31 August 2010


I spent the summer of 1982 wearing long johns and seeing my breath. During the break between school years at the University of Arizona, I decided to join the migration of itinerant hopefuls headed for summer jobs in Alaska. It was a long and circuitous pilgrimage. The first leg was a plane flight from Tucson to Seattle, where I rendezvoused with my traveling companion, Mary. There we boarded an Alaska Marine Highway ferry, the M/V Malaspina for the glorious three-day voyage up the Inside Passage, winding amongst coastal islands off British Columbia to Haines, AK. The landward mountains along the Passage shoot up nearly vertically from the sea. Between sightings of bald eagles, whales, and the ever-shifting weather, there was never a dull moment.

Aboard the ferry we befriended a man who was transporting a new SUV for a friend, and hitched a ride with him from the Haines terminal across Canada to Anchorage (camping out in snow along the way -- in late May). After a two-week hiatus in Anchorage (where the weather forecast goes something like "If you can't see the Chugach Mountains to the east, it's raining. If you can see them, its going to rain."), we returned to hitchhiking down the Kenai Peninsula to Homer, home of the Red Dog Saloon, thence once more by AMH ferry to Kodiak Island and the small seafaring town of Kodiak (shown below).

It seemed that a small army of other travelers had the same idea. Competition was fierce for jobs at the local canneries, as well as for jobs on the fishing boats and processing ships based at Kodiak. After two weeks of living in a tent at a nearby state park, drying out at the public library, and falling in love with that fiercely wild and beautiful land and seascape, I took matters into my own hands. Courtesy of a letter of introduction I'd obtained from a niece of one of the officials at All Alaskan Seafoods (and after a three-day trial period of working for the woman who was the company's radio dispatcher), two friends and I were selected to fill vacancies aboard the M/V All Alaskan. The dispatcher described us as "three skookum kinda guys," a high compliment in native vernacular.

A quick dash to Kodiak Airport, a quick flight by small plane to a rough airstrip at Chignik on the Alaska Peninsula (from whose tip extend the Aleutian Islands), then a wait for the ship's skiff to come pick us up from the gravel beach. The deckhand who piloted the skiff greeted us with "Welcome to the Blue Zoo." More fitting words were never spoken. Our summer's voyage had begun.

The All Alaskan was a processing ship, 300 feet in length, with three decks in the aft superstructure and three decks below, not counting the bilges.. Smaller fishing boats would offload whatever the season's catch might be, from king crab to herring to salmon, onto the ship. The ship's crew was divided into gangs with various specialties -- rapid gutting and beheading, packaging, flash freezing, and storage in the ship's massive freezer hold. Cases weighing 80 to 120 lb. were stacked according to species and the method of preparation, and distributed by weight to prevent the ship from listing to starboard or port, and eventually off-loaded into the holds of Japanese or Korean freighters. It was a high-speed, coordinated, and often extremely dangerous operation -- speed held sway over safety concerns. Crew members carried razor-sharp processing knives, negotiated narrow passageways or tilting decks made slippery by cold water and fish slime, and had to avoid contact with automated conveyor belts whose moving metal parts would grip loose clothing and guarantee injury. The metal stairways between decks, as on most ships, were steep and treacherous. Out on the main deck, in the wind and cold and (often) rain, one had to be careful to avoid falling overboard. Those northern waters were described not on a temperature scale, but a time scale. "Five minute water" meant that if you were in it, you would last five minutes before hypothermia and exhaustion would lead to drowning. I witnessed half a dozen serious injuries, two of which required helicopter or boat medevac to the mainland.

Work days were twelve hours on, twelve hours off, seven days a week. The grueling conditions often led to fatigue, loss of focus, frayed tempers. Fighting was strictly prohibited, with an automatic loss of job as the penalty. Most workers tried to maintain an even emotional keel and get along, but as with any cross-section of society, there were a few individuals who took a perverse pleasure in goading others, out of simple meanness. And a few others who were liked by all. And a few who performed acts of heroism to save someone else's life, at risk of their own.

We worked hard, and we slept hard. Because we burned so many calories, and built up muscle mass so quickly, it was standard to eat four large meals a day, just to keep going. Diversions were few -- a TV in the galley where one could watch the same taped movie ten times, reading, writing letters home, playing cards, standing out on the bow or the fantail watching seabirds, dolphins and the ever-changing ocean and sky. Alcohol and marijuana were easily obtained. Though both men and women served on the crew, shipboard romances were few, simply because there was zero privacy. So the levels of stress, fatigue, and hormones were all off the charts.

As a change of pace, one could volunteer for overtime (!!) by going aboard one of the Asian freighters to help with the transfer of cases of fish into their cargo hold. The language barrier meant that hand signs, facial expressions and tone of voice were all we had to go on, but generally it worked out. Those freighters were invariably cleaner, more freshly painted, and more professionally run than the All Alaskan. One could ascribe part of that difference to the messy work we did. But it was also a reflection of the corporate mindset, in my opinion, as well as a reflection of the personality of the skipper. Our ship's captain was an old salt with a gift for colorful hyperbole and a fondness for the bottle. Our initial training was spotty, and safety drills were non-existent during my stay on board. It was the crew foremen and the more experienced crew members who really kept the ship running.

During the two months I worked on the All Alaskan, we worked the waters all the way from Chignik, southwest through Umiak Pass, then back northeast to Bristol Bay. Thankfully, in addition to taking several rolls of photos (now in storage), I kept a journal. When I read a key word or phrase and it all comes flooding back -- the friendships, the wild working conditions, the songs that ran through my head, how often I was reduced to tears over missing my young son. Not to mention larger-scale incidents, like the time the ship was listing at a 30 degree angle from vertical and in danger of sinking, after the bow cable which was securing us to a freighter severed, while the stern cable remained attached. Both ships scissored away from each other, then crashed together again several times, impelled by the fast tide at the mouth of Kvichak Bay near Dillingham. Once both captains revved their engines, the ships stabilized, and repairs were made. Everyone's eyes were as big as dinnerplates -- except for the half-sauced captain, who said, "Hell, this ain't nothing, this is Hollywood stuff, nothing like being out in 100 foot waves," or some such tall tale.

At the end of salmon season, as the ship was about to head west for the Bering Sea, I was fortunate to meet a young Frenchman who was giving away his return airline ticket to .... Tucson. I could have stayed with half a dozen of my mates who were going to tour up to Mount Denali, but I decided that getting home was where my heart needed to be. On the flight from Kodiak to Anchorage, I looked down at the clouds below and saw my first and only glory -- a double full-circle rainbow with the plane's shadow precisely at its center. Homecoming to my sweetheart, and to my son, was bliss.

The urban myth in those years was that people spent a summer in Alaska and got rich. Not so, I'm afraid. I only cleared a few thousand dollars. But the experience .... priceless.

Note: this blog post was prodded into reality by coming across an online conversation thread about the mysterious fate of the M/V All Alaskan. It turns out that after my experience on board, the ship ran aground on St. Paul Island in 1987, and subsequently was destroyed by fire in 1994. She lived just shy of fifty years, and in spite of the travails of work on her decks, she'll always occupy a special place in my memory. When I served on board, she had none of the ugly rust streaks seen in the photo below. She was the Blue Zoo.


  1. do you remember morimoto the japanise cook and part owner of the all alaskan? I still to this day mock and laugh at his antics Dammy sonnavabch paaakashitt!!!!!

  2. I was aboard during the summer of 1982 ~ I can't recall clearly whether the cook was Japanese or not, since I rarely saw him. The captain, the shift foremen, the nurse, the woman who ran the ship's store, and of course many coworkers, remain vivid in memory. What a wild ride. :)

    1. His name was Mori, Mitsumeshi Morimoto. He is the reason we ran aground March 21, 1987 out there in the Pribilof Islands

  3. Came across this post while searching for some All Alaskan pictures and info. If your on FB, you should come over and check out this page https://www.facebook.com/groups/116251698388035/ maybe you'll find some of those mates you left behind!

    1. Hi Brent, I sent a FB request. My Father Lavene Bernstrom "Bernie" was one of your crewmates.

  4. Thanks, Brent. I'm a member of that FB group, and enjoy all the comments and memories there. It's a great source of All Alaskan history !

  5. I was a cook on the All Alaskan, I stayed on from 1984 to 1985 jumped ship and lived in Dutch harbor, lived there for about two years, cooked at the unisea inn and the Ballyhoo Airport after my shift there I drove for dutch harbor taxi (Dong) at night pouring drunk fishermen in and and out of the elbow room.. 5 bucks anywhere on the island yes the head cook on the ship was Japanese named Morimoto he was also part owner of the ship as well, I got on board in Nome and had to spend a couple days at the polaris bar and inn, every night i was there at the bar was like New Years Eve LOL there is so much i could say here but let me just leave this at that for now... Those were off the chart wild times for me, being about 25 years old at the time, thats when i first started traveling and this was my first taste of adventure very fond memories back in the day...Yup!!!