I once believed that I knew how to enjoy life.
Then I worked at Leader Creek Fisheries in Naknek, Alaska for twenty-six days.
I don’t think one can really know how to enjoy life until they learn how to enjoy it in hell.
All right, hell may be a bit dramatic, but the reality is moments I experienced in Alaska were some of the toughest I will probably ever face. To fight with one’s self in thought is enough to drive one to complete insanity. To be at your weakest point and find a good enough reason to be convinced to keep going is a stage few stand on and fewer choose to stand on.
As I entered Alaska for the first time with two of my best friends Zach Mcmahon and Sarah Klapp, we had no idea the experience awaiting us. All coming in as very positive people we were under extreme curiosity to watch one another break.
As we hoped for the best we couldn’t escape the breaking.
I managed to stay positive for a decent amount of time. As I was thankful each step of the way, Sarah and I got the same shift, working 8pm to noon every day. Zach, Sarah and I all worked in the same department, VacPac, which was the warmest, had the best supervisors and involved the most social interaction. Our basic task for sixteen hours a day was to move fillets from a conveyer belt to a machine that would vacuum pack the salmon and send them on their way.
Due to being the second flight to arrive we even had a day before working to make friends, explore “the town” and have a bonfire. The town in all its brilliance consisted of three bars, two churches, one over priced grocery store, several signs for a non-existent museum, and D&Ds, the life saving restaurant. Other than the roaming town dogs and the stationary car with horns there wasn’t much to speak of. I also caught on that it was a common theme to run out of things in Alaska, this sort of thing would never fly in California, but in Alaska one becomes used to not having necessities until they are flown in again. I connected with this factor.
We began work quickly realizing fast that the salmon alone determined our fate. If the salmon were swimming we had jobs, if the salmon decided to take a different route then we were out of luck and money. The prospects of a good season seemed well on their way as we began working sixteen-hour shifts within days. We worked a little over two weeks of sixteen-hour shifts straight. Yes, that is as insane as it sounds. There was “mornings” that Sarah and I didn’t think we were going to make it out of bed. Then I would give us a pep talk roll out of bed and wobble, hunched over on my swollen, numb feet to turn on the light, desiring motivation. Routine became our existence. Wearing the same clothes everyday, layers to stay warm and the same brown flannel outer layer to keep all my other clothes from reeking of salmon just as badly. If we went off routine we lost hours of needed sleep. Even the desperate need for showers become less of a priority in comparison to food and sleep. We quickly adapted to shoveling food into our mouths that thirty minute lunch breaks began to feel like an eternity. The basketball game metaphor became a common means of communication. While having four four-hour shifts with breaks in between we would motivate one another by shouting what quarter we were on. It always helped. The idea of being in the game together brought us together. Friendship is what kept us all alive.
What surprised me most were the people I got to spend the last twenty-six days with. Going into Alaska all I had heard was, “There are going to be a lot of foreigners and convicts,” so when everyone in sight was an average looking college student my amusement peaked. The whole thing just turned into some obscure social experiment. In the area that I worked there were twenty-two college students from all over. Varying in many different ways, but all similar because they had the common desire to make some money through experiencing a fishery in Alaska. Or as Alivia Norwood put it, “This is an experience to pay for more experiences.” Observing all interactions as a social experiment definitely kept me positive most days. To observe the happy Mormon girl talk to the stylish gay kid about their respective lives I realized this place was actually a very safe place to learn about people that are drastically different from you. It also sometimes felt like a series of first dates. It was a rare occasion to be on common ground with so many different human beings. We were all the same, we were all at our ugly, worst, and most sleep deprived state, but we had to keep talking to one another or we would go insane. It showed people they can be liked for who they are. They couldn’t cling to what they look like or the activities that they usually hid behind. All we had for sixteen hours a day was salmon and thoughts to discuss. It was a beautiful thing to see college students conversing without a beer in hand and beginning to really care about one another purely from personality and story. When we finally all had time off together we were shocked to see one another without hairnets. It was so strange to see people in their normal because our normal had become hairnets, blue raingear suits, yellow sleeves and safety goggles.
I know every thing so far seems pretty peachy keen, but I am warning you there were moments I was ready to throw in the towel. There was one specific moment, when I hit the point of what I thought was no return. It happened after spending eight hours on the Soul Sucking Machine. Can’t you hear the horror flick music now? On occasion there would not be enough work in VacPac and they would send our whole crew down to fish house or as we like to refer to it, The Underworld. After hearing the horrid words projected from Justin, the fish house supervisor that in my opinion has a tendency to take his job way too seriously, “VACPAC PUT ON FULL RAIN GEAR AND REPORT TO FISH HOUSE.” Just the memory makes me shutter. Every time I got placed on The Soul Sucker, naturally I named it that after I saw the third person lose it to tears. All you do for hours upon hours is use a small vacuum device and suck out the left over guts and blood from inside the salmon as they pass by on a conveyer belt of sorts. It is too loud to hear anyone so as you do this cruel inside sucking job you are left alone in your head. You then must proceed to proactively find positive things to think about that distract you from the terrible deed you are performing and the cold that is creeping its way into the very core of your being.
One day, I could handle it no longer. I knew I was going to lose it. They switched me out for the lunch break after eight hours of soul sucking and I swiftly ran to the cafeteria in desperate need of the comfort of a friend, but to my dismay as I entered there were no spots left at the table I usually sat at. I held myself together as I took a spot close by near some guys I had met, but didn’t know too well. One name Riley, who attends western, the one I kept expecting to be a bro, but he is actually one of the funniest humans I have encountered. There was Matt, who I knew mostly because his roommate spent most of his time in our room for Mango Time, which is the time right before sleep when we eat dried mangos and talk about how insane this whole place is. Then there was Lars a big wrestler guy from Utah, who looked thirty-seven, but was actually only twenty, he struggled often due to having too big of calves for the Xtratuffs many looked at him and prejudged him assuming he was rough and rowdy, when in reality he was a creative writer with a soft heart. As I took my place next to them I tried to only nod to their questions knowing tears were on the verge of my eyes. Then Sarah walked by and thanks to her best friend-like instinct knew there was something wrong immediately. She stopped and said, “Oh, no what’s wrong?” At that moment I was done. I lost it. I was embarrassed beyond belief I tried to hide my face, but being in the middle of the lunchroom it was nearly impossible. I guess I turned enough toward my table that the guys caught on to the breaking point scenario. In reaction Lars loudly announces that he knows what to do and gives me a fantastically awkward side hug and begins to tell a strange story about his dad and a bullfrog in some unfamiliar accent. After five minutes of this scenario the whole table was laughing and reassuring me that they felt as if they were in hell too. Even though it took me two more hours of recovery from the cold and frustration in VACPAC when I remembered that moment I was assured that I could do this. I was capable of survival and I wasn’t scared of my own breaking point any longer. At my weakest point I was forced to find what joy really meant. What learning how to enjoy even the most terrible of situations felt like. It made me strong. It made us all strong.
The night we had off and went into town and had ice cream at D&D’s still replays over in my head as one of the best nights of my life. Even in its simplicity I have learned to enjoy everything to its deepest depth. I have learned how to appreciate. I have learned how to thank God for everything. I have seen him give me strength when all I can do is beg him for strength. I have seen him speed the recovery of sickness because without it we would not have survived. The irony of all of this was I felt closer to God while in Alaska more than any other time in my life.
Being taken away from technology, reality and anything but basic needs leaves you with little to hold on to. God is more real when he is the realest thing you have. When you are thankful for a good four-hour conversation you realize thanking something beyond your reality is a little more plausible then it was in the real world. To hear Mormons, atheists, and all others say why they believe what they believe in in a safe conversation over salmon was a beautiful thing. To have the opportunity share why I believe in Jesus at a very level state changed it for me. I am almost surprised that Christians spend so much money to go on mission’s trips when they could just go share their faith at a fishery with tons of people and make money at the same time. I knew the whole idea of missions trips never settled well with me. I never wish to feel superior to anyone while I share my faith with them. I long to be on the same page, same level just sharing life, sharing stories. I think God shows up in the most basic conversations and prayers. It was a joy to see God love his kids. I am thankful even still for the joy only he could have provided when I was at my most hopeless point.
Not having technology and all our normal comforts we were taught to enjoy the least, to love simple. I believe we all got a lot closer because of it and were all strengthened to realize we can do anything. The word unstoppable has taken on a whole new meaning in my understanding. Each bite of food in reality still tastes better than ever. Every moment that I don’t have to stress about sleeping so I am prepared for my next sixteen-hour shift is real rest for my soul. As simplicity became my friend the rushing of normal became much less attractive. Not that I hate normal now, I just realize I don’t need as much as I used to think I needed. Life can be simple even when the world is rushing on.
I am thankful for the pain and difficulty this time brought because it was an experience I will never forget. It changed my perspective on enjoying life forever. To love each joy life hands to you. To love even in the midst of pain is to find joy in the trial.