Gurry into Caviar (an Epilogue Written in 1996)

The increasing diversity in Kodak's seafood industry in the seventies was probably due to several factors: improved fishing technology, successful marketing efforts, and the Japanese. There’s a joke that says you should never take a Japanese guy fishing or he will eat your bait. That has become progressively less funny over the years as products once ignored by Americans suddenly become cash crops. The Japanese had been harvesting North Pacific bottom fish and crab for years before Americans took economic and culinary notice. Pioneering outfits like Wakefield Fisheries of Port Wakefield and later Port Lions were among the first US firms to harvest, process and market Alaskan King Crab, the product that revitalized Kodak’s canneries and ushered in the era of year-round fishing. Old timers remember ruefully when that delicacy was the sole domain of the Asian cannery workers, and was regarded as junk by the rest of us. The Japanese also helped curb waste in existing products, such as the salmon harvest.

As a young boy I frequently helped tie up the Evangel in places like Alitak’s Lazy Bay Cannery, where the water and pilings were thick with “gurry,” probably a mash-up of “guts” and “slurry,” that greasy gray byproduct of wasted fish heads, roe and entrails. Less than ten years later, local canneries were playing host to groups of polite Japanese businessmen who set up salting and packaging systems to process the roe into very expensive caviar for the Japanese market. Gurry was transformed into caviar and bait developed into a mainstay of the fishing industry, and it all translated into paychecks.

In the summer of 1966, I crossed paths briefly with one of the Japanese work crews, a group who had come to Ouzinkie to set up a caviar processing operation aboard the processor barge Am-Pac. Although their English was limited, we became friends, and I spent hours watching them work and asking them questions. I was impressed with their politeness and hard work. My wife Debbie's first and only cannery job was packing salmon roe for the Japanese market at Kadiak Fisheries' Icy Cape cannery in Kodiak, using a process developed by Japanese specialists such as I had known years earlier.

Now, in the two decades after I moved away from Kodiak, (summer of 1996 as this is being written) the Japanese have their own fish hatcheries, harvesting salmon without buying it from Alaskan fishermen. The ADF&G authorized dumping of tons of pinks in the ocean due to lack of demand, and half of last year’s harvest is still in cans in the warehouses, unsold. No one fishes King Crab locally, and the shrimp harvest diminishes yearly. People speak of dollar a pound salmon yields and fifteen-pound King Crab in the reverent tones reserved for old legends. Standing in line in the famous new Safeway, one can’t help but overhear the conversations about no fishing, no work, no markets. I never thought that my account of years as a cannery worker would have such an air of nostalgia about it. I remember watching the shrimp boats unloading at the old Ouzinkie Seafoods dock and observing the men throwing red snappers back into the bay. Nowadays a plate of “Pacific Red Snapper” could easily set you back more than twenty bucks at hundreds of restaurants across the country.

What does it mean? The same flexibility and imagination that helped transformed gurry to caviar in my childhood can find new and exciting uses for the great riches of the North Pacific. Think of how the islands rebounded after losing so much in the 1964 Tidal Wave. It can surely happen again. The new fisheries research facility in Kodiak and even the salmon subs at Dick and Sue Rohrer’s Subway are signs of hope. Perhaps the wasteful and extravagant days of “get all you can get, with as many boats as you can,” are over, but I am sure that the rich Pacific Ocean will continue to yield lucrative surprises for this generation and succeeding ones if those who depend on it will work together with imagination and responsibility.  — Timothy Smith, 1999 (revised 2020)

A fishing boat passes below the Near Island bridge in Kodiak channel, 1996, on its way to find another cash crop from the bountiful seas around Kodiak Island.

Cannery Work (Shore Life in Kodiak in the 1970’s)

By Timothy Smith, Originally posted in 1999, latest revision in 2020

Cannery Work

One of the first five articles on, 1999

Introduction to the 2020 Revision and Re-posting

I wrote the original text for this article back in the mid-1980’s while working graveyard for the phone company. Since then, I’ve retired from 29 years as a high school teacher. But except for minor facts that needed updating, this is the same article I wrote back then. As one of the first five articles posted on back in 1999, it has often garnered strong reactions and responses, usually in agreement with my assessment of that line of work. The article has even been quoted and paraphrased in a couple of books (with permission). But one response, which is surprisingly common, requires this clear reply:

I have NO current information on cannery work,

in Kodiak or anywhere else! (Sorry)

So this new 2020 edition of my article features a lot of newly-posted photos, a few edited and corrected details, and a lot of wet, smelly, fishy stories about life as a cannery worker.  I hope you enjoy the article and all the new photos! — Timothy Smith, February, 2020

The Original 1999 Article

Cannery work: what an ancient and honorable profession, the very essence of life in Kodiak. Cannery work: the stuff that dreams are made of, your ticket to Outside, made bearable by its seasonality. You get pounding machinery, clammy green or yellow slickers, unmaneuverable black gloves, wall to wall slime and goo, indescribable odors, frigid water and scalding steam, a repetitious routine that would drive a robot to suicide, eighteen-hour days, bilge water coffee to wash down stale cookies, and just enough money periodically to keep you coming back for more. Since the fishing season for each various species of seafood was typically only a few weeks' duration, the cannery workers got used to a furious work schedule. In fact, cannery workers with any initiative at all considered themselves failures if they weren’t on double time pay by Wednesday. Hearth, home and Mother’s love became a distant memory in the din and stench and tedium. I loved it, or at least I thought I did come payday.

If you want to reach the soul of these islands, and can’t get on a fishing boat, throw your heart into cannery work. Come prepared to acquire an unshakable cat-food odor for the duration, so tenacious that you might not risk any social occasions until the season’s over. Come prepared to eat to your heart’s content: anything you can prepare in ten minutes and eat in five. Come ready to enjoy blissful sleep: five hours or so if you’re lucky, brought on by a bone-aching weariness that makes any old slab of plywood feel like a down comforter. Be ready to search through your duffel bag for your “cleanest dirty shirt” because you can’t get to the laundromat this month. Be ready to be amazed at how your socks, although encased in designer 20 lb. black rubber boots, have still managed to absorb enough of the lifeblood of the critters you’ve been soaking in all day to stand of their own free will. Be amazed (as I frequently was) at the endless parade of interesting characters at your side as you stand there at the conveyor belt. It might be a broke young adventurer raising enough money to get back home. Or a grandmother who has worked there since the cannery was built. Or even a graduate student preparing for a lucrative career in business law while living up on Pillar Mountain in a tent and picking little fishies out of the shrimp line for twelve hours a day.  (Continued below…)

Left: Here is where we go fishing and then process the fish, go crabbing and then process the crab. No, not the moon! Kodiak, the island at the bottom of the screen! (NASA photo) Right: Somebody has to process all the creatures that the fishing boats bring in, and that’s where you come in if you choose CANNERY WORK! (Voyager photo courtesy of Bill Torsen)

From Everywhere!

In my own career as a cannery worker, I thoroughly enjoyed most of the people I worked with. Their life situations were fascinating; Kodiak may have been a very remote community in a far corner of Alaska, but the world had surely come to it. I saw illegal aliens hiding from the INS, and even saw a raid, when the officials came and rounded up half our crew (including, some of the boys lamented, the “cutest girl”). It was fun to try to get to know people (as well as could be expected in the noisy and busy environment of an operating cannery). One young coworker, a local boy like me, was a member of the Kodiak Volunteer Fire Department. When the siren went off there would be a blur and a pile of yellow rain gear as he sped off to serve. (Why are Kodiak hydrants painted yellow? So you can’t tell where the dogs have been.) But sometimes the majority of my co-workers were not only from out of state, but from seemingly all over the world.  

I tried out horribly mispronounced Russian on a recent émigré, learned Spanish cannery vocabulary from a Mexican named Jesús, discussed fine points of theology with the son of a Russian Orthodox priest and even made a normally stoic Japanese coworker laugh out loud by attempting to sing the words to “Sukiyaki.” One of the most unforgettable guys I met was a quiet, intelligent young Vietnamese man I met in the summer of 1975. He turned out to be one of ARVN’s best fighter pilots, who took his plane to Thailand two days before the fall of Saigon. He lived with a Viet Cong death threat if he ever tried to go back for his wife and child. He told me how he had thought of trying to get an American pilot certification but gave up when he saw that he had more flight time (most of it in combat!) than any of his instructors. He couldn't see himself flying again. His war had come to an end in an Alaskan cannery, far from the painful memories of the cockpit.

I found life much more bearable by trying to make friends, and almost everyone seemed to have a story to tell. The days went by much faster when the crew congealed into a joke-telling, story-swapping group of buddies. The alternative was to become a bunch of animatronic pallbearers. (Continued below…)

Top: Cannery workers resting for a moment during salmon season, Larsen Bay, 1997. Bottom: Andy Anderson’s sequence of the Fortune’s haul of salmon, off Spruce Island, 1963.

Crab Butcher

My first cannery job was in the late summer of 1971, working the king crab season at the Star of Kodiak, a rusting converted World War II Liberty Ship that the locals had dubbed the “Scar of Kodiak” because it obliterated so much of the view of the Near Island channel. Like many things done in Kodiak in the decade after the Tidal Wave, hauling a war-surplus freighter ashore as a cannery was a quick and dirty solution. On the other hand, its rounded decks, thick bulkheads and steep stairs gave it considerably more ambiance and personality than the “big painted box” architecture of most of the other post-Tidal Wave canneries. Pardon me while I mourn in passing the beautiful shabbiness and picturesque angularity of the ancient canneries they replaced.

In the summer of 1971, deep in the bowels of the Star of Kodiak, I acquired something resembling a trade: I became a King Crab belly butcher. Now crab, like lobster, must be processed alive, or at least comatose. The procedure went something like this: you stand in your yellow rubber suit before what appears to be a guillotine blade pointed at your navel. Your own innards are protected by an apron made from old conveyor belt tied around your waist.

You select the nearest crab from a hopper that has been filled in the teeming hold of the boat below, grab him* by the rear legs (checking for the characteristic stiffening reaction that tells you he’s alive) and run him into the blade, pulling his leg sections off in one fluid motion. The leg sections go off to the gillers who grind off their gills in whirling metal rollers, and then on to the massive cooker by means of a conveyor belt of wire mesh. The shell and the tail of the hapless crab hang on the blade like a discarded bicycle helmet. These shells are thrown into a large grinder, which pumps the mess away.

* I’m not being sexist here. Any female crab was supposed to be thrown back while the boat was out at sea, to help preserve the species.

That sounds simple enough. But crab that have just been removed from the convention they’ve been attending in the nice, cool holding tank and tossed unceremoniously into a steel hopper soon live up to their name. A fifteen-pound King Crab (a regular occurrence in the early seventies) is slow but powerful, even out of the water, and when he grabs your glove it is difficult to break his concentration. A swift punch to the front feelers usually does the trick.

Now after the first hour or two of this constant impaling and dismemberment, your boots are ankle deep in a shivering mass of what appears to be opaque jello, and your arms are soaked to the elbow with liquid crab juices that soon solidify into a cast-like hardness on your shirt. It is undoubtedly messy, but as seafood goes, crab has the least odor. By the end of the third day, you are ready to quit, until you notice that your arms and stomach are turning Charles Atlas on you from the privilege of being a crab executioner.

My lead man at the Star of Kodiak was a crusty, hard-driving, hard smoking old guy who seemed to eat mostly crab tails that he surreptitiously sent through the cooker along with the marketable crab legs. From the first day when he showed us all our places and gruffly demonstrated the proper techniques for each job, he established that he was no one to mess with. His vocabulary was seemingly limited to grunts and he did not share my philosophy of getting to know coworkers. I never had more than five words with him. But he was fair, safety conscious and possessed of his own brand of kindness.

On numerous occasions when my still youthful curiosity got the best of me and I strained to see what was happening outside, he’d gruffly call out “Take Five!”, raise one slimy glove open-fingered, then gesture to the opening where the hopper track came in. We’d shut off the gillers and the grinder, dive for the ladder and sit out on the dock for awhile, taking in the often-spectacular morning sunshine. One Winston later he’d bark us all back down into the belly of the old ship to get back to work. I knew never to cross him, but it wasn’t until I had worked at other canneries and with many other bosses that it dawned on me how knowledgeable and safety conscious he was, and how good he was at pacing his crew to bring out their best efforts. (Continued below…)

Above: Detail of Dirk Sundbaum’s early 1970’s slide of the Kodiak channel.

From left: The small boat harbor and Kodiak Airways’ seaplane terminal, a small cannery, the Liberty ship cannery called the Star of Kodiak (Alaska Packers Association, my first cannery job), and the ferry dock with the Baranof Museum on the shore behind it.

A Dismal Season

Now the foregoing is more or less how a King Crab is supposed to be butchered, and how it was done, with minor variations, at processing plants all over the North Pacific and Bristol Bay. I once participated in a program that was a notable exception. I won’t tell you the name of the cannery, but its initials are “Bacteria and Bones.” I was employed there, picking little fishies out of raw shrimp as they head toward the peelers. (By the way, only a very few workers get to work at the same cannery from season to season. Most of us took whoever was hiring, employed until the end of that "run" and then were out on the docks looking for work again.) The foreman came up to the shrimp line and put out the word that they had King Crab on the way and was there anybody who was a crab butcher? Since picking little fishies out of the cold raw shrimp as they head toward the peelers is an all-time dismal low intensity boredom activity, I quickly volunteered.

What followed was, as they say, a millstone in modern seafood processing. The crab boat had already arrived, filled with rapidly expiring former residents of Bristol Bay, and my foreman hadn’t a clue about how to set up the program. He placed a butcher blade way out in the middle of the floor (at least he had a blade), brought me a hopper cart brimming with lethargic crab and told me to go to it. Just in case I had forgotten how to butcher, he grabbed a sample hapless victim and, swinging it over his head, brought it down on the blade, splaying the crab in unrecognizable chunks all over the floor. I told him politely that I was a “belly butcher” and would he be so kind as to bring me an appropriate belt.

Having established the method of execution, the next hurdle was the disposal of shells and tails. I had quite a pile building before the plant engineers came around lugging a contraption that resembled a large portable generator with an opening on top about a foot square. This makeshift garbage disposal was then placed strategically near a trough in the floor. The situation was a little like the carpenter who sawed a board off three times and it was still too short, because those crab shells would not go down that one-foot hole. Even when they did, the blades would chew off a little and leave the rest dangling. Finally, about twenty hours into the project, the thing just gummed up and died. This put the cannery between a rock and a hard place, or between the dollar and the law. State regulations demanded that seafood refuse be mulched up and pumped far out into the bay (this was before the Bio-Dry outfit tried to recycle the stuff) to minimize vermin and pollution. The dollar dictated that dying crab be processed immediately, if not sooner, because a dead crab quickly rots into a slimy, reeking, bacteria-laden mess. The dollar won.

A brilliant solution was proposed: we (I had been joined by the volunteer fireman guy) were to butcher the crab out on the face of the dock and throw the shells onto the rocks below the dock (I have always wondered which state official went blind...). So up came one of the planks and we got to butcher outside. Admittedly it was quieter and more interesting outside, so that we didn’t notice the cute purple pile of shells slowly growing on the rocks below. Apparently, the tide was supposed to casually come in and wipe our guilt away, but as always in Kodiak, nature steadfastly refused to cooperate. By the end of the third day, the shells were jammed all the way from rock to dock, and we had reached the point of another brilliant management decision. In addition, difficulty became crisis upon word that the health inspector was coming.

We were quickly dispatched under the dock with shovels and shrimp pitchforks to try and dislodge the shells. There we discovered such a fragrance of loveliness that it defies all attempts at polite description. Alaskan kids, born and raised around fish parts and cannery goo, can stand almost anything. But this was surely our limit. It seems that our little experimental pile of shells had been strategically placed by mad luck in the path of the hot effluent from the shrimp cookers. The result was the strongest, most putrid ammonia-laden stench that I have ever encountered. It would have made for great chemical warfare. We pitched shells for all we were worth (about two minutes at a time) and then scrambled up to the dock to lay panting in the late afternoon sun.

As the last few shells reached the water, I looked up through the planks and noticed my boss, standing there with the plant superintendent and the health inspector. By this time I'd just about had it with the whole operation, which made APA’s methods over at the Star of Kodiak look like the White House dining room by comparison. I looked up at them and burst out angrily, “You know, I really hate having to cover up for other people’s mistakes!” My coworker’s words on the subject were shorter, less printable and (wisely) less audible, but our facial expressions and their own nostrils confirmed our words. My boss meekly turned on his heels and walked away.

Surprisingly, I stayed with B & B cannery the longest. I worked as handyman and painter when processing slowed, and quit in late spring to go help at Camp Woody. In hindsight, it seems like there was an unspoken rule for success in the canneries: “Talk straight, but cooperate.” If the boss pegged you as a goof off or one who got too drunk to be safe, you were out. Cuss out the boss and you were definitely out. Taking unauthorized days off meant someone else was hired to take your place. But occasionally stating a differing opinion (while doing what you were told) never caused me any trouble. It seemed to be part of the Alaska culture at the time. I worked my tail off for all my cannery bosses through the years, so my occasional bluntness just gave me a reputation as someone who could be trusted. The rural Alaskans tend to be straight shooters about some things, and work was one of them. Everyone always had an opinion about how you tied up your boat, how you navigated, what brand of outboard motor you had. Some of the verbal interchanges that seem normal in a village would seem intrusive and rude to an Outsider. I apparently carried some of that over occasionally into my own work world.

The rest of that crab season turned out to be just as dismal as the first episode. A new grinder was installed, and this one worked. We got a steady flow of crab and I got a lot of hours in. However, all during that season most of our King Crab came from Bristol Bay, a terrifyingly long way to try to keep the crab alive in their overflowing holds. You have to admire those crabbers. In order to keep the crab alive, you have to fill your tanks, which nearly sinks your boat. I have occasionally hitched a ride on a fully loaded cannery tender, hoping and praying that the waves washing over the decks like a submerging submarine aren’t going to take us on down. The treacherous waters between Bristol Bay and Kodiak were immortalized in local lore as the “Cradle of the Storms.” Hardly a season went by but some fully loaded crabber would succumb to those waters, leaving yet another group of bereft families and grief-stricken friends.

As a result of their long journey, often most of the crab were dead by the time the tired crabbers tied up in Kodiak. My job as a butcher was to sort the fresh, live, sweet crab from the foul, soggy, dead crab. That’s because King Crab share the distinction, with similar species, of releasing digestive juices and intestinal bacteria into their bodies once circulation stops. If the boy is limp, he’s deadly. The only good crab is a moving one! The manager of the plant came by and repeatedly told us to let some of the ones who had seemingly only recently expired through. Did anyone remember in all the fuss that we are dealing with food here? I did my best to keep the foul ones out, but often the foreman would check the discard pile and throw some of them into the cooker. This happened repeatedly for most of the season. I did my best to salvage only good crab, and others did their best to make sure they didn’t waste any good money. It was a measure of the whole season that the entire shipment of crab was confiscated in Seattle and destroyed when the health authorities found an inexplicably high bacteria count in the crabmeat! (Continued below…)

Photos of King Crab processing courtesy of Wakefields (color) and Yule Chaffin (tinted)

Left: The object of our affection. Right: A whole hold full of them!

Left: unloading the hold. Center: getting the crab hoppers inside. Right: NOT a belly butcher!

Left: Freshly-cooked crab legs are now bright orange. Right: boxes of cooked crab meat, a distinctive orange-pink and white color, are ready to get frozen.

The color slides are courtesy of Lowell Wakefield, and the tinted book scans are from Alaska’s Kodiak Island, by Yule Chaffin (All used with permission).

Other Cannery Adventures:

The Mean, the Cold, and the Just Plain Dangerous!

There was an ever widening variety of seafood being processed in the early 1970s, and King Crab was not the only kind of crab I worked on. The Dungeness were easy to process: cook whole, wrap the legs in rubber bands, package and freeze. The real challenge with Dungeness was before the cooking. Inherently fast and bad tempered, they are the Africanized Honey Bees of the crab family. They can easily snap a pencil passed within their line of sight, and are almost too fast to avoid getting your fingers pinched, thick black glove and all. And like little aquatic Pit Bulls, you have to practically destroy them to get them to let go.

My own mental description of hell comes from the time I was asked to do a seemingly simple task: throw live Dungeness crab out of a drained holding tank and onto a conveyor belt. The crab were absolutely furious at losing their water, and out of breath or no, succeeded in soon dangling from every appendage of my rubber rain suit. They crawled malevolently off the conveyor belt faster than I could throw them on. I was considerably slowed by their tenacious grip on my sleeves, pantlegs and anything else within reach. On more than one occasion I was forced to throw one violently across the tank, impaling it on the support bars of the conveyor belt in an attempt to get my glove back! My own adrenaline-fed speed in heaving them onto the conveyor belt was spurred on by an emotion closely akin to abject panic. I had absolutely no desire to continue my association with them for one second longer than necessary. After a couple days of this, my boss, perhaps having mercy on the impaled and stomped-on offenders that littered the tank when I was through, rotated me out to the boring but warm and safe job of strapping rubber bands around the legs of the (very cooked) crab.

Yet another variety of crab crawled its way into profitability in those days: the Tanner or “Snow” Crab. Because the processing of Tanner Crab was a relatively recent development, it did not have a long season. Many of the methods seemed experimental, and not all were successful. There was even an attempt to change their name in honor of King Crab and call them “Queen” Crab. The “Snow” label eventually stuck with most processors. Tanners were very different from King Crab, being thinner, spindly, and more spider-like. They had an annoying tendency to spontaneously pop their legs right off their bodies in periods of stress. They reminded me of some sort of deep-sea exploding xylophone, with all those long legs tinkling gently to the floor whenever you tried to butcher the darn things. Needless to say, I was never very good at the procedure.

Processing the cooked Tanner crab was another of those tedious, repetitive, “Who the heck ever thought up this one!” kinds of jobs. We had to stand for hours at a spinning blade and cut a line around the claws at just the right points, so that when thawed, the meat could be extricated easier. I grumbled to myself that any flatlander who can’t figure out how to get the meat out of a fully cooked crab leg after all the trouble we went through to catch it, deliver it live, kill it, freeze it and package it deserves to starve. It was always ironic to think that our rough, raunchy and rugged Alaska coastline had produced so many hoity-toity delicacies for the rich and unsoiled.

The coldest job I ever did for the canneries was work in the Halibut freezer. The halibut is a fine fish, perhaps the best tasting of all the white meat fish in the world. (Ask Shirley Le Doux for her fried halibut recipe, or Mom for her mushroom and cream sauce baked halibut, and even the most hard-boiled connoisseur would agree). They resemble a big pancake that is only baked on one side: pure, snow-white underbelly and slate gray top side. As any good bottom fish knows, they never show their white underbelly to anyone, and so to keep themselves from even looking down, they’ve moved their eyes to the gray side of their head and swim sideways like a paddle along the ocean floor.

Aside from being delicious, halibut’s other claim to fame is that they are BIG. Halibut approaching 200 lb. were not uncommon in Kodiak waters then, and I swear I had to move every one of them. When they were unloaded from the fishing boats, the halibut were commonly sprayed with a saline solution, stacked on pallets and placed in an enormous drive-in freezer, which took up about half the ground floor of the cannery. This freezer, in spite of being large enough to drive forklifts down multiple rows of pallets, was always maintained at lower than -20°F. In short order even the heaviest halibut was transformed into the consistency of a piece of lumber. My job, for hours on end, was to inhale propane forklift exhaust while sliding out of the way of the always-reckless forklift drivers, working hard enough to keep from becoming a popsicle myself. Actually, I helped reposition and stack the halibut in such a way as to prevent them from becoming 200 lb. fish Frisbees while they were being moved by the forklift. I held this job in the dead of winter, and I remember my surprise at walking out of the freezer into outside air, which was below freezing, and feeling as though I had been hit by a blast of hot air. I was nearly frozen myself, so my mind might have been playing tricks on me.

Of all the bounties from the sea, Kodak’s most famous, especially in the early days, was Salmon. I never had much of an opportunity to work with salmon directly, but of course I had seen every stage of the operation as a boy in numerous canneries around the Kodiak Island area. I had a short but memorable career working salmon. The few days I worked salmon was as a fill-in when the shrimp line upstairs was having a slow day. I was not very good at it. My job was to police the area around the “Iron Chink,” which was a giant rotating blade designed to behead the salmon. I did not realize the derogatory nature of that title until years later. In all my years in Alaska I never heard anyone refer to someone else as a “Chink,” and so to me, it was simply the name of a machine.

I was to pick up any stray fish heads, collect them in a bucket, and dump the bucket into a chute that went to the grinder. It was a Sunday morning, and I thought I was going to get the day off, but they called the workers in because of the arrival of the load of salmon. I was tired (this goes without saying in a discussion of cannery work) and I was wishing I could be over at the Community Baptist Church instead of standing there all slimy and, well, fishy. I absent-mindedly picked up a fish head and stuffed it back through the hole it had fallen out of. A split second later, the blade of the (you know, the salmon head cutting thing) whooshed past, narrowly missing my gloved hand. I turned to see my boss behind me, white as a sheet. He took me back upstairs to the shrimp line without a word! (Continued below…)

Classic photos and post cards of salmon canneries in operation

Right: a lovely time exposure (about 15 minutes) on a super calm night of the Sea Quail in the Kodiak channel with her crab pots glowing in the floodlights, ready to head out again.

The salmon arrive at the cannery, by seiner (above) or by barge (an old-school way of transporting multiple boats’ catches). Post card locations and dates are uncertain.

Top: the salmon is cut up and placed, by hand, into cans. (A post card from Metlacatla)  Then the cans go into the retorts to be cooked under high pressure steam, then let out to cool in big racks, and finally, the cans are labeled, and placed in cases to be sealed and shipped to market. (Last three photos are from British Columbia)

Shrimping and Other Sorrows

The longest season of them all belonged to shrimp. I spent a couple of winters keeping body and soul together working in various aspects of shrimp processing at B & B, APA and East Point canneries. One of the cleanest jobs in cannery work, there is little of the slime and grime associated with salmon or king crab, for example. The main drawback is the odor. Shrimp carries a pervasive smell that builds up on your clothes and greatly impairs sociability. I often had to rush directly from work to my night classes at the community college during the winter of 1972, and believe me, I sat alone! In Kodiak, people do understand such things. It is the smell of money.

Working with shrimp was by no means all sweetness and light. One of the most tedious and uncomfortable jobs in the cannery was the task of sorting the fish, rocks and seaweed out of the raw shrimp before it went to the cookers and peelers. The shrimp was unloaded from the boats by cannery workers with big pitchforks, who filled giant hoppers that were winched up to the shrimp line and dumped unceremoniously into a big vat of water with a wire conveyor belt at one end. This belt dumped out onto a wide belt that led to a vat of fresh water, and then on to the cookers and peelers.

Along this wide belt were positioned workers who stood and picked out unwanted items such as little fish and seaweed. As with other cannery jobs it was deceptively simple. First, the raw shrimp came up from the boats packed in flaked ice, and the first vat of water never removed all of it. Next, the work stations were practically outside, beside a large open hatchway for the hoppers, and it was winter. Finally, the thick, insulated black gloves with cotton inner gloves were still incapable of keeping out the cold or preventing the sharp nose spikes of the shrimp from puncturing our fingers. Cases of blood poisoning and finger infections were relatively common.

It really should be added that gazing for hours on end at the moving conveyor belt had a strange, hypnotic effect. You could always tell when someone had been doing cannery work too long by the way they picked imaginary fish off the tables at coffee break. Left, right, pick, flick...your mind could definitely take a walk. As a freshman and sophomore in college I used this fact to my own advantage. When working ten-hour days and attending several night classes, there is no time for doing your homework. I’d be lucky if I got supper before running to class. I found that I could essentially write my papers start to finish in my head while picking out bullheads and smelt. I’m afraid many of my cannery coworkers took a more pharmaceutical approach to the tedium, which in retrospect made it one of the more dangerous jobs to be in. Repetitive though it was, there were often times when human error or equipment malfunction required quick and accurate responses, as when a hopper full of shrimp came off its hooks and crashed to the dock below, or when a forklift hit a loose board a little too fast and wound up with two wheels dangling above the water.

Sometimes, when boredom would completely overcome us, above the din of the machinery someone would start singing. And like the little Whos down in Whoville, anyone else who spoke that particular language would join in. We made passing fair imitations of the Four Seasons, plus choral versions of Elvis and the Beatles. Through our earplugs we sounded great, but our foreman thought we sounded like inebriated pirates and made us shut up whenever his boss came around. On days like that you could almost forget the freezing, aching fingers, the low-tide stench of your clothes and the long tedious hours involved in shrimp work.

The shrimp came to us in large trawlers designed specifically to scoop up as many of them as space permitted. The typical modern shrimp trawler was a large metal craft with a high, squarish stern and long, cage like booms on either side. The Star of Kodiak, for example, had a whole fleet of them, called “Bender” boats, after their manufacturer. With names like Rio de Plata and Mar del Este, and registered out of New Orleans, most of them were painted the ridiculous seasick orange color of the Alaska Packers Association. They also had the rumored reputation of being able to find the bottom of the ocean in under three minutes.

I Only Have Ice for You

Shrimp boats never left the dock empty during shrimp season. They loaded with tons of chip ice to pack the shrimp in. One of my tasks while working shrimp at B & B was to go up into the refrigeration tower and shovel chip ice into the trawlers. There was a large metal corkscrew in a trough that ran the whole length of the ice room, and it was supposed to pump the ice into a chute and down into the hold of the trawler below. But the ice always piled up on either side of the screw so it required a couple of guys with shovels to keep it operating. Our cannery boots had no treads to speak of, and so we gingerly began the task of navigating the mounds of ice with enough leverage to shovel the chips.

Now the safety switch was at the chute end, while we were shoveling away high on the mounds of chip ice at the rear. My coworker slipped and fell on the edge of the trench, and his snow shovel slid down into the trench with the corkscrew. Like a mime pretending to walk downstairs, the shovel got progressively shorter as the corkscrew went chunka-chunka-chunka. My coworker gingerly lifted himself up from the ice at the edge of the trough, eased himself across it, hit the safety switch with a determined grunt and mumbled something about going downstairs for some coffee. I didn’t see him the rest of the day.

Above: the Pioneer, a legendary  old “halibut schooner,” and a shrimp “Bender Boat” tied up at the Star of Kodiak in the channel in Kodiak, summer of 1971.

Below: a Gulf-style shrimp boat attracts a lot of attention from the seagulls as it leaves Kodiak. Detail of a Travis North slide, 1976.

Left: The “Lazy Bay” cannery in the late 1950’s, with gray “gurry” visible near the dock and even in patches across the bay.  Right: two modern fishing boats enter the channel in Kodiak in 2010. New fishing boats are set up to harvest a lot of products that would have become gurry years before.

Left: The author, Timothy Smith, as a young cannery worker living on the Evangel in the small boat harbor in Kodiak in the fall of 1972. A bag of very cannery-influenced clothes awaits a trip to the laundromat in the lower right hand corner. Right: The retired Tim shooting photos on the east side of Glacier National Park in the summer of 2019, the second summer of retirement!

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