My thoughts have l turned to Alaska lately. I spent a summer on a fish processing boat in Prince William Sound.
It was after my first year of college and was the first time I’d been away from home by myself. It scared me in a way.
I only vaguely knew what to expect and I didn’t know a single person there.
I remember taking a bus ride through the mountains to Seward from Anchorage.
The natural beauty was amazing. Forests and mountains, unpeopled and seemingly unspoiled.
At Seward, the mountains were steep, tall, and came almost right down to the waterfront. We rode a tugboat to the barge.
Slowly chugging northeast, we sailed between the forested cracks of the mountains that had been carved by glaciers.
Arriving on board, the 7 or so of us that joined at that time were issued new shiny yellow sou’westers and told to write our names in them.
We arrived during a slack time, and the processing floor was deserted. The other worker’s uniforms hung from hooks all in a row.
All were soiled and most had graffiti drawn on them. We were told not to draw on ours.
When my first shift started, I found that someone had taken my new uniform. I waited until there were only the dirtiest left and chose one.
It stank of rotting fish and sweat. I didn’t know where to go and ended up on the slime line in the third position of four.
I scraped the blood from the spine after position two gutted the salmon, over and over. My hands began to ache.
I quickly learned you could shift positions if you hustled onto the floor quickly.
Position one slit the fish from the anus to between the operculums. Position four did clean-up from what two and three missed.
We worked standing at stainless steel tables, four on each side. There were built-in gutters on the edges that water ran through.
Spilt guts were put into the troughs and washed down to a vat. Japanese ladies extracted the roe and hand-packed them into wooden boxes.
The fish were slid down to a washing station, where they were placed upright on metal hooks and run through a washer like a car wash.
They would then slide down to be packed into waxed cardboard boxes that sat on scales.
Each box had to be between a certain weight and the fish had to be packed in alternating head/tail fashion to maximize space.
Arranging wet, almost frozen fish into waxed boxes and hitting the weight zone was extraordinarily challenging for me.
I tried not to do that too much.
My bunk was shorter than me, showers were restricted due to water rationing, and there wasn’t much to do if you weren’t eating or sleeping
When the season ended, we were towed back to Seward. With nothing to do, we sat topside during the day.
Bald eagles swooped and hunted, sea otters watched us pass, and the beauty of that world slid slowly by.
Back in Seattle, I kept in touch with a few folks for a while afterwards, but I drifted off from the group I went up with.
The experience felt like a dream and that wraith of me had gone in my stead.
I didn’t know how to connect to the flesh and blood who had accompanied me.
My transition journey has been similar.
Beauty and horror, pettiness and magnanimity, solid and intangible.
And wonderful companions for the ride, with most of us destined to drift away from each other near the end of our adventures.
Forever changed, the good and the bad tattooed into our history and impossible to forget.
Be well my friends, and abide with the otters in this journey, not the jacket-stealers.