lbs.). Just to give you an idea of how much fish that is; it took us close to ¾ of an entire day to process. When tenders are bringing in that much fish, Leader Freak has to put tenders on standby or send them elsewhere.

Friday, July 3

It took me a little over 30 minutes to get out of bed. I guess it’s my body’s way of getting back at me for putting it through the equivalency of a marathon runner’s training program for five straight days. Once the body’s wheels are in motion, however, I found out that: a.) I am not too old to do this, and b.) the body can deceive you in the morning.

If I can get through a week of this punishment, then I can certainly make it three more weeks. They say if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. I’m beginning to think that making it in The Big Apple will pose as small potatoes compared to this. People have been catching ammonias, spraining ankles, tearing or spraining knee parts, enduring the stomach/vomit flu. My roommate Joe (who works in the kitchen), had to stay home 24 hours because he caught pink eye. And of course, due to being in a 40 degree, carbon monoxide laced indoor environment all the time, everyone feels like they have the common cold.

The arrival of VLOGS and You Tube resumes in Alaska are right around the corner.

The arrival of VLOGS and You Tube resumes in Alaska are right around the corner.

Sunday, July 5

My back hurts. My neck hurts. My hands hurt. My wrists and fingers hurt. My feet throb. My hair feels like sage grass. My eyebrows would probably flinch in pain if I touched them. At this point I’m willing to do just about anything to help dull the pain. I’ve managed to find a way to listen to my MP3 player during work without getting caught. I run the headphone cord down my back and insert the MP3 itself into an inner pouch pocket on my fleece vest. I obstruct any potential supervisor view of the ear buds with a cap covered hair net topped by the hood of my rain jacket. It takes a little while to get used to but I’d rather be listening to pop artists like Michael Jackson and Gwen Stefani than the hideous symphony known as the Leader Freak Industrial Philharmonic.

And while I’m in the middle of listening to Jackson’s, “Beat It” while shoveling ice, it hit me: Michael Jackson is dead.

Tuesday, July 7

The word is now officially out: The end of the 16 hour shifts is in our sights.
I’m getting sick of the food. I’m 29 years old taking orders from 21 year olds who couldn’t manage a McDonald’s.
I will get to see my family after all. Reassuring, uplifting, yet still exhausted.

Thursday, July 9
The peak of the season is expected to descend within the next 5 days. Supervisors are getting their rosters out already in order to begin the process in which they need to eliminate 2/3 of their respective departmental work force.
I think about what I want to do, or what I look forward to when I get out of this, random things: a pro football season preview mag, how will Chris Collinsworth in his replacing of Madden? A football season w/out Madden and Favre? David Beckham returns to LA; why soccer will not be a hit in our country-ever. Not a drop of alcohol and craving homemade Pina Coladas. Thinking about the good life back home should be kept to a minimum, however. It seems to be time’s kryptonite. With two days left until I leave, that still means two days of work.

Friday, July 10
First cuts are made, this means the season was once again lackluster, and of course, people are freakin’.
I’m hoping to make it until July 25th, but I’m still keeping my fingers crossed

Here’s what the Leader Freak Daily had to say (which is now receiving Page Six like attention).

Fish News Update
We will have processed over 9 million pounds by end of day, and we should surpass the 10 million pound mark this weekend. Fishing has dropped off across the bay, but remains respectable. Deliveries of 200 to 300 thousand pounds per tide (12 hour period) are expected over the next few days. We will remain on twenty-four hour status until daily poundage totals drop below (and stay below) 400,000 lbs. Fish House and Packing staffs are being reduced accordingly. The first flight out is scheduled for today. We do not anticipate any more flights until we come off 24-hour status. At that time the work force will drop by 1/3rd as we go from three shifts to two shifts. More on that later.
I know that news of this first flight was sudden. It is the nature of this industry that downsizing the crew can happen suddenly. All we can say at this point is that the season is going to come to an end, and all employees will leave here in the next three weeks. So, be ready to go…because you are going.


Saturday, July 11
I dreamt that the year was 2020, and aliens ran our country’s law enforcement. We civilians only had one issue with this, surprisingly enough, but that one issue happened to be the recent enactment and return of prohibition. I was at a Christmas Eve party hosted by my parents, and my Mom decided “The Hell with it!” and brought out some wine, in which she proceeded to drop on the floor. Wine went everywhere, and somehow the alien police knew immediately because the sirens went off and the party turned into mayhem as the door was being pounded on. My reaction was, “This is unconstitutional!” I wasn’t going to exercise any patience so I hopped the backyard deck, then the fence and into the neighbor’s yard where a rottweiler greeted me with a clamping jaw to the arm. All the while the police are hot on my trail. Finally, I was able to kick the dog away and hop into the neighbor’s front yard and lost the police in a nearby private golf course. All night long, I waited in some bushes and hitchhiked my way back into town so I could call home to see if any aliens were waiting for me to return. My mom confirmed discreetly that I shouldn’t come home yet. As I was on the payphone at a local Albertson’s, I came across an old high school friend. I asked her if she wanted to go catch up at a speak easy. So we did and the dream ended in the bar. In reality, given my current situation, I didn’t react to this vivid dream as a nightmare.

Wednesday, July 15
I made the team. Worker load is now down to one crew and one crew only in the fish house. I will be departing for good a week from today. Not enough pay in exchange for the toll it took on my body. It was strangely good for the mind. People say it will never make them complain when they go back home.

Fish House foreman, Ernesto, thought I was European the whole season. I guess kissing ass Will get you further in life-even in a donkey/hump world.

Everyone is discussing their own ware and tare. Mine is a case of fatigued forearm that has spread to my entire right hand. I’m no doctor, nor did I stay at a Holiday Inn last night, but common logic suggests that this will not get better unless I get rest, which will not be for another week.

Everyone speculates when the season will end: don’t listen to anybody. I went to the office to ask about when I should purchase my ticket home. They said between the 22nd and the 25th. Within 24 hours I had a flight back home on the 22nd, thank you very much.

July 18
We processed just over 100,000 lbs. of salmon today. The boatyard is once again full. Although none of the big wigs at Leader Freak will say it; there just isn’t enough salmon in the area to keep this place running longer than a week*.

*Every donkey was in fact sent home no later than July 26.

Today’s Leader Creek Letter had something unusual to report:

Police Blotter
A group of LARPists was allegedly seen (and heard) creating a disturbance in the Leader Creak Marina boat yard last night. An office was dispatched to the scene but he found only a silver spray painted winter glove. HMMMMM. Alcohol was not believed to be involved, however, the remnants of a Mountain Dew 12-pack were found.

July 20 – Payday
We get two checks here. One that pays us for our work through the 15th of July, and the other from the 16th through our last minute of labor as well as a $600 traveling stipend. The former will be handed out this afternoon, and I’m not so sure I even want to pick it up. When you think about it, it can only do harm, rather than any good to hold on to a check for any longer than you need to. I’m supposed to get paid my second check on my departure day, Wednesday. Therefore, the suspense hanging over the undetermined amount of money I will make here will have to be stretched out another 24 hours or so. At this point, with 50,000 lbs. of fish to produce (or two hours of work), I’ll take any form of entertainment that doesn’t include walking to the library.

At 3:45 p.m., when the supervisors told us there were no more fish, I darted from my spot in production to the dressing room exit like a Black Friday-shopper heads into a Best Buy. It just occurred to me that I didn’t even punch out. I could hear someone in charge yelling, “Everyone clean up!” Yeah, like I’m going to spend my very last hour on the clock being sprayed in the face at least four times by an overly assertive (or just annoying) Ukranian, who in reality never provided one iota of elbow grease or extra effort of any kind the entire season. If there is one stereotype that I will happily squash from this whole experience, it is the worldwide notion that Americans are lazy. Fine, yes, we have more white trash than you can shake a stick at. But I’ll put our working class donkeys up against an combined world All-Star team any day of the week. During this season at Leader Freak, Americans demonstrated an unmatched ability to multitask as well as show a willingness to get our fingers dirty. We had no qualms with fish guts or getting soaking wet in order to get through the grind. What I was even more surprised at was how well we kept our composure under the most stressful of times. We never complained, nor did we treat our contemporaries like robots. The aforementioned Ukranian not only played with the hose too much, but was also the defacto spokesman for all broken-English speaking Euros in the fish house; and he had about as much charisma/likeability as a pile of toenail clippings. The Russians could match the Americans in work effort, but they show no effort to practice hygiene of any kind. Just how seriously could you really take a man with brown teeth?

After arriving back to my shanty, I sat down on one of the tall, swivel bar chairs they provided us and emptied out my pockets. I don’t carry a wallet, because one of my quirks is that I dislike having anything in my pockets. That’s probably why I have always been dismissive towards the idea of possessing a cell phone. Anyways, I was curious to see how much money I had left; and $37 dollars managed to avoid a cashier of any kind for over a month. Then I looked through my cards: driver’s license, debit card (which expires in August), credit card (which needs to be paid in full and cut to shreds), two phone cards that provided as much quality service as a motor vehicle representative, a Pita Pit card that promises me one free pita, my AAA card, my hair cutter’s card, and a Starbucks gift card-which if I remember correctly has just enough left for a grande sized drip coffee. Ahhh, I’m picturing myself scanning a USA Today sports page, the comics section to follow, alongside a strong coffee buzz in the morning at Sea Tac. Throw in a draft beer, a cute sugar cookie dolly for company; and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate a touchdown return to the lower 48.