I spent much of my twenties in Alaska. I first went up there in 1991, between my fourth and fifth years of college. My roommate at the time came back from spring break with a book his uncle had given him called something like “How to Get a Job in the Alaska Fishing Industry.”
Since the alternative was staying in Santa Cruz for the summer and delivering pizzas or working some other lame job, spending the summer slinging fish fifteen hours a day seemed like a good plan. We didn’t really have a plan though. In the middle of June, we packed up my trusty VW Rabbit (three guys and their gear) and drove north.
The idea was we’d hit up a family cabin on Lake Wenatchee, spend a week or so chilling out there, then figure out what came next. We really didn’t have much of an idea of what we were going to do, other than we were heading to Alaska to work. We certainly didn’t have jobs, or even a specific location in mind.
We ended up deciding to take the ferry from Bellingham, WA to Petersburg, AK, which, according to our booklet, was a smaller town in the Southeast with lots of fishing industry jobs.
Well, word to the wise: if you’re planning on taking the AK ferry north in the summer, you should really buy tickets in advance. We spent all day waiting for the weekly ferry hoping to get on, but had no luck.
We had a week to wait in Bellingham, WA. We had no car (left mine in Wenatchee) and not much money. But we had camping gear and an excellent “fuck it” attitude. So we rented a car and spent a week driving around, camping, drinking beer, and exploring the beautiful state of Washington. It still ranks as one of the funnest weeks of my life.
We caught the next ferry north, rode it up to Petersburg, and wound up getting jobs within a couple hours, by some crazy stroke of luck.
I ended up spending six summers working in salmon canneries. I don’t regret it at all, but I’m glad I stopped when I did. I met some amazing and interesting people, worked my ass off, and made a little money.
In 1993, after graduating from college and spending a year working in Santa Cruz, my girlfriend and I decided to move up to Juneau.
Juneau is a lovely town, but that relationship only lasted another couple years. After the divorce, I decided to move up to Anchorage where I had a friend.
It was late October before I packed up my 1971 VW bus in Juneau and got on the ferry north to Haines. From there I would drive to Anchorage. That was close to a thousand miles across the Yukon and Alaska, what seemed like a frozen wasteland at the time. Air-cooled VWs of that vintage are not noted for their robust interior heating.
That winter in Anchorage was what they call “character building,” if by that they mean “desperately shitty.” But, it did inspire me to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.
I’ve made a couple more trips up there since then; once in 1999 to spend a week working pre-season at the original cannery in Petersburg, which had been mouth-balled.
And then again to visit a half-acre lot near Ketchikan I’d purchased in a state land auction.
The Southeast part of Alaska is one of the prettiest places I’ve ever been. I highly recommend paying it a visit if you have any desire at all. Cruises are okay I guess (my parents did one), but take the ferry if you can, and get off and explore the towns for a few days. You won’t be disappointed.