Above: Erik de Jong wades through the cold water storage pool to place finishing touches on the dam liner. Photo by Amy Li.

It was supposed to be a day trip. But, as is typical of late November in Southeast Alaska, Mother Nature had different plans.

While much of Sitka was still recovering from the hustle of Thanksgiving, naval architect Erik de Jong bustled around his workshop with haste, in preparation for another trip down to Goddard Hot Springs. After several delays due to weather and fabrications of materials earlier in the week, he was eager to return to complete the water delivery system improvements that the Sitka Conservation Society Community Conservation Corps had been tasked with completing, made possible by the City of Sitka’s allocation of CARES Act funding. The City of Sitka contracted Sitka Conservation Society to develop a transitional employment program to not only relieve the economic burden placed on individuals and families as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, but also to create new community assets and alleviate the backlog of public works maintenance projects.

By headlamp, de Jong loaded up his boat with shovels and a Pulaski and tool bags and, crucially, a package of bacon. But this wasn’t just any skiff. It was the S/V Bagheera, a 52-foot steel sailboat that de Jong had built with his father during university in the Netherlands, where he grew up. Its distinctive black-and-yellow exterior shone in the cold, early morning, bobbing next to de Jong’s personal dock. 

Corps member Greta Healy works on clearing the area next to the dam. Photo by Lione Clare.

Along with Greta Healy, an SCS Corps member, Erik de Jong began the trip to Goddard Hot Springs. Located 16 miles south of Sitka, Goddard boasts two public soaking pools housed in cedar bathhouses maintained by the City of Sitka. Its proximity to town makes it an accessible and popular location for locals and visitors alike. The natural temperature of the hot springs, however, hovers around a scorching 150℉. An enjoyable experience, especially during warmer months, requires a supply of cold water to better control the tub temperatures. The small storage pond, behind a 30-plus year old dam of decaying wood, would regularly run out of cold water.

In an agreement with the City and Borough of Sitka, Sitka Conservation Society set out to design and construct a new wooden dam, tripling the capacity of the previous dam. Dan Jones and Dean Orbison, engineers in Sitka, and Barth Hamberg, a local landscape architect, were key to devising and planning the new and improved structure. Erik de Jong was hired on as the on-the-ground project lead.

Covid-19 negatively affected de Jong’s sailing business, preventing clients from travelling to Sitka and resulting in all of his chartered sailing trips being cancelled this past year. When the SCS Community Conservation Corps needed a project leader with a means of transportation for the Goddard project, de Jong’s wealth of experiences working in remote places and well-appointed sailboat seemed to be the perfect combination. Ever in motion and constantly eager to help out, Erik was just the type of person the City of Sitka was hoping to put to work through the CARES Act-funded SCS CCC.

Corps leaders Erik DeJong and Ben Hughey at work. Photo by Lione Clare.

During a work trip to Goddard in late October, the Corps deconstructed the existing dam, brushed out vegetation to minimize sediment deposition, expanded the holding pool, and built a new, larger dam using nearly 1,500 pounds of lumber. The tools, building materials, and Corps members required for the multi-day construction effort were all transported on the Bagheera. However, after the initial work week, the dam still required a liner to prevent leaks and reduce subsurface flows.

And so, moments prior to departure in the early morning frost, de Jong found himself hoisting the final piece of equipment aboard—a 250-pound heat-welded liner, custom constructed and donated by Sitka’s CBC Construction Inc. Chris Balovich, owner of CBC Construction, chose to donate the liner, which otherwise would have cost several thousand dollars, for its value to many Sitkans.

“Goddard is important to the community as it is a good stop after a long day of hunting,” Balovich explained. “It really warms you up.”

With the hum of the engine melding with the soft lapping of the tide, de Jong and Healy set out into the gray morning. Once anchorage was dropped in Hot Springs Bay, the dinghy was loaded with materials and the crew set to work. The rest of the day was spent hauling the liner over icy wooden boardwalks where patrons of Goddard generously lent a helping hand. Once at the site, the two-person crew painstakingly installed the stiff, heavy liner along the dam, screw by screw.

Progress was slow but steady. By midafternoon, the sun was already setting but the liner was finally close to being secured along the dam’s wooden planks. Water, however, was still escaping from under the liner. Undeterred, de Jong secured his tools at the worksite and plans to return and finish the next day were made.

The next day brought about little work. Instead, gusts of 70 knots rocked the Bagheera for the better part of the work day. Valuing safety first and foremost, de Jong spent the morning cooking up bacon pancakes before cozying up to a triple feature from his extensive movie collection—an apparent prerequisite of sailboat ownership. As evil child-eating giants were defeated in The BFG, heavy rains thundered down upon the Bagheera’s hull.

View from the Bagheera. Photo by Amy Li. 

In the drizzly, but calm, morning that followed, de Jong began work in earnest. He and Healy set to work in ankle-deep water, weighing down the edge of the liner using heavy rocks and shovels full of earth. Gradually, the cold water tank’s water level inched higher and higher. By early afternoon, de Jong was chest-deep in the chilly pool of muddy water. With a final few flourishes, their work was complete.

 The day trip-turned-weekend work trip, replete with stormy seas and plenty of setbacks, was finally a success. The Goddard Hot Springs renovations exemplify how difficult and unpredictable field and construction work can be in Southeast Alaska. Nonetheless, SCS and the City of Sitka took on this challenge and many others because of the need for employment opportunities. This is just one of a dozen projects the SCS Community Conservation Corps took on this season, employing nine Sitkans and a dozen contractors like Erik and working on important community assets on City property.