Gentry Bronson at 18 years old standing in the woods in Alaska

Photo of me in the Alaska woods by Jeff Panko

The day I killed and skinned 69 chickens in a ship’s graveyard on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula is why I stopped eating birds when I was 18.

It was late May and my friend Jeff and I flew from Seattle to Anchorage to “go fishin’”. Jeff was a very smart, 19-year-old poet and drugstore cowboy who had spent time in an Idaho jail for writing his own prescriptions. We had met at university and bonded immediately over books, music, and thrift store-bought wingtip shoes.

He and I boarded a plane from Seattle to Anchorage, then hitchhiked down the peninsula to the woods outside the town of Kenai. We found a good place for our tent on a bluff that overlooked the Cook Inlet. That would be our home for the summer.

We laid down several wooden pallets we found in a dump, covered them with a dense layer of moss, and placed the tent on top. After tying a tarp over our camp to protect us from rain, we gathered the padding from two old mattresses and laid our sleeping bags down.

It was a good home but a bad fish year.

The salmon weren’t running. Many of us who came from the “Lower 48” for work on fishing boats were destitute. We lived off rolled cigarettes, drank Robitussin, had ax-throwing contests and flirted with the very few women who lived among the mass of bearded men in the trees.

Jeff and I had been lucky to hear about Larry on the plane. He owned a fish-buying station on the waterfront. Salmon were caught by fishermen on boats, brought to shore, unloaded at a buying station, then sold to a cannery for processing.

The morning after we made camp, we found the station nearby and Larry, a nerdish-looking, bug-eyed man sitting in a makeshift trailer. We were young, wide-eyed college boys who were also naive and poor, and we asked if he had any work.

Larry recognized our naivete and said, “I’ll give you $5.00 an hour to smooth out the dirt road to the station. If you can do that, you’re hired.”

After we finished the task, Larry smirked beneath his tiny mustache and offered us an additional $1.50 an hour to “come aboard”. We agreed and became two of the few living in the woods who had some work.

Mountains rising over a beautiful body of water and docks in Alaska

Photo by Rich Jones

As opposed to the cold, disgusting canneries, we worked outside in the fresh air. But we’d learn quickly that Larry’s buying station was a crude, jerry-rigged operation.

Our crew included Jeff, me, and three others. A very tall, white South African man named Johan, stranded in Alaska after running out of money and trying to go home. Dan, a rotund, former Marine who said he no longer liked to drink because his hangovers were too debilitating but drank anyway. And our crew leader Al, a half-drunken, encrusted, and wisened man from Alabama, who lived in a landlocked ship sitting on a frame in the center of the station.

Our first job was to build a temporary floating dock. We used that to tie up fishing boats, climb aboard, and then hand-throw king, red, silver, and pink salmon from the holds of the boats. We’d use a vacuum to suck up the fish if it was functioning, but it very rarely worked. Instead, we stood in fish guts and seawater up to our chests and threw fish.

The fish would go airborne and land in two-ton, square, white totes, then these were pulled up the dock by a thick canvas strap attached to a forklift. The fish were dumped on a long metal table where they were sorted and weighed, then trucked off and sold to canneries.

We worked 12 and 24-hour shifts. Depending on the extreme tide changes and the fast fluctuating weather, the work was a combination of cold, wet, and dangerous. Other workers down the waterfront would laugh at us because our station was so improvised.

Few salmon were running and even fewer were being caught. Our money was low, but we stayed fed in various ways. Al taught us how to dumpster dive. A local teen showed us how to poach fish off the dock at night. A church gave us a gallon tin can of orange marmalade. And some seasoned hobos, who lived in a set of trees down from our camp, taught us the fine art of shoplifting in town. Meat, booze, and cough syrup could all easily be slipped down the front of our pants.

Occasionally, Jeff and I would hitchhike into town and I’d play piano at the senior center for a meal, but mostly we hitchhiked to town to shower at the YMCA. They made us play basketball before we could shower, and we had no sneakers or high tops, so Jeff and I would slide around the court in socks playing hoops until we could take warm, luxurious showers to wash off the dirt and fish guts.

On one trip to town, we stole a grocery cart and pushed it ten miles back to camp. Then, we demolished it and used the top of the cart as a grill. Stolen hot dogs never tasted so good as after they were grilled on the mesh frame of an overturned and dismantled shopping cart.

Fisherman standing on the docks near nets and large fishing totes in yellow rubber pants and boots

Photo by Paul Einerhand

One day, I went down to the station to see if work was available. Larry was sitting in his truck with Dan and asked, “Got your fish pants with you?”

“No, sorry, Larry. But I can get ‘em,” I said. My fish pants were not the yellow, rubber kind worn by most in the fishing industry, but instead bicycle rain pants I chose to wear and would duct tape to my rubber boots to keep dry. All the water got in any way.

“Nah, don’t worry about it. Jump in the truck with us. I’ve got a job for you.”

I got in and we drove off deep into the woods, turned down a dirt road, and into a ships’ graveyard. Boats of all kinds with rusted skeletons sat in the yard. In the middle, was a house and a small barn.

Larry said, “Hop out.” We did and he left us without saying another word.

An older man appeared from the house carrying a hatchet, got very close to us, and yelled into our faces, “The chicken coop’s over there! There’s a stump. Just start cuttin’ the heads off the fuckers!”

Dan took the hatchet and started walking. I followed behind like a frightened puppy.

“Dan, what did he mean? What are we doing?”

Dan replied, “We’re going to kill chickens.”

This was both news to me and something I had never done.

We went into the barn, which was a chicken coop. There was a huge mass of white chickens roaming around. Just outside the building was a tree stump on the ground.

“How you wanna do this?” Dan asked.

“I don’t know, man. I’ve never done this.”

“Never?” and looked surprised.

“Um, nope.”

“Well, you hold the chicken and I’ll cut their heads off. Catch one, hold it by its wings, stretch out its neck over the stump, and I’ll kill it.”

This was agreed on without any argument because I had no idea what I was doing.

The first chicken wasn’t hard to catch, but its talons were a surprise. I grabbed it by the neck, then pulled its wings back, and it immediately tried to gouge any part of me it could with its feet. I brought it to the stump, pulled its neck out by its head, and Dan took a wack with the hatchet. It didn’t go all the way through the first wack, so he chopped a second then a third time.

The head fell off in my hand and its eyes rolled back. As it did, the body fell but got up in a drunken way and began running, limping, and spurting blood from its headless torso down its white feathers. Dan gathered the body and threw it in a square fish tote normally used for salmon.

Chicken one of 69 was dead. My stomach tightened. I felt queasy but not sick. It was only nine in the morning. The summer heat was just beginning.

The next twenty chickens were pretty effortless and my adrenaline began to pump. I justified my murderous acts by seeing this as a yearly family ritual. But soon, we began to get creative with our killing.

Picking up a chicken and chopping its head off isn’t the only way to kill a bird. There are many other devious ways. One is to swing it in the air by its head until it breaks. Then, for extra demonic fun, when the head flops back into place, sometimes the chicken will appear to reanimate. We became strange, masochistic killers this way. Psychopaths.

A white chicken staring directly at the camera with other chickens in the background

Photo by Finn Mund

As the flock decreased, down to 35 chickens, the other birds began to notice. Catching them became a much greater challenge. We needed to run through the mud and chicken shit to catch them as they ran or hid in parts of the coop. Our jeans, shirts, and faces were now covered in blood, dirt, and excrement.

A sweet, younger woman came out of the house and peered in on us. She introduced herself as Suzie, Larry’s wife, and asked, “You two doing all right? Karl, my dad, is pretty deaf, so he’ll yell. My mom and I will be getting some things ready to clean the birds. Once you’re done, I’ll make you some food.”

We went back to work, narrowing the living birds down to 20. The white tote was now full of chickens, heads, and blood, all mangled and laying together in the hot sun. The flies began to accumulate.

We were now two wild-eyed, deranged men with feathers caught in our beards. I yelled out Dylan Thomas poems at the surviving birds, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light!” as I ran after them.

The final ten chickens took the most running and some needed to be found in the shadows and under wooden shelves in the coop. Near noon, the final bird lay dead and headless in the mass grave with the others. We were ready to go back to camp, but Larry’s wife had prepared us lunch and we were starving.

Macaroni and cheese from the box with glasses of lime Kool-Aid were sitting on the top of an old Chevrolet up on cinder blocks. Dan and I sat on the Chevy and scarfed the lukewarm noodles, washing them down with sun-warmed, green sugar water.

Covered in chicken filth, I imagined how good it would feel to hitchhike into Kenai to get a shower at the YMCA after we were done. The Y was our only source of hot water, but thumbing it to town would be worth it.

Karl appeared and waved us over with a finger. Our assumption was that he was taking us back to camp. Instead, he picked up a large, flat, plywood board, leaned it up on a rusted metal sawhorse, then grabbed a hammer and nails near him. He hammered two nails parallel to each other on one side of the board then did the same two feet over.

He walked over to the fly-infested tote and pulled a chicken from the blood and gore. Its body was now half bent as if frozen in the position it had been laying in. Karl took the chicken and crucified it upside down by pushing nails through the tendons on the back of each leg. Its headless body pointed toward the ground. Then he picked up a knife and skinned it.

Dan and I were each given our own knives, and told to, “Skin ’em all like that!”

For the next four hours, we dug knives into the legs and down the bodies of every chicken we had just killed. Feathers, skin, and bags of a greyish, shit-like substance pooled at the bottom of the plywood board.

When I saw small worms skitting between the feathers and the skin of the birds, that’s when I nearly lost my mac ’n’ cheese. Flies were surrounding us, landing on our blood-encrusted hands and faces. The heat was beating down and a stench of shit and rot hung in the air.

As we finished each chicken, each skinless bird was handed to Suzie and her mother who soaked the birds and cleaned them. It was an assembly line of death and meat.

Finally, when the afternoon turned toward evening, the last of the birds was skinned and soaking. Larry drove into the graveyard of ships and took us back to the woods. It would be too late to hitch to the Y, so I planned to rinse my face off with a jug of water at the camp and then sleep in my sludge and ooze.

Jeff was very excited when I drug myself through the trees and got to camp. He had acquired food for a meal, was cooking it, and he had invited two Hawaiian women over for dinner.

“What’s for dinner, man?” I asked wearily.

“Chicken and beans!” Jeff exclaimed, a rolled cigarette dangling out of his mouth over our gallon can of camp marmalade.

“Sounds delicious,” I said as I pried off my bloodied boots, sickened at the thought, but too tired, dirty, and hungry to care.

The meal that night around the campfire was the last time I ate birds.

Jeff Panko hiking to the left side of the river in Alaska

Photo of Jeff by Gentry Bronson