Sitting fishy on cannery row

At 10:30 a.m., it's so cold I can see my breath. My fingers are numb and so is my mind. Only 12 more hours to go…or 13…or 14. It all depends on those damn salmon.

I glance to the left and see my friend Barb perched on a tall wooden stool. She gives me a thumbs-up for encouragement. Six months earlier, Barb persuaded me to work at a salmon cannery in Ketchikan, Alaska, for July and August. Barb's classmate worked there every summer and told her she could easily get us jobs. More importantly, she promised we would bank close to CA$12,000 in two months. Cannery employees work seven days a week, all day, so overtime pay adds up quickly. That sounded pretty good to poor students.

The Alaskan fishery industry employs about 60,000 workers annually. According to an Alaska job-finding Web site (, 57 percent of these workers are from out of state. Thousands migrate temporarily during the summer. Depending on the region in Alaska, the salmon season usually lasts from mid-June to early September. Some of the recruits work on boats, but others work in on-shore canneries. The only reason they come is money.

Barb is waving frantically. It's the only way she can get my attention over the constant clanging of machines. I look in her direction and she pulls an imaginary slot machine handle and rolls her eyes to the back of her head. She is feigning pleasure at winning an unbelievably large sum of money. This is our signal, to remind us why we are repetitively spinning thousands of cans per day for an average of 18 hours a day instead of lounging at the beach.

A sense of humour is key to survival here. Boredom, exhaustion, and the pungent smell of fish is enough to make anyone go crazy.

We work in the quality-control department, which sounds quite prestigious, and it is, in the canning hierarchy. But the reality is four weary women sitting at the end of four canning lines in a huge concrete warehouse. All day, we search for a rare, barely visible creature called "the droop", canning lingo for a rim with a slight opening. Droops form when salmon gets stuck between the can lid and body. In that case, instead of a silky flat rim, we would feel a subtle but potentially fatal bump. We average about two every hour.

We also weigh 20 cans every half-hour to ensure they meet weight requirements. And sometimes, when the machines jam, we slam the big red Stop button and help clean up fish chunks and crumpled cans knotted in the machines. Line breakdowns are the highlight of the day because they interrupt the monotony.

The workday ends when we have processed the entire fish stock, so the length of a shift depends on how much fish is caught that day. For financial reasons, I hope the boats keep unloading. But for mental, physical, and emotional health, I pray for freak storms.

Most nights workers head to the grungy Potlatch pub around the corner. Sometimes we walk across the bridge that leads downtown. But Ketchikan isn't exactly a fitting backdrop for cannery folk. Downtown consists of a quaint few blocks, filled with coffee shops, bookstores, and a pink city hall that cruise-ship tourists photograph.

Although the lumpy bunks in our 10-woman dorm call to us, Barb and I join the bar gang when we can keep our eyes open. We limit our visits, however, because of the overwhelming number of marriage proposals. After weeks at sea with no women, wiry fishermen at the bar have no inhibitions. Let's just say that I never bring money to the bar but I always have plenty to drink.

I left the cannery at the end of August feeling bittersweet. I was excited to return home, but I would miss this strange world. Unfortunately, the summer I was in Alaska was a dud year for fish. Ketchikan Trident Seafoods cannery, produces, on average, up to 500,000 cases of canned salmon per year. That year, we probably produced little more than half of that, and our hours were cut.

I brought home only about $7,000, but working 16 hours per day instead of 22 didn't seem so bad. For others, however, less hours and less money was devastating.

Barb returned to the cannery the following year and made the original $12,000 we had hoped for. I decided to study French instead. That one summer's canning experience was memorable, but it was enough.

ACCESS: Most cannery positions require no experience, but companies may require U.S. working visas. Students can obtain one through their university Student Work Abroad Programme (SWAP). For info on cannery jobs in Alaska, visit