Archive for August, 2013

End of the Salmon Season

August 26, 2013

The cannery workers get tired,

In the cold and the wet they perspired.

Your attitude sours

With unreasonable hours

I watched a fellow get fired.

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  I danced back from the brink of burnout in 2010, and, honoring a one-year non-compete clause, went to have adventures and work in out-of-the-way locations.  After jobs in Alaska, New Zealand, Iowa, and Nebraska, I returned home and took up a part-time, 54 hour a week position with a Community Health Center.  I’m taking a working vacation now in Petersburg, Alaska.

A cannery worker in Petersburg signs up for 10 weeks of 16 hour shifts, and no days off.  One hundred twelve hours in a week fetches 72 hours of overtime, to make the equivalent of 148 hours of pay.  An unskilled worked could conceivably gross $11,000 in a summer, but faces the difficulty of paying for a round trip ticket.  The cannery offers a bonus of $400 to those who finish the summer.

People with functional, stable home lives don’t sign on for that kind of job; each person on the cannery work force brought drama with them.  And each bit of drama showed irony when it arrived on this island.

One plant has 600 workers but loses 2% per week.  This season, 120 workers quit or got fired.

Undoubtedly a few get news from home that whatever they fled from has resolved.  Substance abuse sabotages others.  But a good number just break under the strain of sleep deprivation.

One patient came right out and asked for a day off to sleep in front of the plant safety manager, who  said, “Please, doc, give it to him.  He’s been working 16 hours a day for the last 10 weeks.”

I rarely find that kind of sympathy coming from management; I wrote the note from my heart.

No one should work doctors’ hours except doctors.  I understand why management set things up this way.  Housing comes at a premium, workers want to maximize the return on their travel investment.

I see the human cost.

On my last day here, a Sunday on call, I walked back from the Medical Center.  With patients tucked in, and no work expected for a couple of hours, I stepped into the rain, under the sky completely overcast.  I walked two blocks downhill to the main drag, Nordic Drive, and a block up to the hardware store, past cannery workers looking lost and exhausted, speaking English, Spanish, French, Patois, and Amharic.  I bought a 3 day fishing permit to start Monday.

I turned up Nordic Drive, walking uphill, south, between the canneries and the cannery housing.  A block ahead, I saw a tall, thin young man with an enormous duffel on his back, and a blue backpack hanging in front.  He spoke to an older, shorter man, who, judging from body language, gave directions to either the ferry terminal or the airport.  The younger man appeared confused.

As I passed the pair, I heard the young man say, “I don’t understand why.”

The older man said, “Because you’re terminated.”

The young man had spent close to a thousand dollars to get here, had worked horrible hours, and faced an unscheduled departure.

I kept walking up the hill.  Within a hundred paces I left behind the cannery noise, industry and commerce, the large Victorian homes built a hundred years ago at the edge of town, past the top of the hill, to where Nordic Drive runs along Wrangell Narrows and the residential area with its pocket parks comes almost to the water.  A murder of crows gathered on the phone lines.  A bald eagle glided across the water.  Gulls gathered on the intertidal by the thousand.

I thought about drama, irony, contrast, and meaning, and how context makes all the difference.

Tomorrow we’ll start winding this trip up.

 

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Timing and Placement.

August 20, 2013

The come up the creek by the ton

They die right after they’re done

Is there anything sadder

Than to backslide a fish ladder?

We were here to watch salmon run.

 

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  I danced back from the brink of burnout in 2010, and, honoring a one-year non-compete clause, went to have adventures and work in out-of-the-way locations.  After jobs in Alaska, New Zealand, Iowa, and Nebraska, I returned home and took up a part-time, 54 hour a week position with a Community Health Center.  I’m taking a working vacation now in Petersburg, Alaska.

I arrived early at work this morning and found, to my surprise, no names on my schedule but the two words DAY OFF instead.

It came as a complete surprise, and we had planned nothing.

We went the 17 miles out-of-town to the fish hatchery.

Natural Pacific salmon eggs hatch in clear lake water, and the fry stay in the lake for 2 years.  By then, 3 to 4 inches long, they qualify as smolts, and swim downstream to the sea where they will stay for a few years.  The longer they spend in salt water, the bigger they grow. If too small at the end of their marine sojourn they can’t fight to establish mating dominance; if too large they might not find adequate stream flow.  Their desperate play with game theory pans out for the species at the expense of the individuals; they die after they spawn.

(Atlantic salmon live to spawn another year, up to six times).

Crystal Lake never hosted wild salmon because the water, with almost no mineral content, is too pure, still rates as a great home to a hatchery.  We looked at the fry, an inch or two long, in great rectangular concrete ponds fifty yards long, and strolled over to smaller manmade ponds next to the building marked ADULT SPAWNING and found fish three feet long.

We followed the water flow for the adult salmon holding pens; down a chute 20 feet long and 18 inches wide that communicated with a creek, which, in turn, flowed into a brackish slough a hundred yards away.

Salmon ranging in size from 9 inches to three feet cruised back and forth in water no more than a foot deep.  Few found the ladder; dead salmon carcasses littered the water.

Two lunkers arrived at the uphill terminus while we watched.

But we also saw a lot of smolt-sized fish swimming with the adults.

One of the employees informed us that tomorrow the adults would be manipulated; the resulting eggs, fertilized with the resulting milt, would be the basis for the one and a half million eggs to be hatched the next year.

Closer to town, where the weekend rain swelled Falls Creek, the salmon’s frantic struggle at the fish ladder played out while we
watched.  Sometimes the fish jumped to the next step, more often they missed. A few raced up aggressively, some rested in the 4×6 foot pools.  An occasional one backslid.  I could not understand the large number of immature salmon, less than 6 inches long, making the perilous journey.

On our way back to town, Bethany and I sat at the end of a line of a dozen cars on Mitkof Highway, which runs south along the west edge of Mitkof Island from Petersburg.  On our way back to town the traffic backed up behind an enormous crane crawling its way north.  With a double solid yellow line, none of the drivers showed an interest in passing.

As a measure of the pace of life, a speed limit for most of the paved roads rests firmly at 20 miles per hour, and nowhere goes over 50.  Close proximity of everything insures that “late” rarely means more than 10 minutes.

A naïve, immature Sitka blacktail buck crossed cluelessly in front of us with no awareness that the vehicles moved.  We watched him go past, and a few minutes later looked up to see an eagle fly overhead and land in a pine to our right.  His skittering call came to our ears.

If we hadn’t been stuck in traffic, we wouldn’t have been there for the deer and the eagle.

At the end of the day we walked out again on Sandy Beach at the ebb of a very low tide, and found the barnacle encrusted remains of an ancient fish trap.

For eagle viewing, finding a fish trap, having a deer cross in front of us, salmon reproduction and the viewing thereof, I can think of nothing more important than being in the right place at the right time.

August 19, 2013

Sometimes there’s a treatment delay

By some hours or even a day. 

I do what I can

In a multi-port plan

Keep them working if there’s a reasonable way. 

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  I danced back from the brink of burnout in 2010, and, honoring a one-year non-compete clause, went to have adventures and work in out-of-the-way locations.  After jobs in Alaska, New Zealand, Iowa, and Nebraska, I returned home and took up a part-time, 54 hour a week position with a Community Health Center.  I’m taking a working vacation now in Petersburg, Alaska.

Bethany and I got up early and drove out to Sandy Beach, about a mile down the coast, as the tide reached its ebb.  We walked out on the tidal flats.

Tides can run 23 feet here from low tide to high.  Three creeks empty into Frederick Sound here, the flow braids across the area exposed by the dropping water.  As we walked we saw dead pink salmon scattered here and there, their eyes and bellies pecked out by the seabirds.  A commercial fishing boat lay at anchor a hundred yards from the water’s edge.

We searched for the remains of a fish trap the Natives had started constructing 2,000 years ago and kept using till a hundred years ago.  We didn’t find it.

But we saw sea lions.  And we saw salmon with bad timing trying to swim up the creeks’ trickle across the tidal flats.  We crunched across iridescent blue mussel shells as the rain came harder and harder.

After breakfast I walked to work.  In the clinic I attended a number of commercial fishermen.  The more people work in an industry, the more people will come to harm in it, and fishing doesn’t warrant an exception.  What do they catch?  Mostly salmon, cod, and halibut; if they want to run risks in the off-season they go for crab.

But the more people I talk to the more I find have gotten away from crabbing because of the danger, and they don’t miss it.

Every time I have minutes and opportunity, I quiz people on the industry and I learn more.  I still haven’t figured out the relationship of the tenders to the fishing boats except that a tender can hold 700,000 pounds of fish and a typical fishing boat might only hold 120,000.  Of course the peak load diminishes with bad weather, sometimes by 20%.

People work close to machinery in fishing boats, things happen suddenly and unexpectedly, and bodies come away damaged.  Commercial pressures bring stress, family conflicts make things worse.  People delay treatment because the injury might happen two days out of port.

Sometimes I can run lab after an examination but the patient leaves with his boat on the next tide, and I have to say, When you get to Juneau, show the next doctor this piece of paper.  And you HAVE to see a doctor at your next port.

I do what I can to keep them working.

It reminds me of home, when the farmers get sick or hurt during harvest.

Whales, eagles, and salmon

August 18, 2013

The fish will never ask why

Their biology demands that they try

The end couldn’t be sadder

For at the end of the ladder

The salmon spawn and inevitably die

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  I danced back from the brink of burnout in 2010, and, honoring a one-year non-compete clause, went to have adventures and work in out-of-the-way locations.  After jobs in Alaska, New Zealand, Iowa, and Nebraska, I returned home and took up a part-time, 54 hour a week position with a Community Health Center.  I’m taking a working vacation now in Petersburg, Alaska.

Life in Barrow, Alaska finds the rhythm of its heartbeat with the whale, Keosauqua with the deer.  Our home town of Sioux City, Iowa breathes with the corn cycle.  Petersburg, Alaska has its pulse with the fish, in particular, the salmon.

A Norwegian fisherman opened a cannery and founded the town about a century ago, and Petersburg has depended on salmon since.  They also catch cod, crab, shrimp, and halibut, but without salmon, the town wouldn’t exist.

Nine hundred seasonal workers came this summer to work 16 hour days in the canneries, and you can find no more than two degrees of separation between anyone in town and the fishing industry.  By the time someone finishes high school here, they have worked in that industry at some level, whether on a fishing boat or in the cannery.

Today we drove out to Hungry Point and watched the same humpback whales we’d seen in Maui.  We had brilliant conversation with two tourists from Australia.  We went a bit further down the coast to Sandy Beach and watched pink salmon desperately trying to swim upstream to spawn and eagles leisurely waiting to feed on them.

We enjoyed the spectacle, and talked to some people from Petersburg.  The rainfall ran short this summer, and the beautiful clear days have come at a price; one can’t have a rain forest without rain.  Streams have to have adequate flow for the salmon to swim.

People who live here will readily say that king, or Chinook salmon taste best, followed by red (sockeye) or silver (coho).  They speak with disdain of the pink (humpies), saying they’re good for cat food.  And no one even mentions the chum or dog salmon in terms of human food.  Yet the canneries this year will mostly process the pink salmon.

We drove out south on Mitkof Highway along the Wrangell Narrows.  We found the fish hatchery closed, and by then the good hard rain made viewing salmon swimming impossible.  On the way back to town we stopped at the Falls Creek fish ladder, which we found despite the abysmal signage.  While the rain came harder and harder we stood and looked over the concrete, manmade steps that parallel the roaring rapids.

It took a while till we knew what to look for, then the drama of the eternal struggle of life’s longing for itself played out in front of us, salmon desperately swimming against an overwhelming current to find a place to lay and fertilize eggs before they die.

No Pacific salmon survives the reproductive process.

The Valiant Curiosity passed close by

August 14, 2013

 

On this island is it peace that they sought?

Or perhaps it’s the fish that they caught.

Up the Narrows, please note,

There came a large boat,

The world’s 60th largest yacht

 

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  I danced back from the brink of burnout in 2010, and, honoring a one-year non-compete clause, went to have adventures and work in out-of-the-way locations.  After jobs in Alaska, New Zealand, Iowa, and Nebraska, I returned home and took up a part-time, 54 hour a week position with a Community Health Center.  I’m taking a working vacation now in Petersburg, Alaska.

Bethany and I walked back the half-mile from the Petersburg Medical Center on a beautiful late summer evening.  As we ascended our stairs, we looked up Wrangell Narrows at the incoming boat traffic.

A lot of commercial fishing ships call this part of southeast Alaska home.  A series of fjords makes a previous mountain range a cluster of islands, and Wrangell Narrows doesn’t permit the entry of the big Alaska cruise ships.  In the process of learning the difference between, for example, a seiner and a long liner, we look at the structure, and guess out loud.

“It’s a couple of seiners,” we say, “See the skiff being towed and the pile of net on the afterdeck.”

Then we wondered what we saw approaching.  “I think it’s a pleasure craft,” I said.

“Something that big?” Bethany asked.

The vessel stood three stories above the water, but lacked the worn look of a working boat.  In fact, it gleamed white.  No one stood on the foredeck, as for a cruise ship, and the afterdeck sported tables with umbrellas and chairs but no tourists drinking cocktails or eating al fresco.

As she passed by 70 yards away I read the name, Valiant Curiosity.  In the Information Age, we could gawk while she passed out of sight, and, five steps later, put the name in the search engine.

The world’s 60th largest yacht, built at a cost of $100 million for a billionaire German screw tycoon, had purred in front of us at a pace of 18 knots.  It left Seattle on June 18 for an Alaska cruise.

Pretty, but not as beautiful as the tree-covered mountains rising abruptly out of the water 400 yards across the Narrows.  Not breath-taking like the snow-covered peaks looming to the south.  Graceful, but not like the eagles, geese, or even the ducks.  Impressive, but not as impressive as the 900 seasonal cannery workers at their 16-hour-a-day, 7-days-a-week jobs.

We wondered why such a craft would come to Petersburg, a fishing village of 3,000 permanent residents, no gourmet dining and nightlife limited to two blue-collar bars.

I do not plan on finding an answer to that question.  And the best questions don’t have answers.