Summer of Trauma: Tent City, Alaska

Lola Bean - Posted on 09 September 2010

Reginald Thompson PNN Washington Correspondent


 When Jerry Garcia sings the verse:


Busted down on Bourbon Street

Set up like a bowling pin, knocked down

What a long a strange trip this been


It always reminds me of the long 3 months of trials and tribulations I went through to make enough money to break free from tent city in Valdez, Alaska. 



I still regret the day I left my apartment in Anchorage and ran off like a blind rabbit to Valdez. Finding the right cannery to work at in Alaska for the salmon season can be a summer of trauma, especially if you don’t research the type of meals and housing available at the cannery in the town which you want to work. I had to find out the hard way.


I was living in Virginia Beach and my telemarketing job was about to end. I was looking through an Alaskan magazine when I saw the photo of a 200 pounds halibut, I made up my mind to drive to Alaska and get a job working in the Alaska seafood industry.


Back in the summer of 1994, I was invited to go Valdez, Alaska to work at a salmon cannery by a fellow fisherman who I thought was on top of his game. I was told that I could make a lot of money and the cannery needed workers right away. Like the super hero, Flash, I packed up my bags quick, and we dashed off in the truck to Valdez.


When we arrived at the raw- salmon- smelling personnel office at the cannery in Valdez, everything was smooth as jazz until the college kid behind the counter started trading words with me.


The bunkhouse is full, sure look like you guys gonna have to camp out in ten city for the summer with the other 300 workers.


I could feel myself get light-headed, then I yelled “Where the tents, I don’t have a tent!”


We ordered some more tents, but I guess they are a little late, you know this being Alaska.


Then he let out his goofy laugh: Huh, Huh, Huh!


According to, “A tent city is an inexpensive alternative to a motel room or an apartment for seasonal workers…The tent cities are large campsites often own by the town they are located.”



 I had no choice, so I setup a homemade tent composed of tarps, sticks and stones. The words of warning “Get creative or die,” kept flashing in my worried mind. Especially when I also found out that the cannery did not have a mess hall and did not feed the cannery workers in tent city, who processed tons and tons of fresh salmon for the cannery 7 days a week. I felt tricked, cheated, deceived, and degraded. Failure and loathing flooded my heart like the Valdez oil spill flooded the Prince William Sound.   


For the first 2 weeks, I survived on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and prayed that I did not run out of food before payday. After working like a madman for 18 hours a day, I was tormented at night by aching muscles, blood-sucking mosquitoes, loud, loud music, screaming party animals, fighting and most of all, the fear of being mauled by hungry bears.


I paid a heavy psychological toll for camping out in tent city. I was zombie-like after being deprived of adequate sleep. I hallucinated while I was working in the cannery. I was in the jaws of danger. I saw workers get their fingers chopped off by grinding blades of fish gutting machinery. I saw workers faint and hit their heads on cement floors in the cannery, because they were over-worked and under-fed. Dangerous predators invaded tents at night in tent city while cannery workers was asleep. After 3 months of this long nightmare, I knew what time it was. I packed up and went home.


Whenever I hear the song Truckin’ by the Grateful Dead, it still bring back bad

memories of the tent city trauma in Valdez, Alaska. The cannery blasted that song over,

and over again through ear-splitting giant speakers for hours.


Sometimes the light's all shinin' on me;

Other times I can barely see.

Lately it occurres to me What a long, strange trip it's been.

From experience, I can say the town saves money, and the cannery makes money while the workers barely survive the “Summer of Trauma” forced upon them.

Check out these articles and more on our sister sites at Real Change and the International Network of Street Newspapers: INSP Vendor Blog: INSP Main Website: Real Change Blog: Real Change Main Website:

I was so taken with your skill at creating the setting and feel of your story. The adjectives and metaphors you used to convey the energy and vibe of Tent City was just astounding. I truly felt like I could have been there and could empathize with the shock and terror of the situation.


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