Lessons I Learned Working in a Salmon Cannery

I spent my summer after college working at a salmon cannery in a remote part of Alaska. I worked as an unskilled laborer at minimum wage, 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. Every moment was spent either working or sleeping; personal time didn’t exist. Working in a cannery was neither fun nor enjoyable, but it was a grounding experience and taught me some unexpected things.

I wanted to work in a cannery for a few reasons:

It was eye-opening. Some of the things I learned from my cannery experience were totally unexpected. For example:

Using your hands to create a physical, tangible output provides a deep sense of satisfaction

I was surprised by the feeling of accomplishment from canning fish, a satisfaction that remained elusive throughout my schoolwork of studying, taking tests, and writing essays. Canning fish was concrete and tangible. At the end of the day I could see hundreds of pallets stacked full of cans and know I had been critical in making that happen.

There are whole swaths of society I never meet in daily life

I met an interesting mix of people I never would have met otherwise in our socially stratified world. I met American blue collar workers who make the annual summer trek up to work in the Alaskan canneries. I met migrant workers from the Philippines and Mexico. I met work exchange students from Ukraine. I met meth addicts, alcoholics, ex-convicts, and gangbangers. After growing up in a middle class community, this exposed me to whole swaths of society I’d never met or interacted with before.

“Hard work” in a white collar job doesn’t compare to blue collar work

Cannery work definitely set a new standard for what “hard work” means. After doing demanding physical labor for 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, a “grueling” 70-hour white collar work week sitting in an air-conditioned office in your ergonomic chair with the ability to take breaks whenever you want doesn’t seem so hard anymore. Not to mention all the perks, like the freedom to use the bathroom whenever you want.

Standing on your feet all day is exhausting

I learned what it’s like to stand on your feet for 16 hours a day. There wasn’t a chair to be found in the entire cannery, aside from some hard wooden stools in the mess hall. I’m certain the lack of chairs was an intentional decision by cannery management to keep workers on their feet and always working. I ended up losing feeling in my pinky toes, and didn’t get feeling back until months later.

A lack of any personal time can put you in a dark place

The most difficult part of spending every waking moment working was the psychological impact of having absolutely zero personal time. There was nothing to look forward to. By day two, I was depressed. In fact, a surprising number of cannery workers left within the first day or two, some without a word, leaving right in the middle of their shift or in the dead of night. I’m not sure if they felt a similar depression or left for other reasons, but I was surprised how a lack of any personal time can put you in a dark place fast. I had to find ways to create fun and joy in my daily work because there was nothing else to look forward to. I started making up games for myself, trying to set personal records in how fast I could get cans onto pallets, or trying to ensure the machine I was operating was never idle. I was also fortunate to be there with four close friends including my brother so I was never alone at meals.

Physical coordination and mental abilities deterioriate quickly past a certain point of exhaustion

Near the end of my shift, my muscle response and ability to think clearly became increasingly impaired. I guess this is the result of physical exhaustion and doing mindless repetitive work for hours on end. The best way to characterize the feeling is like being drunk: my hand wouldn’t move like I wanted, I became forgetful, and my thoughts became muddy and unclear. Working around heavy machinery in this exhausted state, I had to be extra careful not to make any dangerous mistakes.

Physical exhaustion can create euphoria

The joy of coming off my last shift from this exhausted state each day created a weird euphoria. I became giggly and everything would seem funny. Unfortunately I only had enough time quickly wolf down some food and get to sleep before I had to wake up in 6 hours and do it all again (meals took about an hour after the shift, and an hour before the next shift, only leaving about 6 hrs/day to sleep). I always fell asleep immediately and slept like a cadaver until my alarm went off 6 hours later.

Attitudes are infectious so surround yourself with good people

But by far the most important lesson I learned was the importance of attitude on personal happiness, and how much the people around you affect your attitude. This lesson was poignantly driven home while I was tasked with sorting fish heads through the night shift. It was cold and I had to stand in a puddle of blood while getting splattered with fish guts and brain matter. I was paired with a young guy from Sacramento in a dark mood who was constantly complaining about how demeaning and pointless this work was. I tried to ignore him, but my attitude also deteriorated and the work quickly became unbearable. After 4 hours of this, we had a 5 min coffee break, and when I returned to the same job, my negative partner had been replaced with two other people who were in much better spirits. Doing the same dirty job became a completely different (and positive) experience.

Working in a cannery wasn’t fun. It’s one of the more challenging things I’ve done. But doing hard things far outside your daily experience can teach you a lot.