Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Escape to Alaska: A Tale of Two Fish Cities

Fishing boats lined up in front of the processing plant.

Every summer the salmon return from the ocean to find the original streams in which they were born years earlier.

It's one of the largely unexplained mysteries of nature. After so many years of maturing in salt water, how do the fish make the change to fresh water and get all the way home? How do they survive the mishaps and predators along their route? How do they keep from getting caught by the innovations of humans, including hooks, traps, and nets?

Most of them don't. It's  been estimated that for every 25 million salmon eggs that are laid, only two fish arrive home to complete the cycle and spawn in the stream beds.

Yet the salmon keep on coming. By the thousands. Every summer.

We took a stroll along the docks of a cannery that my brother-in-law worked in decades ago when he was an 18-year-old looking for his first good paying job.

This was back when Alaskan salmon marketed to the word was in 16 oz and 8 oz tin cans. You should know that canned salmon is to fresh salmon what canned tomatoes are to fresh tomatoes. Yes, you can eat it, but it's hardly memorable. But canned salmon was all technology would allow at that point.

Gary showed us where a congregation of young and old, male and female, Filipinos, Alaska Natives, and whites worked in those summers long ago. The work was wet and filthy, especially near the so-called "Iron Chink" which was a machine that sliced off the fish heads and tales. Guts and slime abounded.

Wash it all down the drain...

It so happened that Gary had one of the best jobs, towards the end of the assembly line. He was charged with using a machine to tip the sealed cans into their cases.  The box of cans then went to the gluing machine. He held the record at one time for processing 750 cases in an hour.

Today the cannery is closed, but someone has purchased the buildings and attempted to turn it into a restaurant and tourist attraction. Signs explain the original purpose of each building. Unfortunately, when we arrived it appeared that this money-making repurposing of the old cannery was not a going concern. Nothing appeared to have been opened in a while. We stared through windows into empty buildings.

Next door the processing of salmon went on in a more modern fashion. The new plant takes the salmon and flash freezes the whole fish. In this form the salmon is much more valuable than in its humble canned form. It's a delicacy that can be brought to the table at the restaurant and served at a premium price.

I have to admit that it's hard for me to contemplate going back to purchasing a can of salmon and forming it into a fried salmon croquette (my mom's favorite recipe). This defunct salmon cannery seems quaint. But still I can appreciate what this place represents: lives bumping together for a few months in the summer, all in the name of industry and a paycheck. Something important happened here and I can still feel it. - V.W.


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