Fri, September 18, 2015

Centennial of a 1915 Larsen Bay Alaskero

By Diane Rodill, Phd.

Despite my interloper lower 48 status, I can report a memorable visit and only warm “Filipino hospitality” from both the Filipino and other communities.

My agenda for the centennial visit was two-fold: share my research findings at Kodiak’s Baranov Museum for my pending book on my father (A Filipino Rascal: Denis Rodill 1894-1977); and retrace Dad’s steps in Larsen Bay. In 1915, Denis worked there as an Alaskero (Filipino cannery worker). Peripherally, I fancied a day of fishing, and for my husband, Paul Lewis, a day of bear spotting.

Even this city girl couldn’t miss how Kodiak’s summer delivers almost endless light, creating a steroid effect on vegetation: 4-5 foot golden iris and purple lupines, petunias the size of my hand, rose cabbages the size of car wheels, foot and a half zucchini, red salmon berries equal to a large man’s thumb, and more. We enjoyed precious summer bounty with an unsurpassed air quality.

July 2, 2015 greeted us with a sun-drenched morning, requiring only a light jacket. With Paul, and Anjuli Grantham, Curator of Collections and Exhibits at the Baranov, I arrived at Kodiak’s KMXT 101.1 FM public radio station to interview on Denis’ centennial. KMXT’s star reporter, Kayla Desroches, prodded me with questions such as: “What motivated your research?” (You can hear the 30 minute mp3 audio on the following “Talk of the Rock: Filipino Cannery Workers” link:

I’m sure the Baranov Museum’s publicity flyer helped my presentation for the evening of July 2. (Scroll down on Despite stunning weather, my talk attracted a diverse mix of locals with some youngsters, a handful of Filipinos, and the Managing Editor of the Kodiak Daily Mirror, Roni Toldanes, another Filipino. (Denis would have smiled.)

Throughout the presentation, I could feel that the audience was friendly, interested, and receptive. I talked them through my slides as Paul snapped images. During the Q&A, most of my answers came easily. Except one. “If your dad were alive today, what would you like to ask him?” That was something of which I had thought little, so I responded as best I could. In retrospect, my questions would probably include: “Why did you run away at age 14?” “Why did you and your first wife, Margie, part?” But we likely will never learn the reasons.

Following the Q&A, I received an enthusiastic response from the audience: more questions, requests for photo ops, and kudos for my 7 years of research. That alone made the trip worthwhile. But I still had part two of my agenda to go—retracing Denis’ steps in Larsen Bay.

The next morning, sunny again, with Paul and Anjuli, we took the 30 minute flight to Larsen Bay. I still felt disoriented from overdosing on light. The pilot of our small single engine Cessna 206 bush plane wove it up between valleys and snow-covered peaks. There I saw Larsen Bay’s raw beauty: New Zealand-like emerald hills, tuxedoed magpies, majestic eagles, black tailed deer, mountain goats, swift otters, and sparkling crystal waters. Until we landed on Larsen Bay’s battered shores…
Deplaning on the gravel landing strip, I quickly used my face net to avoid clouds of insects. The maritime temperatures spread between 45o-70o, and Larsen Bay is home to only 90 year-round residents. But numbers swell each summer with Icicle Seafoods’ diverse cannery workers from Seattle, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Idaho, North Carolina, Micronesia, and more. Some are recent immigrants. The gender ratio was about 60/40, men to women. In 1915 Filipinos may have been about 25% of the workforce; today they were only about 10%. Earlier, Denis’s job may have been “Slimer,” which is just what it sounds like.

The old Filipino bunkhouse is no longer used, and much has changed since Denis’ time. Except for bathrooms, today’s bunkhouses and mess halls were coed and unsegregated. The spartan, but clean, bunk rooms echoed an international hostel, housing three men or women, and no fishy smell. We lodged in Sockeye, a workers’ bunkhouse.

In the mess hall, some groups self-segregated, so I joined the Filipino table for meals and more insight on Denis’ 1915 experience. The Filipinos shared their stories and their cooked octopus, an item not on the mess hall menu. And, yes, their table had lots of rice and patis (Filipino fish sauce). I listened as new and repeat workers told me they were there to earn money, unchanged from Denis’ days. They seemed happy with conditions and appeared well fed: three daily very generous meals and two “mug-up” breaks.

A store still sells goods for cash or credit. But it is independently operated. No exploitive company store these days. Daily posts matched workers with a job, with flexibility to meet changing needs for mess hall or cannery work. I observed no abusive labor practices, despite potential 16-18 hour days, processing a maximum capacity of 25,000 cases of salmon/day. The entire season of 1915 processed 58,790 cases.

On July 4, after the fish were processed—like 100 years ago—we all partied. Icicle’s staff went all out with festive red, white and blue decorations, fireworks, a pie-eating contest, three-legged relays carrying salmon, fish-tub boat races, burning a wooden salmon to appease the gods, and lots of food. Again, we ate with the Filipinos. They were pleased to hear about Denis and see his photos. (Scroll down on the link for July 4 stories and photos, and click on “Photos” for extras:

The next morning, before our return flight, the plant manager, Mike Webb, gave us a tour. He walked us through the entire salmon processing line, explaining the operation and machinery—some of which dates back to the 1920s—and answered all our questions. Mike is a whiz who really knows the business.

Our return flight cancelled out due to weather conditions, but we hitched a ride back to Kodiak on a Piper Saratoga delivering cargo to Larson Bay. The plane’s tiny size was not novel, but boarding was—we had to step on the wing to board. As our pilot wound around the lush mountains, he pointed out goats, seals and glacial silt waters below. With the glorious blue, and puffy clouds, my thought of that scene was, “How could heaven be more beautiful?” By the time we approached Kodiak, the weather had closed in with the ceiling of less than 300 feet. But we found our runway. These Alaskan bush pilots are good.

While I can only speak of the Larsen Bay cannery managed by Icicle Seafoods—it appears today’s Alaskeros are in good hands. We made many new friends in Larsen Bay, Kodiak, and Anchorage, whom we were very sad to leave. But I see returns in the future.

Oh, the scores on fishing or bears: “0” for both—but we ate a lot of salmon and plan bear photography next time.

©2014 Diane Rodill, All rights reserved.

(Notes: Gratitude to all who provided us a rare opportunity in Kodiak, Larsen Bay, and Anchorage. Availability for online links below is undetermined, and apologies that space limited more detail below.)