Port Bailey Cannery lies at the north end of Kodiak Island. A community bolstered by abundant wild salmon was established here in 1912, and in 1938, Kadiak Fisheries built a cannery and named it after company vice-president F. Howard Bailey. Fire destroyed most of the facility 10 years later, but it was rebuilt. In 1968, Columbia Ward Fisheries (later called Wards Cove) bought the plant and produced millions of pounds of canned salmon each year until the outfit closed in the late 1990s. (Learn more at explorenorth.com.) Courtesy Neal Drury.

This excerpt (edited for length) is from Tanyo Ravicz’s book Land of Bear and Eagle: A Home in the Kodiak Wilderness, to be published by Hancock House Publishers. Used with permission.

The first time I rafted alone through the notorious Whale Passage on Kodiak Island’s north coast, I celebrated being alive by tying up at Port Bailey Cannery and buying a pack of Camel Lights for $2.70. I had already quit smoking cigarettes, but I made an exception.

At the cannery store I asked Tammy—she was broke and up from Montana—what the heck was going on. Why were the cannery workers twiddling their thumbs? “Everybody’s sitting around like there’s no tomorrow.”

“Maybe there’s not,” she said.

The cannery store sold food and sundries, not just the snack foods that the cannery workers favored, but also the milk, eggs and other staples purchased by the fishermen. The store being on the main dock by the business office, Tammy had her ear to the source of important cannery gossip.

“What happened?” I said. “Fish stop swimming?”

“Fishermen stopped fishing,” she said. The canneries had offered such a low price for pink salmon that the fishermen were meeting in town tonight to decide whether to strike.

A dozen rubber-booted cannery workers loitered outside, and when I stepped out and lit a cigarette, they scrunched their eyes up at me.

“Just heard about the strike,” I said.

“Ain’t no fish anyway,” one of them said.

“Red salmon run totally sucks is what I heard,” said another.

“I’m just here to detox,” a third said. “I don’t give a shit about the fish.”

Half a dozen cannery workers rushed toward me when I offered cigarettes. I left them the pack and went and greeted Slim, the plant manager, who had just turned into the office next door. Earlier in the summer—the year was 1997—Slim had given me permission to tie my raft up at Port Bailey Cannery and to shop at the cannery store and use the pay telephone. The cannery, owned by Wards Cove Packing Company of Seattle, one of Alaska’s major seafood processors, was private property, after all, so I was grateful to Slim for his indifference to my coming and going. Slim knew I wasn’t a fisherman, just a local homesteader, and he briefed me on the cannery’s latest position. The fishermen wanted 15 cents for a pound of pink salmon; the company offered a nickel.

“Any movement?” I said.

“I can tell you this. The ones being hurt when the fishermen don’t fish are those kids out there. If this keeps up, we’ll have to send them home.”

Inside of an old mostly empty warehouse, except for stacks of ropes and nets. Wooden floor
Old nets and rope sit on pallets inside the warehouse. Photo courtesy Neal Drury

When I boated back to the cannery a few days later, the workers were grim-faced. Some indeed were going home. From the company’s perspective, neither Mother Nature nor the fishermen were cooperating.

Tammy sighed and leaned her elbows on the store counter. “Not enough fish coming in. If it doesn’t get better, it’s going to get worse.”

“Your job safe?”

“Supposed to be through August, fish or no fish,” she said. “Who knows?”

The wind had risen in Dry Spruce Bay, a sign that I should head back to my homestead. I gave Tammy two dollars for a carton of eggs, and she walked me across the dock and looked at the roughening water with me. “You’ll get your eggs scrambled before you get home,” she said.

A round trip to Port Bailey Cannery, five miles east of my homestead, cost me a gallon and a half of gasoline. The cannery’s pay telephone and mail service, a twice weekly mail delivery by seaplane, were helpful when I needed to buy supplies. When I ruined my power drill by leaving it in the rain, I used the cannery telephone to order a new drill, and a week later I boated to the cannery to see if my drill had arrived on the mail plane. I also telephoned Martina, my wife, in Fairbanks. In those days I was still learning how to be alone in the bush, and I traveled to Port Bailey Cannery more often than I needed to just so I could see the people there.

There were fewer of them as the summer wore on. An enormous tramp steamer was anchored in the bay one day, and this was an ominous sign. A smaller boat, a Wards Cove tender, lay alongside it.

“Tramper’s taking all the fish and salmon eggs we got,” Tammy said.

“Taking it where?”

“Japan. Slim’s emptying every freezer in the house.” She led me next door and showed me a notice taped in the office window. Cannery operations suspended as of July 31.

White buildings sit elevated above the water on tall pilings. One building has Port Bailey painted on the side. All the infrastructure appears old and weather-worn.
The old dock pilings have seen better days. Photo courtesy Neal Drury
Corroded metal, looks like wheels of some kind
Remnants of equipment rust on the cannery grounds. Photo courtesy Neal Drury

By the middle of August, the cannery was down to a skeleton crew. I roamed the premises and hardly saw anyone. In the office mail crate, I found a letter from Martina.

“Sure appreciate you letting me get my mail here,” I told Slim.

“Don’t mention it.”

“Cannery going to reopen?” I had seen the Wards Cove tender picking salmon up from the local fishermen.

“No chance of that,” Slim said. Yes, Wards Cove was buying salmon again, but the harvest was being shipped to the company’s Alitak plant at the south end of Kodiak Island. How had the company resolved its price dispute with the fishermen? I found a relevant posting in the office window. Due to “an expected shortfall” of pink salmon, the price being paid to the fishermen had risen to 12 cents a pound effective August 1st.

Tammy joined me outside on the dock.

“What’s the word?” I said.

Real slow,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Lousy salmon runs. Herring season was horrible. Fishermen gonna be hurting for money this winter.”

“What about you?” I followed her into the store and bought a three-pack of Cracker Jack. I left one of the boxes on the counter for her.

“Still broke. Didn’t get the overtime I wanted working nights on the line. It’s been a crappy season.”

A red building that says Beach Locker. floats hang on the side
Most of the buildings at Port Bailey are painted bright red. Photo courtesy Neal Drury

In the third week of August, I rafted back to the cannery to say goodbye to her. Port Bailey was deathly quiet now. I would soon head to Fairbanks for the winter, and Tammy was moving on to a cannery in Dutch Harbor, a job that turned out to be more than a one-time gig. When I looked for Tammy the following May at Port Bailey, the young woman behind the counter told me that Tammy had relocated to the Dutch Harbor plant.

“I’m Alba,” the new clerk said. “The foreman’s daughter.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“No. My father is José, the foreman,” she said.

“I guess if l looked like you and worked in a cannery I’d be the foreman’s daughter, too,” I said. “That’s a pretty name, Alba. What’s it mean?”

“It means dawn,” she said. Alba’s mother worked in the cannery kitchen, and her little brother was there, too. Alba had been coming to Port Bailey from Texas every year since she was a child. In round terms she looked to me about fifteen years old, and I didn’t doubt that her mom and pop kept a close eye on her.

Big metal cylinders tilted on their side with red lids
Boilers used in the salmon canning process sit silent. Photo courtesy Neal Drury

The cannery store stayed open that summer of 1998, but I didn’t see as much of Alba as I’d seen of Tammy. Mostly I stayed at the homestead, finishing the cabin trim and interior. Martina and the kids would join me in August, and I wanted the cabin to be ready. And Port Bailey wasn’t as diverting as before because there weren’t many people around. The cannery remained active, loaning nets and skiffs to the fishermen, but the fish processing operations, the canning and freezing lines, didn’t reopen, and so the line crews didn’t return, and without the workers there wasn’t the old summertime liveliness at Port Bailey. The warmth was gone.

Spools of cable in a building at Port Bailey Cannery
Winches and cable used to haul boats in and out of the water. Photo courtesy Neal Drury

Even so, I rafted there to use the telephone and the mail service. In the store I chatted with Alba. Port Bailey still operated as a supply base for Wards Cove fishermen in transit to the fishing grounds of Bristol Bay and mainland Alaska, but the heart of the old cannery, the processing lines, never restarted. It would be some time before we understood how Port Bailey Cannery had been doomed by the changing economics of the seafood industry in the 1990s, by the globalization of every segment of the seafood market, labor and supply as well as consumer demand. We saw the early signs, though. In September 1998, Wards Cove sent an appraiser to Port Bailey Cannery to determine the value of the plant machinery. According to Dennis Bell, the newly arrived cannery caretaker, the company wanted to borrow money on its hard assets. Dennis, when I asked him why, gestured at his shabby clothes and his scruffy, blear-eyed face and said, “Do I look like they tell me?”

Nevertheless, Dennis speculated that Wards Cove planned to open a new cannery in Russia, where it already co-owned a plant with the Russian government. “Plenty of labor in Russia,” Dennis said, “and the country’s like Alaska, but industrially they’re seventy-five years behind us, so there’s still plenty of fish.”

Dennis and Barbara Bell lived in the modest caretaker’s residence that overlooked the cannery from the south. Their job was to maintain the machines over the winter and to mind the premises. They also monitored VHF radio channel 79, an important duty because Port Bailey remained a communications hub for Kodiak Island’s north coast.

After Martina and the children joined me at the homestead, a boat trip to Port Bailey Cannery became a family excursion, an outing made memorable by the conversation and refreshments we enjoyed with the Bells. Barbara had gathered boxfuls of paperback books and sweatshirts left behind by the cannery workers, and she let us pick through these and take what we wanted. We continued to use the mail service and the telephone, and on mail days we crossed paths with peninsula neighbors whom we rarely saw otherwise.

Dennis had the job of changing the oil weekly in the Northern Lights generator, a 55-kilowatt generator that powered the dormant cannery in winter. The powerhouse also housed four diesel generators rated 250, 250, 400, and 420 kilowatts, plus a water system generator and circuit breaker panels for the entire cannery: the machine shop, kitchen, bakery, bunkrooms and so on, a reminder that a working cannery is like a small city. This is an aspect of canneries that always fascinated me, how the profit motive, or the motive to satisfy a popular appetite for seafood and to profit by doing so, led to the flourishing in remote parts of Alaska of these mechanized outposts of civilization. Two residences, apart from the caretaker’s house, overlooked the cannery complex, the superintendent’s house and a guest house. Below these, near the processing plant, were the mess hall and living quarters for the workers: the Surf House, Island House, and Filipino Bunkhouse. The front office, radio room, and general store were centered on the main dock, and a sprawling breezeway linked these to the cannery proper. Port Bailey Cannery had a welding and machine shop, a wood shop, infirmary, laundry, battery shed, a “beach locker” where oil and chemicals were kept, and, at the edge of the dock where a boat could pull up to it, an ice house.

A room piled with Port Bailey Cannery items
Cannery collectibles: corks, shells, driftwood…and memories. Photo courtesy Neal Drury

What we saw, approaching by sea from the west, was the immense cannery projecting from the shore on pier and piles, a long white warehouse with thirteen square vented windows in its side and a tin roof. The several large, attached structures included a green-roofed hangar on which the seagulls congregated. In front, at the seaward corners of the dock, cranes stood ready for lifting and lowering cargo. On one of the main facades the words PORT BAILEY were painted in huge black letters easily visible to the cannery crews arriving by seaplane.

Inside, the crews either froze or canned the incoming harvest of salmon. The freezers included five blast freezers that instantly crystallized the fish and a deep-freeze chamber that held above a million pounds of product at -30°F. The salmon, after being headed, gutted, and washed, were fast-frozen, glazed in a salt bath, packed in shipping boxes, and moved into deep freeze. There were tanks and valves and condensers at every turn. Water, power, and refrigerant lines passed along the walls and overhead. Exploring the vast cannery, alone or in the company of the various caretakers who came and went, I craned my neck, looking into its farthest reaches.

In May 1999 the Bells were replaced by the Garbers, John and Midge, another longtime Wards Cove couple, devoted to the company. A man like John Garber, who knew plumbing, electricity, and diesel engine generators, who knew the working guts of a cannery and had the virtue of loyalty, was of tremendous value to a company like Wards Cove. When I walked the lines with John, I learned details about the equipment that I never would have known or thought to ask. I had worked in canneries in Bristol Bay and Anchorage, I’d been a gutter, a giller, a spooner, and a grader; I’d stood in slime lines and packing lines cleaning and boxing herring, halibut, and salmon; and I’d manned freezer lines, hefting my share of fifty-pound boxes, but these were low-level jobs of the sort in which the laborer, cut off from the greater design of the cannery, is too timid to ask questions for which he expects no answers, or too indifferent or muscle-weary to care.

Partially red, partially dark brown fox standing in front of red building with sign for Alaska Rug Company
A fox visits the porch outside the Alaska Rug Company, a business that has for the past several years created home décor using the rope left on the property. Photo courtesy Neal Drury

Port Bailey Cannery had seven giant retort cookers for sealing the newly canned batches of salmon. The retort operator turned a wheel to open and shut these massive vats, each of which accommodated many hundreds of cans. The trays were slid in, a red light went on, and the cans were brought to a temperature of 260°F for 72 minutes. The heat was generated in an oil-burning boiler that stood upright in the middle of this array of vats. The salmon had been prepared beforehand, of course, on a mechanized butchering line that hadn’t changed much since its invention early in the twentieth century. The incoming fish were headed, tailed, gutted, and pressure-cleaned by machine, then cut into can-size pieces. A salt pellet was dropped into each can, and a lid put on. Even with the automation, it took a shift of twenty-four souls to run the twin can lines. The workers guided the salmon through the cutting and filling machines, scraped the guts, trimmed the meat, graded the salmon, and removed the valuable roe to the egg house.

An entire can line was missing now, a few rollers left on the floor and some power cords dangling from the ceiling. According to John Garber, the apparatus had been shipped to Russia for Wards Cove’s new venture there. As the company looked abroad for cheap labor and unexploited consumer markets, it streamlined its business at home by closing and consolidating plants. Alaska’s seafood industry had been bleeding a hundred million dollars a year. The watchwords were efficiency and cost-cutting. In April I had seen several tenders leaving Port Bailey Cannery with fishing gear for the upcoming herring and salmon seasons, but also with dry goods taken from the shelves of the cannery store where Tammy and Alba used to work. If there’s a sure sign that a cannery is dying, it’s the closing of the company store. By the summer of ’99 it was clear that Wards Cove meant to rid itself of Port Bailey Cannery. John Garber never gave me the skinny on a cannery sale, but once as we walked in the breezeway, he pointed at a sixteen-foot Lund skiff and told me that Wards Cove would let me have it for two hundred dollars if I wanted it.

John Garber was a large, kindly, patient man with a head of white hair and a Lincolnesque beard. He had commercially fished with a thousand-foot driftnet and had maintained entire processing plants, but he still liked to fish from the dock with a simple rod and reel in the hope of catching a simple codfish, which he considered “not bad eating, if you scrape the worms off of ’em.” Before John got too busy with his summer duties, we sat on the dock and chatted in the spring sunshine. The setting, near the foot of Kupreanof Mountain, was glorious. Midge, John’s wife, sometimes joined us there. I enjoyed hearing their stories of their gold-mining operation on remote Tugidak Island in the Gulf of Alaska.

A sign for Port Bailey Store with arrow pointing to main entrance. Sits against stacks of corks
A sign is propped up by old corks used on commercial nets. On the top shelf at the far left is a can of Buhach, an insect repellent powder that many long-time Alaskans miss, as it is no longer manufactured. Photo courtesy Neal Drury

Port Bailey Cannery got busy again in early June before the commercial salmon fishing opened. The cannery remained a base from which the company loaned equipment to its fishermen. But the decision had been made in Seattle to close the cannery, and there was no talk of processing fish here again. The price disputes with the fishermen added uncertainty to a market already challenged by the spread of aquaculture and foreign competition. The drive to consolidate was relentless.

I never saw John angry or despairing when he made the rounds of the fallen cannery. Wearing a Gold Miners Association of America cap, John was calmly Calvinistic about things. Commercial fishing, he thought, was doomed. “You have one million fish one year, ten million the next,” he said. “How do you prepare for that? You can’t. It’s too unpredictable. Right now there’s plenty of wild salmon, but the writing is on the wall. The future is in farmed fish, and Alaskans will have to join in that industry or lose out.”

A white life ring with green lettering that reads, Port Bailey est. 1912
Port Bailey has a long history. Photo courtesy Neal Drury

After the Garbers left, another couple came on as caretakers, Brian and Melinda from San Antonio, Texas. They were followed by a local couple from Kodiak. To me, the cannery had become a melancholy place. When I wandered the premises, I noticed the smaller things now, the details that evoked the people who had worked here and the routines they had followed: the hand dip station, the earplug dispenser, the cage full of rubber gloves, the warning signs about the dangers of moving parts. I could just about hear the clangor of the machines and see the fish-laden belts going by and feel the blast of cold air from the freezers. Mostly it was the absence of the workers that affected me, affected me as powerfully as if they had all been suddenly present, all the cannery hands who ever worked here, expended muscle and spirit here, all of that energy coalescing in a single great shout—an outcry—a crescendo, and then that too died away and I was alone in the echoing silence.

In the end the cannery was a ghost cannery, killed off, finally, by the same modernization and the same balance-sheet logic that at one time had animated and made of it a thriving world. In its twentieth-century heyday, the cannery was a factory producing countless tons of canned and boxed salmon that fed countless people around the world. Port Bailey Cannery was sold for a comparative pittance in 2003, its grounds suspected of being contaminated by fuel and other hazardous wastes. The subsequent owners have met with mixed success in transforming the sprawling property into this or that profitable enterprise.


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