My Alaska Beach Agate Story (for lack of a better title)

3 01 2008

 Back in the mid-90’s I worked a few summers in Bristol Bay, Alaska at a fish cannery in the wonderful little (and insanely remote) town of South Naknek.

 I went up to just be a fish gutter.  Anything to get out of Montana and escape the bartending life after my Grandma died.  I was immediately nicknamed “Montana” and somehow the head of the cannery found out that I grew up on a ranch.  This came in incredibly handy when one of the 5 truck drivers broke his leg.  The difference between a fish gutter and a truck driver is the like the difference between royalty and the Untouchables in India.  The pay was much better, the rooms more spacious, and the truck driver “mystique” was well known.  Anyone would have given their eye-teeth (or orange fish gutter’s apron) to become one.

 My chance came one day at mug-up (10 am coffee break). 

“Hey Montana!  You know how to drive one of these?” the truck driver boss yelled, pointing at a 6-wheel drive 1956 dumptruck contraption.

I had never seen anything like it in my life.  Six wheels.  Four gear shifts.  A dump truck bed.  And a crane.  Holy shit.

 “Sure!”  I said.  Hey, I’m a big believer in the fake-it-till-you-make-it philosophy in life.  I figured I had driven several large trucks, numerous tractors and operated different types of farm equipment including front-end loaders, balers and hydraulic feeders.  How hard could it be?

I was to find out quite rapidly.  The boss informed me that the tide was receding and it was time for my driver’s test.  We went through a quick tutorial on the gears.  Two shovels were slotted into their holders behind the cab.  I was in the drivers seat…..

The first test was to maneuver this behemoth out of it’s parking space on the dock and up a crazy-steep inclined boardwalk to the tundra above.  The boardwalk was strong – but only 6 inches wider than the wheel base of the truck.  Letting the tires slip off either side would send us plummeting about 40 feet onto the beach below.  I am not ashamed to admit that my first trip up that ramp was spent with me hanging out the door peering at the driver’s-side front wheel and the edge of the boardwalk.

 A few miles after this horrific experience we clambered down to the 15 mile expanse of beach that the trucks patrolled.  These trucks were equipped with cranes, on which hung a scale and a brailer.  A brailer is a hanging net like device that fish are thrown into (it holds about 1000 pounds) and then weighed.  The driver then cranes the brailer up and over the truck and pulls a cord – releasing 1000 pounds of freshly-netted salmon into the truck.

 Before picking up any fish the boss wanted to see if I had the guts for the job.  We sat at the beach entrance as he went through the laundry list of dangers, pitfalls and evils of the job.

  • This area of Bristol Bay has the second highest tides in the world.  They come in fast – like white-water rapids.  The water comes all the way to the sand cliffs.  If you are not off the beach, you will not be safe in your truck.  You will also not be safe trying to climb the cliffs.  They are sand and only crumble.  If you are not off the beach when the tide comes in you are dead. 
  • In 15 miles, there are only three places to escape the water.  The beach entrance, the far end of the beach and a swampy area at mile 11.
  • There are huge sinkholes on the beach that your truck will get stuck in up to the axles on almost every trip.  There is no predicting where they will be and they change with each tide.  That is what the shovels and the CB are for.  If you are stuck, call for help and then dig like your life depends on it.  It does.
  • The run of salmon only lasts for 4-6 weeks.  You will be working non-stop the entire time.  The only sleep you will get will be in your truck.  The only food you get will be whatever is given to you when you bring a full truck back to the cannery.
  • It will be my job to throw each fish into the brailer.  The fish average 10 pounds each and to be efficient one must throw two at a time.  After a few days of this I was to expect my hands to swell up and not go down until well after the season was over.  (This was completely true.  My fingers were so swollen the entire time that I couldn’t even bend them to hold anything.  I had to hold my pencil in the space between my thumb and first finger and try to write.)
  • Wear gloves.  Any cuts on your hands will get infected and you can get fish poisoning.  At least a few people get flown out to the hospital with this every year.
  • You will be almost completely alone this whole time.  Native Alaskan fisherman are not too friendly and we have never had a female truck driver.  No telling what they will think of that.

That last one is the one that got me.  I had to do it.  I took my “driver’s test” and got the job.  At the end of the season as we were all ready to go home, the truck boss told me that I had driven better than anyone on my first trip he had ever trained.

I don’t remember much of the actual driving except for one thing –  I was barreling down the beach trying to avoid rocks and invisible sink holes when he suddenly yelled, “STOP!”.  I did.  Immediately.  He jumped out of the truck, picked up a rock about the size of a marble and smiled at me when he climbed back in.

 “A beach agate,” he said.  “You can find a few each summer if you keep an eye out.”

I had found my purpose.  I am a complete and utter rock-hound.  One of my most prized possessions is a rock hammer my Dad gave me for my 16th birthday, for crying out loud.

The agate was buttery-yellow with orange stripes.  It glowed in the midnight sun.  It was beautiful.

There are so many funny stories to tell of my time as a truck driver in Alaska, but my favorite memories are those spurts of adrenalin every time I would catch a yellow glow out of the corner of my eye and find an agate.  Over the few years I was there I found about 10 specimens.  The best I ever found, however, was a reddish-orange one.  It was larger than the others.  The color was magnificent.  All the Natives (now my friends even though I was a girl truck driver) remarked how they had never seen one that color.  It was my  prized possession.

I came back from Alaska my last year pregnant with Maya.  I was terrified to tell my parents.  Things went as I expected with my Mom.  It wasn’t pretty.  But when I told my Dad he was sad and scared for me, but he was supportive.   He patted me on the shoulder and said, “Goddamn it kid, it will all turn out.”

I gave him my red agate.  He understood my love of rocks – but he understood so much more.

He always kept it in a dish next to where he kept his watch at night.  Every time I would come home to visit I would see it.  I could hold it against the light and see its glow.  I could feel its smooth waxy surface.  I could know that it was in a place where it was being appreciated.

When he died I didn’t think anything of it.  It wasn’t until this fall that I called my Mom.  It had been five years since he died.  My Mom had moved into a new house and the old one was completely gone.  My Mom also had a reputation of throwing coveted rocks outside “where they belonged”.

With my heart already in the pit of my stomach I asked her if she remembered seeing anything like this rock.  I visibly cringed even before I heard her say that she couldn’t remember anything like that and “I probably would have just gotten rid of it anyway.”

I was so sad, but played it off.  “Well, it isn’t the end of the world.  It’s okay.  I was just wondering…”

 Right before Christmas a box came in the mail – after all the other boxes had been received.  There was one gift inside.  One simple box tied with a ribbon.  Inside the box was a smaller box.  And inside it….the only Christmas present that has ever made me cry.

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20 responses

3 01 2008
Olivia

Awww! Seems like you and your mom have come a long way. What a great post. More Alaska stories please!

3 01 2008
ccmhats

South Naknek? In the mid-90’s? Trident Seafoods, perchance?

4 01 2008
No Celery Please

No fair making people cry at work!

4 01 2008
ifswallowed

ccmhats – no, Ward’s Cove Packing. I did party a few times with some of the crazy people from Trident. Were you there? If so, how funny! What did you do there?

4 01 2008
Ant

Fantastic story! It’s got everything – fear, danger, love and a happy ending…

4 01 2008
renn

Wow.

Let me second the ‘more Alaska stories’ request!

I love your mother even more NOW than I did before.

4 01 2008
ccmhats

Indeed, I was at Trident in South Naknek, for 4 summers, in the cannery part of the cannery… a “patcher,” if you will (5 cans/second come out of those machines you know… someone had to give them one last look-see before the lid went on).

I will emphatically agree that a truck driver job would have been highly coveted in a cannery situation!

But even the worst jobs are worthwhile, even if only as a baseline for the rest of life… When I was bussing tables in restaurants later, I would often think, “Hey! At least I’m not at the cannery!” and all would seem well in my world.

Some friends just sent us a Ray Troll calendar for ’08, so I’ve been thinking more about those long-ago days than usual, it seems. Which made finding your post extra fun… Thanks.

4 01 2008
ifswallowed

Oh! Ray Troll! I have a print of “Spawn Till You Die” that cracks me up. But I also love his more serious work. Nice to meet you! Anyone that lived through ANY South Naknek cannery is alright with me. 🙂

5 01 2008
megan

ohhhh…that one made me cry too.

xxm

5 01 2008
Christine

Aw. Such a sweet story, as they all are when they involve your dad.

Also, great new digs.

Hoping for nothing but the best for you in the new year!

11 01 2008
Kingfisher

Ah! A kindred spirit! It is rare to find someone who understands rocks. I’ve collected them my whole life, and I love the stories they tell me, no matter how plain. And you like Ray Troll? I think I’m going to drive up to WAshington and kiss you hard.

And this was a beautiful post. Thank you.

27 02 2008
LALA

Fantastic post! I worked for SN seafoods from 85-90 under Wes F and Roberta F and know actually what an adventure your talking about. You sound like a pretty special person. I know how hard it was to operate those beach trucks where if you hit one of the rocks/boulders the steering wheel would spin uncontrolable in the opposite direction, good times.
LA

1 08 2008
todd

Is this Sherri? If it is, its Todd< one of your evil co-horts member me?

14 09 2008
Seanna

Ok, so first of all there is a lot of exageration going on here, I have commercial fished in South naknek all of my life and have never seen a 40 foot cliff! That is hilarious! Also you aren’t the one man handling all of those fish, we are! We are the ones risking our lives to bring fish to you, where you are safely sitting in your cozy truck. And if you ever worried about dying because the tide came in all the way to the bank, you are truly from a farm! That is the silliest thing I ever heard! But your passion for rocks is something I do have in common, and the agates here are amazing, I have been collecting agates for 15 years, and can’t stop, they can be found on most beaches where there has been a volcano in the area…. Trident is closed here now! As are all of the other canneries kinda sad…. oh……….and commercial fisherman are friendly! We are actually very fun to hang out with!

18 08 2011
Kristin

Great story. I just found it when looking for south naknek agates on the web. Commercial fishing this summer we got a net in the rudder and had to go dry, in the river right near trident. I walked on the beach with my sister looking for cool stuff, and found some awesome agates, my first. I’ve also never written on a blog! Some of my best friends have worked in canneries, and they wouldn’t trade those days for anything. Nor would I on a boat! Fun times, especially when you can get ashore now and again.

25 09 2012
sherri zastawa griffin

Pam is your name Pam? I worked at trident in the early 90’s. I came all the way from Pittsburgh Pennsylvania to work in the fish house. I remember a girl from Montana Pam. If this is you I remember hanging out in Ancorage after the season.

27 09 2012
ifswallowed

Sorry, not Pam. My name is Shari. I worked at Wards Cove Packing. Trident was just up the river from us. Crazy times, wasn’t it?

Shari

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27 09 2012
sherri zastawa griffin

Great times! There should be a reunion reality show “life in the fish house” lol. Did you go to the Pit?

1 10 2012
ifswallowed

Of course I went to the Pit. If I remember right, Trident didn’t have quite the walk we had to get there. Amazing we weren’t snacked upon by bears!!

________________________________

19 04 2013
Juliane

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bookmarking and will be tweeting this to my followers! Superb blog and brilliant design.

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