7 Lessons I Learned From Working At An Alaskan Fishery


At the age of 19, I ventured into the depths of a desolate city in Alaska to work during the salmon season. It paid well and I was in need of a summer adventure. This entailed 16-hour shifts (for 17 days in a row) followed by many days of 12-hour shifts, until the season finally died down. I worked in a fish factory on an assembly line, and this was what I learned:

1. The best things in life happen outside of comfort zones.

At 19, Alaska was the farthest I’d been from home. I had yet to leave the country, and this part of Alaska was truly otherworldly. This was where I met people from Turkey, Mexico, the Philippines, and elsewhere. I befriended individuals I otherwise would never have had the chance to meet. I learned that I was capable of true, hard work. My mind and body were tested in the fishery, and if it weren’t for the friends I made along the way, I could have very well landed flat on my face. But I didn’t. I came home with $3,500, salmon-crusted rain gear, and a lifetime of memories.

2. Caffeine pills are a life saver.

During the 16-hour shifts, it felt nearly impossible to function. I stood at an assembly line for all 16 of those hours deboning salmon fish fillets. This entailed plucking bones with tweezers, and pushing the fillets down the line. How did I wake up each morning with only five or six hours of sleep? I popped a caffeine pill. And as an individual who does not drink coffee, soda or tea, they did the trick for my unaccustomed body. I went from zero to salmon hero.

3. Life without internet and cell phone access is worth experiencing.

The fishery did not have internet or cell phone access. In order to contact home, I used a calling card and an old, rickety phone booth that worked most of the time. Yet this was a blessing in disguise. Living without access to the rest of the world was exactly the breath of fresh air I needed. It forced everyone at the fishery to communicate face to face. It was a change, but a good one. Rather than from a computer screen, entertainment came from games, exploring the waters, and bonding over personal stories.

4. Mind over matter.

When faced with a physical challenge, I learned that it truly is a game of mind over matter. The combination of a cold fishery, frozen salmon and the nonstop splashing of water was a nightmare. On top of that, standing on one’s feet for 16 hours while endlessly plucking bones from a fish fillet was physically draining. I’d never missed my office job more. However, in order to avoid collapsing, I learned to play mind games with myself. I started the day convinced that I only had three hours, and I’d be done (when really I only got a 15 minute break and then headed straight back to the line). Then I would say the same thing until lunch, where I got a 30 minute break, and so on. Not only did I tell myself this job was a piece of cake, but I refused to mentally accept the fact that I’d be there for 16 hours in a row. Tada!

5. Heating pads are a girl’s best friend.

After each shift, what better way was there to ease into sleep than with a heating pad? This piece of magic was perfect for the aching back I had each night. However, I learned that heating pads weren’t only the solution for Alaska, but for many other female necessities as well. Cramps? Pull out the heating pad. Sore abs? Pull out the heating pad. Whatever the issue, reach for the heating pad.

6. Vegetables are our friends.

The fishery provided its workers with free room and board. While this was very generous, it did come with a price: my figure. White rice was served with each meal, followed by a brown type of pasta filled with potato chips. On special occasions we were served luxuries such as bananas or dried oranges. This trip (and my expanding waistline) undoubtedly made me realize how much I missed real food, let alone vegetables and greens.

7. Sweatpants, hair tie, chillin’ with no makeup on… is the way to go.

The laborious work, long hours, and minimal sleep made me resort to ultimate comfort. This meant wearing old, cotton sweatpants and a sweatshirt every day. Not only did this help me stay warm, but it hid the extra weight. Which was necessary. Then, each morning I would throw my hair up into the messiest of all buns. We were required to wear hairnets in the factory, which meant that girls had to tie back their hair. I made it simpler by piling every strand on the very top of my head. Finally, due to the early mornings and begrudged scramble to the factory before each shift, I never took the time to put on makeup. It was pointless. And people built loving friendships regardless. This was the beauty. Working in Alaska, where people are seen at their rawest, the most beautiful relationships are built.