Featured Prose Spring 2021

The Salmon Season Gets Shorter and Shorter Every Year

by Brennecke Gale

When my father was twenty years old, the same age I am now, he took a summer job at a fishing plant and cannery halfway down the Aleutian Islands in Chignik, Alaska. The youngest of ten children, my dad began shipping himself out of his hometown of Spokane, Washington in the summers when he was seventeen. He first followed his older brothers Matthew and David to a chuckwagon ranch at the base of the Tetons in Jackson Hole, and then on up to Alaska, where Matthew worked on the boats and David ran the processing plant at the Aleutian Dragon Fishing Company. His age wasn’t an issue. By the tenth kid, my grandparents didn’t know how old he was, and they didn’t care.

There’s only one photo in our house from my dad’s time in Alaska. The picture itself is blurry, and my dad looks caught off guard, maybe mid-sentence. The background is all muted greys and whites; low and boxy concrete warehouses line the back of the dock and mountains dusted in snow rise sharply behind the buildings. The foreground is all yellow, my dad dressed in a floor-length rain slicker with a hood. His strawberry blond hair, which these days grows thick and long, is closely cut and mostly covered by a yellow ball cap. In the photo, you can’t read the words on the hat, but I know that it says “Aleutian Dragon Fishing Company” because my mom still has it. She wears it with her own floor-length yellow rain slicker, a gift from my dad on their first wedding anniversary.

My dad says that my Uncle David took the photo, and he knows that it’s early May because they’re out on the docks and not in the processing warehouses. This means it’s the twenty-four hour opening of the halibut season when the fishermen’s permits line up with the halibut spawning and they can catch hundreds of thousands of pounds of fish in a single day. The Chignik plant’s bread and butter was salmon — ten-pound red sockeye salmon in the early summer and forty-pound king salmon starting in August — but in late spring there was a sliver of halibut season. Since Alaskan halibut can be seven feet long and 500 pounds, the fish didn’t fit in the warehouses and the processing was done right on the docks. They’d hold the fish up on a gaff hook and use a machete to hack off its head, just below the eyeballs. They’d have to take turns, and my dad’s job was to re-sharpen the blades in between rounds.

My Uncle David started at the ADF Chignik plant when he was twenty-one and has worked in the Alaskan fishing industry ever since, though his job these days deals more with dwindling populations and plummeting fishery health. In the late 80s, he was in charge of recruiting college kids to work at the plant. He started with his brothers, which is how my dad got roped into the job, but he also recruited at college parties, convincing drunk Washington State students to sign contracts that they wouldn’t remember in the morning. My dad told me that his brother lured him to Chignik with the promise of adventure and the chance to make what was advertised as “a fuck ton of money.” He did, but only because in Chignik, you kept working as long as fish kept coming in, and back in the 80s, the fish never stopped coming in.

In the photo, there are a bunch of trough-sized metal bins full of severed fish heads over my dad’s left shoulder. The insides of the bins are smeared with the same blood staining his rain slicker, which never came out no matter how many times they washed and replaced the gear. The plant workers used to toss the heads into the bay to chum for marine life, but the fishermen (who were all Alaskan Natives — Aleuts, mostly — and passed Chignik Bay fishing permits down their families for generations) told them that the silver-dollar-sized cheeks were the freshest, most succulent flesh of the fish, so the plant workers saved the heads for the fishermen to take home in exchange for beer.

The Chignik plant processed fish twenty-four hours a day for five months in the summer, and the kids who worked at the plant often had shifts of up to sixteen hours with breaks for meals. They slept in bunkhouses where they hung blankets over the windows because it was sunny for twenty-one hours a day. For the first two summers my dad worked on “the slime line,” beheading and gutting salmon as they wound down a conveyor belt in a wet, freezing concrete warehouse. To entertain themselves, they listened to 80s rock mixtapes (he laughed when I asked if they had CDs) and flung fish hearts at each other — five points if you hit your buddy in the face and three points for every minute that he resisted the urge to wipe the guts off his eyebrow. Respect was earned around the eight-minute mark. My dad volunteered to work the overnight shifts because he made double the money and got to see his brother Matthew when the fishing boats dropped off supplies from Anchorage. On those nights, he lived on coffee, Copenhagen chewing tobacco, and Snickers bars while a half-sun washed dusk over the landscape at two in the morning.

They usually showered every day, but sometimes you were so tired that you took off your bloody rain gear and boots and fell into bed. They played pranks on each other and made ridiculous bets and swore off eating fish for the rest of their lives. Once, he and his friend Todd made a bet as to who could go the longest without showering, and they marked the days on their bodies in Sharpie. My dad won $100 off Todd for going twelve days. Five years after their last summer in Chignik, Todd confided that he had in fact showered on Day Six and re-Sharpied his body. My dad forgave him.

They played poker for days on end and once in a blue moon got an off day to go into town (two streets, single-wide trailers, and a dirt landing strip). There was a woman who sold baked goods out of her trailer and remembered the boys who returned summer after summer. The sole restaurateur of Chignik, she made about $30k a summer selling bread to the fishermen and donuts to my dad and his friends.

After three summers in Jackson Hole and three summers in Alaska (two and a half in Chignik and then a couple months spent helping clean up the ‘89 Exxon Valdez oil spill after a falling out with an asshole boss at the processing plant), my dad once again followed his brothers to Colorado, where he felled trees with some guys he met in Alaska and then worked at a ski repair shop and cobblery, which is where he met my mom. Uncle David kept trading fish for a living. Uncle Matthew went on to accumulate more adventures and hone his storytelling craft. My dad made him my godfather, in hopes that I’d pick up one of those gifts. I’m almost twenty-one and I wonder when I’ll be shoulders deep in fish guts with the nerve to tell stories about it. My mom still has the yellow hat and slicker, and when my dad goes out of town, we eat salmon for dinner.

Author’s father in Chignik, Alaska, 1986.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *