Coming Into the Country

Sometime early in the morning on the second night, as we slept the deep sleep of those on vacation, the ferry crossed over into Alaskan waters.  Hurrah!  

Mom woke me at 6 a.m. with the news that she could see Ketchikan in the distance.  I hurried up to the deck to watch as we came into port, looking for the Trident Seafoods cannery along the shoreline, where I spent a season working in 2001.  I’d been in Naknek earlier in that summer, my second year in the cannery there, and when the season ran down I transferred to Ketchikan, where the season was just getting started.  I remember flying in on the jet from Seattle after a 12 hour layover, and my astonishment at the lovely green islands between which the jet weaved gracefully as we came in for a landing over B.C.  Naknek is a flat, brown place of mud and mosquitoes, and I’d never been anywhere else in Alaska.  It felt like a gift and an extravagance, that beauty.  The bunkhouse in Ketchikan was a barge permanently parked along the channel.  It rose and fell with the tides and at night the cruise ships would sound their warning horns as they passed.  I started out in the patch line there, standing at a conveyor belt in the cannery picking bones and blood clots out of the cans of salmon before they were lidded and cooked in the giant ovens, 16 hours a day hunched over a table made for tiny Filipina women, cold and miserable and lonely.  After a week they transferred me to the egghouse, where we were shrouded in rubber from head to toe, only our eyes showing above face masks.  We picked tiny pieces of I don’t even know what out of baskets of salmon roe.

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I made friends there, my three roommates all young American girls like myself, and another girl named Sarah who became my instant best friend, loved intensely for the duration of the season and never spoken to again afterwards.  We would dance to Madonna and mariachi music while we worked, tell jokes, learn Spanish and flirt with the teenaged Mexican boys.  At night we would all gather in the ‘boneyard’, a desolate expanse of broken down pallets, boats, old buoys, ripped up nets, and rusted out shipping containers between the bunk-barge and the cannery.  We’d dance on an abandoned boat trailer and drink tequila and raise hell.  I was 19 and I remember vividly my first ever hangover, going to work at 7 a.m. after 3 hours sleep feeling like a million dollars and smug about it until 10 a.m. break when the drunk wore off and I had 13 more hours to go, picking little bits of salmon innards out of tiny red eggs, small baskets of jewels, one after another after another all day, head pounding and hands shaking. Many nights the Mexican ladies would throw raucous dance parties in the narrow hallways of the barge.  I’d go out in stocking feet and yell at them over and over until finally I broke down and began to dance as well.  

 

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In the mornings I’d come out of the bunk-barge onto the gangway and look up the channel where the cruise ships were docked, my back aching from three months of factory work, and think… you bastards.  Every other Friday we’d strip off our rain gear at lunch time and RUN the mile into town on our 1 hour break, weaving our way through tourist throngs and standing in long lines at the bank to cash our paychecks, the building filling up with the stench of fish that was, by that point, embedded in our skin and clothes and hair.  I remember one afternoon wandering around Ketchikan town for pleasure, the only afternoon we had free, walking up Creek Street and getting a t-shirt at the Ray Troll store.  “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”…  I’d been involved in a hopeless love affair before coming to Ketchikan, up and down the coast from California to Portland to Seattle and carried into Naknek and when I got to Ketchikan I thought my heart was broken but something had happened to me there, all on my own for really the first time in my life, an adventure it turns out when I thought it would be nothing but drudgery and loneliness and work.

 

 

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Mom and I had an hour and a half to wander around Ketchikan before the ferry left again, and I was excited to see the town with older eyes.  We took a cab down to Creek Street and had breakfast where a very young waiter talked dreamily about moving to Seattle after the season while I talked dreamily of moving to Alaska.  He had floppy Bieber hair and tattoos on his forearms and I wore Xtra-Tuf boots.  Two dreamers passing each other in opposite directions, searching for a home over the horizon.  We wandered up Creek Street, a row of houses built half on the banks of Ketchikan Creek and half perched out over the water on stilts.  In the summer the smelting salmon run up the creek and the neighborhood used to house a thriving red light district.  Prostitution wasn’t outlawed until 1954.  It was Sunday morning and everything was closed, but the hordes of cruise ship tourists were as I remembered.  We didn’t have time to go visit the Trident cannery but I guess those memories are best left as they are, half horrified dread and half longing for a much younger, much more innocent version of myself and the vision she had of the world that seemed both wider and scarier than the world I see now.  

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The ferry left Ketchikan at 9 a.m. and we had a long, hot, itchy day on the ferry, anxious to get to Petersburg.  Thirty minutes layover in Wrangell was more than enough to see the town, a sleepy Sunday afternoon drowsiness in the air and nothing open, the mountains sharp and snow-peaked on the horizon.  Only forty miles to Petersburg and our next leg of the journey.  To be continued!

*Coming Into the Country is a book about Alaska by John McPhee.  I haven’t read it yet.

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