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Hillsdale juniors Jackson Ventrella and James Young spent the summer at a fishery in Alaska.   Jackson Ventrella | Courtesy
Hillsdale juniors Jackson Ven­trella and James Young spent the summer at a fishery in Alaska. Jackson Ven­trella | Courtesy

Although spending 16 hours a day pro­cessing Alaskan sockeye salmon may not be everyone’s first thought of what con­sti­tutes an amazing summer job, juniors James Young and Jackson Ven­trella said it proved to be one of the best expe­ri­ences they’ve ever had.

Young and Ven­trella, who had been friends since high school, decided to look for a job together.

“We wanted a few things for the summer. We wanted to go far away, we didn’t want to have to pay to live in this faraway place, and we wanted to make money. Those were our three goals,” Young said.    

Young and Ven­trella, Biology/Theater and Pol­itics majors respec­tively, began looking for summer employment on a website called coolworks.com. This site lists hun­dreds of dif­ferent employment oppor­tu­nities. After applying to several, they settled on Leader Creek, a fishery in Alaska, which proved to fit these cri­teria per­fectly.

“I had always wanted to go to Alaska, so that’s where I wanted to look for a job,” Ven­trella said.

Young and Ven­trella flew from Seattle, Wash­ington, to Alaska, where they spent about a month and a half of their summer working at the fishery.

According to the Leader Creek website, the job had some chal­lenges.

“Being a fish processor is not easy,” the website said. “Working 12 to 16 hours every day for weeks on end is dif­ficult.” During peak season, which lasted for three weeks beginning July 4, they worked 19 straight 16-hour shifts, some­times beginning at 4 a.m.

The process begins in the ocean and ends on the shelf. The sockeye salmon are caught by inde­pendent fish­ermen who each sell up to 150,000 pounds of fish to the company daily. All these fish are placed into tubs and then suc­tioned nearly a half a mile uphill to the plant’s fish house, where they are cleaned and processed and pre­pared to be quick-frozen or vacuum packed.

While Young worked in what he described as the “cleanest, easiest part of the process,” vacuum pack­aging, Ven­trella spent his days fil­leting hun­dreds of sockeye salmon. After the fish were mostly clean, they were sent to Ventrella’s station, where he was in charge of removing any remaining skin or residue on the fish. In vacuum pack­aging, Young placed the com­pletely clean fillets onto the pack­aging before they were sealed by a machine. Only the highest quality fillets were sold to buyers, including the Costco Wholesale Cor­po­ration. Fillets of lower quality were sent back to be freeze-dried.

The dif­ficult working con­di­tions and long hours took their toll on many of the employees working at the fishery. Of the 400 Leader Creek employees this summer, approx­i­mately 100 quit before the end of the season.

“I learned that I’m tougher than a lot of people,” Young said. “You were doing menial tasks, in my opinion, but I think it was more mental than any­thing else. If you were deter­mined enough, it wasn’t really that strenuous on your body.”

Ven­trella had similar thoughts on his summer, and said he is con­sid­ering going back next year.

“It was a ton of fun and you learn a lot about yourself working there,” Ven­trella said. “You pretty much just work, sleep when you can, and you get to see how good you have it here. Being away from the internet and normal life is a really great escape and you get to meet a lot of awesome new people.”