Thursday, July 12, 2007
VALDEZ, ALASKA — We were pleased to see the sun shining today in Valdez. Both yesterday and Tuesday it had rained on and off all day; this didn’t really impede any of our activities, but it’s always nicer to do touristy things on a nice day.
Anyone wandering around Valdez would quickly realize that fishing is a big part of the town’s economy. One of the first things we saw when we first arrived at our RV park was a fish cleaning station behind the park office, where people were standing around a large table, filleting and cleaning salmon, their catch of the day. From time to time a fellow scooped all the heads, tails and guts toward a hole in the middle of the table, where a big grinder reduced it all to chum, to dump back into the harbour.
Next to the harbour are a number of enterprises that offer fishing excursions, flash freezing and shipping of your catch, or, simply, fresh fish to buy and take home for dinner. At the docks this morning were dozens of fishing boats at anchor. Authorities maintain control over the fishery through quotas and scheduling that mean some boats must wait a few days between trips out. When they do get the go-ahead, they stay out all day, transferring their catch to tender boats that suck it into their holds through large pipes and shuttle it back to the docks for processing.
We drove over to Peter Pan Seafoods Inc. this morning to buy some fresh Copper River red salmon and halibut. There was a sign outside a large, factory-like building that said "fish 4 sale: go through the door and up the stairs", so we did. We passed men in coveralls and rubber boots at the door, walked through an employees’ coffee break area and through a dark passageway. On the right was a kind of loading dock, and on the left an assembly line where workers, wearing white hairnets, were sorting fish and where cans were being stuffed, shunted along a conveyer belt and sealed.
No one paid any attention to us, but there were blue fish shapes painted on the floor that led to a staircase, so up we went, and at the top was a small landing with large chest freezer, fridge and shelves with signs indicating prices. A little further on was the administrative office, and a nice woman, also wearing a white hairnet, came from behind the counter to serve us. More than $150 later, we walked out with frozen salmon fillets, halibut fillets, fresh salmon, fresh halibut, a case of canned salmon and a box of scallops! We came straight back to the trailer and managed to squeeze all that into our small fridge and freezer. Guess what was for supper tonight?
On our way again, we took a look at the Valdez Museum, where some wag had mounted a very believable display of a fur-clad fish, known only in cold Alaskan waters, and a set of sharp-toothed jaws that claimed to be those of an ice worm, 27 feet long! There were some more serious displays of gold rush artifacts, plus an incredibly ornate steam-operated fire engine from the late 1800s, restored with nickel and gold leaf on its gleaming engine and spoked wheels.
After lunch we strolled over to the harbour to have a look at all the boats. Mixed together were dozens of sleek pleasure boats and hard-worn fishing rigs, loaded with nets, waiting the call to go out on the water. We stopped to chat with a fishing boat captain on the dock, who told us that some rigs are operated by a single individual. We asked him about the fish hatchery that gets the small fry started and then releases them to the join their wild siblings in the sound. He said they do contribute to the survival of the fishery, but seasoned fishermen can tell the hatched from the wild and prefer the latter.
Near the Peter Pan Seafoods building we saw dormitories where itinerant crew stay at the height of the season — and a sign indicative of the region’s long daylight hours, reading "no basketball playing after 10 pm. People are trying to sleep!" A summer job on one of these rigs would certainly be a unique experience for a young person.