Gentry Bronson standing in the woods shirtless and wearing dirty jeans in Alaska, 1991

Me standing in the woods in Alaska, 1991 - Photo by Jeff P.

I was standing in the hold of a fishing boat with salmon and icy water up to my chest. All around me, fish lay struggling, slapping their tails and eyeing me while I waited for a giant vacuum to plunge through the hatch above my head.

My feet were frozen and numb inside my rubber boots, which were duct-taped to the thin rain pants I was wearing. Freezing ocean water had seeped through them hours before, and I was wet and shivering. My gloves were also leaking and I felt like I was wearing two bags of ice-cold water on my hands. Adrenaline was keeping me warm.

Above my head, I heard, “It’s coming! Get ready!”

It was Al, our crew captain. A grizzled man from Alabama who lived in the prow of a dry-docked ship just off the water and the fish-buying station where we were employed. Al and I were on a boat tied to a dock on the Cook Inlet near Kenai, Alaska.

It was 1991 and just a week after the summer solstice. In that area of the world, it was a time of near-constant daylight and a slight sunset.

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The air was filled with an anxious urgency. We had to get all the fish out of the hold before the tide dropped too low. The tide rose and fell thirty feet twice per day, and with each moment, the boat was closer to being stranded in the mud.

The tide dropping also meant the dock was lowering; we had built it to bend at each section as the tide changed. It would soon become a steep ramp leading to the shore. And with the temperature going down, the wet, metal dock was gathering a layer of ice.

Al yelled, “Get ready to move it in place, and then try sucking up those fish!”

The vacuum never worked. We tried numerous times but always ended up with fish caught in the system. This would be our last attempt. If it didn’t work, we needed to throw fish.

I had already spent hours scooping the heavy bodies of king, red, silver, and pink salmon from the slime, blood, and seawater. Then, with both hands, I’d chuck them as hard as I could, out of the ship’s hold, high over my head. My target was a two-ton, square, white container.

Once the containers were full of fish, they were hauled up the dock using straps and a forklift. Then, the fish were sorted on a table according to the type of salmon and sent off to canneries in trucks.

Some lucky salmon I threw landed on the dock or in the water and escaped. I envied and secretly cheered for the fish that were set free.

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I was eighteen years old and had been in Alaska for one month with my traveling companion, Jeff.

Jeff was one year older than me. A former drugstore cowboy and aspiring poet who had recently spent time in jail. We met at university in Track Town, Oregon, and became instant friends. Now, Jeff and I shared a tent in the woods and spent every moment together either working or waiting for work.

While we waited, we wiled away our time throwing axes at trees, rolling cigarettes, and hitchhiking to town to play basketball at the YMCA. The Y was the only place where we could shower with hot water.

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Before we left Oregon to fly to Anchorage from Seattle, we had no plan. Our lofty and naive idea was that we’d get jobs on a fishing boat. To us, it was an adventure. A rite of passage from boys to men. We had no idea that it usually took years, experience, and connections to get work on a boat.

On the plane, we were fortunate to sit next to a middle-aged woman named Deedee.

She said, “You boys headin’ to the peninsula for work, eh? I’ll tell you what…I’ll give you a ride to my place. It’s outside Kenai. Then, you head to the waterfront and ask for Larry. He’ll give you work.”

We decided to trust Deedee and accepted a ride in the back of her truck from the airport in Anchorage. She drove us down the Kenai peninsula, past the glaciers, and under the glorious mountains that rose and towered above us. Our first night in our tent was in her front yard. After being woke by the sound of a seaplane taking off, we hitchhiked to Kenai.

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Everywhere in the small town, people were gathering gear for the fishing season. Among the seasoned fishermen and women, there were lost-looking young people like us wearing backpacks. Their innocent expressions told me they didn’t have a clue what to do, where to stay, or how to go about finding work, so I felt lucky that we had a name: Larry.

We had already learned that hitchhiking was an effective way to get around in Alaska, so we caught a ride out of town toward the waterfront. We pitched our tent near a bluff that overlooked the inlet.

Some seedy characters were already camped in the forest using a blue tarp as their makeshift camp. The criminal-looking group directed us to the canneries and fish-buying stations spread out below the bluff just off the water. We walked down, scoured the waterfront asking for Larry, and eventually found someone who told us where his buying station was.

We wandered by a poorly built chain link fence and in through an open gate to a gravel yard filled with dry-docked ships, yellow forklifts, rusty chains, dirty anchors, multi-colored fishing nets, piles of lumber, a couple of dilapidated trailers, and a tin shack with smoke coming out from the top of a chimney. We decided Larry must be in the shack.

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Inside we were greeted by Jessica, Larry’s young administrative assistant. Her make-up was thick and her blond hair was hairsprayed high over her forehead and jutted out to the side like wings. She looked like a groupie for Mötley Crüe.

“Larry’s not here yet. Just wait outside with the boys,” Jessica said as she snapped her chewing gum.

We sat on a pile of lumber in front of a large, dry-docked ship and two men appeared from the trailers. One was tall with long blond hair, and he extended his hand, “Hello, I’m Johan.”

His accent was unique. It turned out he was from South Africa and was stuck in Alaska until he could make enough money to return home. Johan introduced us to Dan, a short, stout former Marine from Michigan. Within minutes, Dan was complaining about the lack of work and how there was nothing to do but drink, but that he also couldn’t hold his liquor.

Just then, a bearded and disheveled head comically popped out of a porthole in the ship in front of us.

He called down, “Hi, y’all! Ya here for work? Guess we might need the hands when the fish start runnin’. Call me Al!”

His head popped back in and he reappeared minutes later on the ground in dirty, gray coveralls. He smelled of booze and was eating half a sandwich that looked moldy.

Al said, “Got this out of the dumpster in town. I’ll teach y’all how to dumpster dive. If it’s a bad fish year yer gonna need to learn how.”

The five of us stood talking for a while and then a black Ford pickup pulled into the yard. It was Larry. A bespectacled man who looked like the offspring of a cockroach and a professor.

He rolled down his window and said, “Heard you new boys was lookin’ for work. Jessica called me at home. If you fill in these potholes in the drive of the yard with those shovels there, you’re on the crew.”

Jeff asked, “How much will we make?”

“Six dollars and fifty cents an hour. We’ll see about overtime.”

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Four weeks later, I was into my seventeenth straight hour working and still hadn’t received any overtime. Standing in the dark bowels of the fishing boat up to my chest in salmon, seawater, blood, and slime, I reached for the large vacuum. I grabbed it by the handles and plunged it as deep as I could into the fish and oily water.

I yelled up, “It’s down in there! Turn it on!”

This was the moment of truth. Please work, I thought to myself. The loud motor was running and I could feel water entering the tube. Then it began to churn and shake. Salmon were going up.

“I think it’s working! You see any fish coming out the other end?” I asked Al.

The vacuum tube ran from the boat, up the dock, to the sorting station. That’s where Jeff, Dan, and Johan were. Getting the table and truck ready, and waiting with fingers crossed for salmon to begin pouring out onto the table.

“Shake it! Get it down in the hold and shake it!” Al said.

I grabbed the vacuum and using all my weight, I shoved it as hard as I could, further into the cold water and salmon bodies. I was so wet that I could no longer tell my sweat from the sea. Then, I shook the contraption.

I looked up and Al had his face turned toward the shore waiting for a sign from Dan, Johan, or Jeff. He turned his grizzly face toward me, eyes wide, and yelled, “They’re coming out! The fish are comin’!”

The vacuum was working and I began to move it around in the hold of the boat. Excitedly using the vacuum to suck up fish, I watched water and salmon sink around me as it all moved through the tube. The briney brew I was standing in dropped from my chest to my waist. After an hour, it was at my knees, then to my calves. Throwing fish would have taken four times as long.

I was elated and I could hear the fishermen on board scrambling around. They were preparing to start the engine after the salmon were offloaded.

Jeff beside our tent in Denali, Alaska in 1991 - Photo by the author

My friend Jeff P. beside our tent in Alaska, 1991 — Photo by the author

“I can’t get any more fish!” I yelled. “The water’s too low now!”

“All right. I’m coming down,” Al said and he jumped down into the water with a splash. “We’re gonna need to throw the rest.”

We started moving through the water gathering fish and sending them high over our heads. Moving quickly as the tide got lower. We got the last salmon out just in time for the fishermen to head out to sea, and Al and I jumped off onto the dock.

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The tide was so low now that the dock’s runway was diagonal. Then, I heard a crash. Al had fallen and nearly slid off into the water.

“God damn it! This dock’s all ice now. It must be three o’clock in the morning to be this cold.”

“Watch it, Al.”

“You watch it, youngster. We gotta get this tote full of fish up that dock and onto the land. Fish’ll go bad unless we get ’em sorted and on ice.”

Once the vacuum began to work, the rest of the crew didn’t have time to move the last two-ton storage container full of salmon to dry land.

“Up that?” I questioned, pointing to the icy dock rising up at a forty-five-degree angle.

Al didn’t answer me. Instead, he yelled up to the crew, “Johan! Get on the forklift and throw us down the canvas strap! We gotta move these fish!”

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It was an insane operation moving salmon this way. Other buying stations laughed at us. Since the vacuum had only worked once, I was used to that. But we’d never moved salmon with the tide this low and the dock that steep and ice-covered.

We ran the strap around the container and back up to the forklift. When it was attached, Johan began to drive in reverse. At the same time, Al and I pushed, laying our bodies into the heavy, white container as it slowly slid up the dock. Our rubber boots also slid and we tried to find footholds but there were few. And there was no railing. One misstep and we’d fall straight into the freezing water.

With every ounce of my strength, I shoved those fish up, pushing with Al. The container went up, up, teetered over the side of the dock, and made it onto the shore.

I was panting and my legs were rubber. They had turned to sea legs from the many hours on the boat. And thankfully, I wasn’t standing in seawater and fish muck anymore.

We worked through the rest of the sunlit night, sorting the fish and packing them onto trucks for the canneries. It was a big night and Larry was pleased.

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When work was done, Jeff and I said goodbye to Al, Johan, and Dan who each wearily slunk off to their beds. As we walked up the bluff back to our tent, Jeff checked his watch.

“It’s eight in the morning. We just worked for twenty-four hours straight,” he said. “I’m too tired. Let’s hitch to the Y later to shower.”

“Yeah, I guess we’re sleeping in fish guts this morning,” I said exhausted.

“You got a beard full of silvery salmon scales, man.”

I grinned.

“Better than when I had bird blood in it from Larry’s chickens.”

Jeff laughed and we plodded home, climbed into our tent and sleeping bags, and went to sleep.

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Three hours passed and we were abruptly woke by our tent shaking. Then, we heard a voice.