I went to Dutch Harbor on the Alaska Ferry to look for work. I didn't really expect to get an opportunity to work on a crab boat. I planned to look for cannery work and if that didn't pan out, I remembered how much higher wages were for typical work in Kotzebue than in Fairbanks. I would have a good opportunity to save up if I could find just about any job and a way to live frugally.
The ferry to Dutch Harbor leaves from Homer. The city is out on the weather beaten edge of the Kenai Peninsula. The most picturesque bits are out on an even more weatherbeaten spit. That's where the harbor is, including the Alaska Ferry terminal. I hitchhiked to homer, arriving in the late afternoon. The ferry was leaving in the early evening, so I walked around the spit.
I happened by a group of assorted rough characters gathered around a fire of drift wood on the beach and they invited me to join them. The largest personality seemed to be a big, solidly built man wearing long hair, a flannel shirt and jeans. He was moving a lot, waving his arms, changing from a squatting position to a sitting position and then standing and then sitting again and he was dominating the conversation. His audience did not all have the same hobo look as their entertainer. One or two had more the look of ski bums, with their shaggy hair and high tech clothes. It was early enough in the year, and the clouds thick enough that it felt like dusk. The ever present wind whipped the flames of the fire erratically and made the coals glow brightly. The company was cheerful. I would have stayed longer to enjoy the scenery if it wasn't spoiled by mr. largest personality who had a rip in the crotch of his jeans and wasn't wearing any underwear.
The ferry trip took about three days. The first stop was Kodiak. I've still never really visited Kodiak, but I got a tantalizing glimpse of a quaint looking village on that day. There were other stops that didn't make much of an impression. The ferry had a covered deck where I could spread out my sleeping bag. I wasn't the only one to do so. I remember watching the spaghetti western, "For a Few Dollars More" and I remember being very hungry. I was trying to avoid purchasing any of the exorbitantly priced ferry food.
As we approached Dutch Harbor, in the middle of the night, I went out on deck. The sky was completely clear and lit up with stars. Knowing that Dutch Harbor has bout 250 rainy days a year and nearly constant cloud cover, I took the clear sky as a good omen. I had to hike around for hours to keep warm while I waited for the town to wake up. When dawn came I found a little cafe where I had breakfast and got warm. I tried to find information about cannery jobs, but the people I asked told me that the cannery workers were all hired out of the lower 48. A little alarmed, I went straight to the grocery store and after a brief chat with the baker I had a job lined up starting the next morning.
I immediately noticed a strong correlation between race or ethnic origin and occupation. Mexicans and filipinos worked in the canneries. White pople, operated heavy equipment, drove tug boats and worked in the stores. White people wore the yellow hard hats. Japanese people wore the blue hard hats and carried clip boards. Later, working on the crab boat, one of the other deck hands who was of half Irish and half Portuguese descent, was talking about the tricks he had used to get hired on a crab boat the first time. "You know why you got hired, right?" He asked, "You have blue eyes."
My grandfather, Charles Burr, worked in Dutch Harbor before World War II. In fact he was there during the war when the Japanese bombed. The Aleutians were fairly built up in preparation for the war and the hills surrounding Dutch Harbor are dotted with cement pill boxes.
At some point I found myself walking down a gravel road that cut across a wide gulch with no buildings in site. I was heading for one of the less central canneries. A pickup truck with several guys in the back pulled over to offer me a ride. They had a pass to eat at some kind of corporate cafeteria and invited me to join them. By the time the meal was over they had offered to introduce me to the skipper of the crab boat they were working on. I got the job without much formality and they put me to work immediately mending crab pots.
The skipper was a Norwegian named Mangor Ferkingstad. He told me to call my mom right away and tell her that I was on a safe boat and he proceeded to list the safety features of the Aleutian Spray, one of three in the fleet of the Spray Group, a company based in Seattle. The Aleutian spray had just been refitted, at great expense, with a double wide hull. It had a bulbous bow which Mangor said helped to keep the bow from being swamped in heavy seas. The most important safety feature of the Aleutian spray was obviously the conscientious skipper and Mangor told me to tell my mom about that too, though not in those words. The stats that I have may be way off, but I believe the Aleutian spray's recent upgrade had cost a million dollars. It was 200 feet long and weighed 100 tons. It's diesel engine could push us a long at a maximum of 7 knots. I found a picture of the Aleutian Spray in an article on a Norwegian fishing web site.