I got an email from a good friend in Kenai the other day who said she'd gone down to the old Columbia Wards' Cannery I used spend my summers at as a fisherman - and the warehouse where I'd spent so much of my time, where my locker was, where I stored supplies, used the crane to haul shackles of web up and down from the loft, where I'd driven my truck to grab gear, driven forklifts to haul it, where fishermen for decades hung their nets, where I'd walked hundreds of times with my camera, was no longer there. Gone were the beefy rafters in the egg house, where cannery workers of all nationalities scrawled their names and the years they worked in the plant – some of them as far back as the 1920’s, when the cannery was rebuilt after the fire. But now that warehouse was no more. The entrepreneur who bought the cannery after Wards' Cove shuttered it in 2000 decided it was a bad investment and sold the warehouse for its lumber - old growth Douglas firs made up those massive rafters. Work crews tore down the structure this past summer, hauling the pieces away while the fishermen who used to dock there tied their boats to buoys downriver, and like all good fishermen paid more attention to the fish, the winds and the tides than to a piece of their history sinking in their wake.
I've visited the cannery every time I've returned to Kenai since I moved away in 1998. Far more so than Indiana, where I spent my childhood, it was really where I grew up, and it had always been a second home to me. Except for when they were rebuilding right after the sale - putting in a restaurant and making hotel rooms out of the old fishermen bunkhouses - it felt like a ghost town. Through the thin veil of time and memory, I could hear in my mind fishermen long gone still laughing on the dock; forklift backup alarms beeping as they moved fish totes into the freezer plant from the dock; boats starting up with the throaty roar only a Jimmy can make. I thought about what to write in tribute to this passing, and decided I needed to re-publish the following piece. It's about a warehouse that's fortunate to be still standing across the Inlet. Some fishermen (not entrepreneurs) bought it a few years ago. They're trying to keep it alive and working - not as a cannery, but as a lodge. They haven't changed it much, from what I've been told. They're trying to keep it from going further into disrepair. They "get" what it is that they purchased.
Snug Harbor Cannery
Chisik Island, Alaska
Deck slippers sound muffled on wood. The thick plank floor of the cannery, worn smooth by decades of footsteps, transmits the noise of my passing with little more than a whisper. I walk back in time. My eyes adjust to dim yellow light. I pick my way through strewn manila line and coiled electrical cords. The warehouse echoes silently in my head with years of engine repairs and assembly-line canning of salmon. Rusted saws and axes still lean against rough-hewn plank walls and stout support beams. Palette after palette of diesel boat engines wait silently in a row, wrapped in dust-covered plastic. Nets bundled in torn and ragged burlap bags sit piled high in dark, forgotten corners like old fat men in a steam bath. Nestled sheets of fiberglass roofing lean against a wall beneath broken windows.
Below my feet I can hear the small waves of the incoming tide roll the gravel of this remote Alaskan beach. The warehouse sits on pilings above the tide line of Tuxedni Bay, Alaska. Mesmerized, I drift up the stairs to the web loft, where I find wooden floors worn smooth and bare with years of dragging nets and line to racks for mending or hooks for hanging. Outboard motors hang in a row on racks of their own under a ceiling of huge, latticed wooden beams. The immensity of the structure, of the beams themselves, lends a cathredral-like quality to the experience of standing under them. They are dark and dry, old-growth Doug fir I am told years after, with deep, rough grooves in their sides and white and yellow words and numbers scrawled on them. “Gebenini,” “Mohr,” “Humbolt, “Showalter,” “63,64,65,” 58, 59, 60.” “Tanaka, 34.”
Over the years, countless cannery workers, tendermen and fishermen crawled high among these rafters to write their names. After their names they put the dates of the summers they spent working the cannery: from as recently as last year to well before I was born. Filipino names, Japanese names, Italian, Norwegian, Native Alaskan. Some with only one date after them, others with repeated, sequential numbers, testifying to summer after summer spent working fish. The gear locker doors below the beams display more names written in marker pen. Names crossed out, one after another, in a legacy of the owners of the lockers’ contents, until only one was left uncrossed: Hoyt: -xed-out; Pugh: -xed-out; Hansen: -xed-out; “Thompson.” Behind the mute locker wire wait stores of gear: buoys, line, nets, props. I find a piece of chalk on the floor near one locker door and bend down and pick it up. I look up, and for a moment consider writing my name, too. But I am only a green deckhand at the start of my first season, and I think I haven’t yet earned the privilege. Maybe another year, if I survive. So I put the chalk down, and walk away.
Ten years later, after ten seasons fishing as a crew and skipper, after finally learning ropes I hadn’t even realized were there to learn, and learning how to catch fish, fix boats and survive rough weather, I return, this time looking for chalk. I find it, pretty much where I'd left it.
Ten years after that I find myself back again, this time with my eleven-year-old son. Together we climb the old stairs to the loft. I show him my name on a beam near the windows, and the years that are written next to it. There are some more to add today. It is his third season with me, and neither of us know it’s to be our last. I ask him if he wants to put his name up there too, next to mine. Together we find half a piece of chalk on a table filled with old mending twine and needles. As I had done alone so many years ago, together we climb steep steps up to the planks that weave through the center of the latticed rafters. We lie down and stretch, one at a time, to reach the beam waiting for us. Our beam. It’s just above the window that looks out on Tuxedni Bay. Looks out on Snug Harbor. I add my years to the space beyond my name, then hand him the chalk. “Hang on a minute,” I say. I go down the stairs, and as he writes his name above mine, I take his photograph.
After the film is developed, back at home later that month we see it together: the picture is dim and blurred, but he is there forever, more in my mind’s eye than on the film, writing his name upon the rafters of our history, of our past, of our lives.
In her email about the Kenai warehouse, my friend said, "I was blown away by the size of the area it enclosed." That's true in more ways than one.