Photo by Lione Clare
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.
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.
Photo by Amy Li
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.
Photo by Amy Li
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.
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.
Photo by Amy Li
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.
Sitka Conservation Society Community Conservation Corps crew leaders and members pause for a photo along the Cross Trail, where they have revegetated and naturalized 1.3 miles of trail. Photo by Lione Clare.
Like much of Alaska, the impacts of COVID-19 were felt throughout the Southeast—closing schools and businesses, cutting back transportation between communities, and increasing food insecurity. Employment opportunities, too, became harder to come by. Earlier in 2020, the pandemic caused unemployment to spike to 14.7% nationwide. According to economic development organization Southeast Conference, Southeast Alaska lost 17% of jobs in the region, making it the most economically impacted region in Alaska. In Sitka, the third largest community in Southeast Alaska, a challenging fishing season was exacerbated by low harvests and reduced global demand. This, compounded with the economic losses due to COVID-19 within the transportation, tourism, and retail sectors, led to a great need for economic relief and employment opportunities in Sitka.
Sitka Conservation Society, a non-profit that seeks to both conserve the natural environment of the Tongass National Forest and support sustainable development within communities across Southeast Alaska, identified employment and economic needs in Sitka and stepped up to help. Sitka Conservation Society partnered with the City and Borough of Sitka to establish the “Community Conservation Corps,” a transitional employment program aimed at stimulating the local economy and building local workforce by giving jobs to unemployed, underemployed, and furloughed workers.
Corps member Greta Healy works on clearing the area next to the dam. Work continued through several inches of rainfall over the week. Photo by Lione Clare.
Despite the incessant rain and wind, dropping temperatures, and shortened days that accompany fall in Southeast Alaska, the SCS CCC took on a multitude of projects, ranging from cemetery maintenance to mountain bike trail construction to engineering improvements for a popular local hot springs (see list below). Through the program, SCS hired two Corps leaders and six Corps members who had all been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, several contractors and local organizations who have also been impacted were also hired for their expertise as consultants or to provide services. Community non-profits were also hired to provide workskills and specialized training to help Corps members develop additional skills. The Corps program launched in September and will continue until the end of the funding period in late December. Prior to beginning work, SCS also developed general work safety and COVID-19 protocols to maintain the safety of Corps members and to minimize spread of COVID-19 in Sitka.
Corps project leader Erik de Jong, owner of Bagheera Sailing, wades through the cold water storage pool to place finishing touches on the dam liner. Corps member Greta Healy is pictured behind. On this work trip, the crew endured gusts of over 60 knots during a storm they waited out. Photo by Amy Li.
List of Accomplishments:
Restored the Presbyterian Cemetery with the guidance of Bob Sam, a cemetery restoration expert.
- Roughly two acres of historic burial grounds were brushed out, cleared of hazard trees, and beautified. Felled trees usable as firewood were delivered to elders through Alaska Native Brotherhood. Read more here.
Renovated the Tom Young Cabin, a high-use cabin maintained by the City of Sitka.
- Designed, manufactured, and installed a new cedar outhouse after removing the existing plastic outhouse.
- Other maintenance efforts include: repaired door jam, cleaned gutters, repaired decayed sections of wooden deck.
Repaired the cold water system at Goddard Hot Springs, a popular recreational site for Sitkans and visitors.
- A landscape architect and engineers in Sitka designed a new cold water storage dam. Corps members hauled 1,500 lbs of lumber through difficult terrain, demolished the existing dam, excavated the pond, constructed the new wooden dam, and installed a liner. Covered in a Sitka Sentinel article.
Made improvements to the Sitka Cross Trail, an accessible multi-use gravel trail running the length of much of downtown Sitka, include:
- Revegetating the banks of the trail, removing stumps, and clearing brush to improve erosion control and trail aesthetics and restore vegetation that was impacted during construction. Roughly 1.3 miles of trail was revegetated.
- Installed mile markers along the length of the trail for wayfinding and emergency response.
Built a mountain bike trail.
- Partnered with Sitka Cycling Club, Sitka Trail Works, and Southeast Alaska Independent Living. Contracted out planning, site selection, and design to local entities. Materials and equipment were purchased or rented from local businesses. Read more here.
General deferred public works maintenance projects in Sitka.
- Improvements to several trails, replacing a bench commemorating the life of anthropologist and author Richard Nelson, cleaning up over 400 lbs of trash on public lands.
Began planning stages for multiple other projects.
- A proposed hut-to-hut trail network on remote coastline from Kanga to Big Bay.
- Developing a local timber drying shed for the Sitka High School construction program.
Constructing the mountain bike trail involved clearing the path of obstacles and brush, building a corduroy foundation with logs, and covering it with gravel for draining and tread. Photos by Amy Li.
Inclement weather, treacherous terrain, and record amounts of rainfall posed their fair share of challenges, but the Corps accomplished these projects in the short timespan of less than four months. With over half a dozen substantial public works projects completed, the SCS CCC helped the City and Borough of Sitka with deferred public works maintenance efforts and created new community assets benefiting Sitkans, Alaskans, and visitors alike. Not only were Corps members, contractors, and partner organizations directly involved with these projects aided through work opportunities, but the thousands of future trail runners, mountain bikers, and hot spring enthusiasts who live and visit the Tongass will also reap benefits.
Story and Images By Amy Li
It’s a brilliantly sunny day and just across from Kaasda Heen Circle, Sitka Conservation Society’s Community Conservation Corps members are working hard, filling the otherwise serene forest with sounds of buzzing weed wackers and humming chainsaws. For about a week, the Conservation Corps worked alongside local cemetery restoration expert Bob Sam on maintaining and beautifying the historic Presbyterian Church cemetery. Under the guidance and direction of Sam, they trimmed the understory, cleared out brush, and removed hazard trees.
After SCS received CARES funding for the Conservation Corps, helping Bob Sam with his decades-long effort to maintain and restore the cemeteries in Sitka immediately came to mind for Executive Director Andrew Thoms and SCCC project lead Ben Hughey when deciding what projects the Conservation Corps should work on.
“The Corps’s core mission is to support Sitka’s community assets, and the cemeteries are a very important part of our community,” Thoms said. “We hope to honor the people buried here by doing this work.”
The historic Presbyterian Church cemetery is the resting place for roughly 400 to 500 Alaska Native people, many of whom lived in the Cottage Community adjacent to Sheldon Jackson College. Despite the many important social justice figures buried in the cemetery, Sam believes that “few people in this community” know of its existence. Many key figures from the beginnings of the Native civil rights movement are buried in the cemetery, including Peter Simpson, the famous Alaska Native rights activist. Beyond helping found the Alaska Native Brotherhood and serving as its first Grand President, he also contributed significantly to Alaska Native land claims efforts in the early 20th century. Today, the cemetery is owned by the Alaska Native Brotherhood.
“I don’t know how many Native American places that own their ancestors and their cemeteries,” said Sam. “Sitka is one of those places, where we actually own our ancestors and lineal descendants have ultimate say-so of their ancestors. Powerful. We have a responsibility to take care of this place and make sure it’s not forgotten.”
The Sitka Community Conservation Corps worked diligently to help Sam in his ongoing upkeep of the cemetery. The three acres of lush forest shrouding the cemetery was so overgrown that just 20 years ago, it was impossible to walk through. Over the past two decades, Sam has worked tirelessly to thin the understory, remove standing dead trees, and restore headstones, improving the well-being of the forest and cemetery.
Before & After Clearing Work
“A sign of a healthy community is a clean cemetery,” explained Sam. “If we keep this place clean, it falls on the descendants in a good way. It helps us become better people, more thoughtful of our ancient connections as people that come from this place.”
With over 18 cemeteries like the Presbyterian Church cemetery scattered around Sitka, the work Sam and others have done to conserve and reinvigorate these resting places is crucial for not just the community, but also for those who have come before us and those to follow.
“I’m indigenizing this place, making it blend into nature, to decolonize and make it Tlingit,” said Sam. “It’s become a very beautiful place now.”
The moss-covered logs, bushes dripping with ripe huckleberries, and now-restored headstones concur. The Sitka Conservation Society Community Conservation Corps has helped Bob Sam in making the cemetery a bit more beautiful, for past, present, and future generations to find respite in.
“I’m very grateful that we have a cross section of the community working here,” said Sam of the Conservation Corps members, noting that they are local Sitkans. “It educates the community to respect this place with dignity and honor.”
The Sitka Conservation Society is fielding a Community Conservation Corps to do work to maintain, improve, design, and build community facilities as part of a COVID economic relief program in partnership with the City of Sitka and other community organizations. Projects will include mountain bike trail construction, facilities maintenance, Goddard Hot Springs water system improvements, landscaping, and more. Work will take place throughout the rest of 2020. We are looking for individuals who are unemployed, underemployed, or furloughed because of the pandemic and are eager to work on outdoor projects. Previous experience in trail building, construction, physical labor, landscaping, Alaska-skills and know-how, and any certifications are a plus.
The Corps Leaders organize the Corps, set up the work, oversee the work on the ground, and work along the Corps to get the jobs completed. Experience being on a crew, running a crew, and putting together projects is needed. Certifications for first aid, CPR, wilderness first aid, clean driver’s license, or specialized skills are pluses.
The Corps members are the ones who get the projects done. Corps members should be willing to work hard, be willing to learn, and have experience working outdoors in Alaska. Experience is a plus. Certifications may be necessary (Drivers license, CPR/First Aid, Wilderness First aid, specialized skills, etc.).
- Fill out the application questions (linked here).
- Submit a simple resume and provide the names of 3 personal or professional references.
- Application materials can be sent to [email protected] or dropped off at Old Harbor Books. For any questions contact Ben Hughey ([email protected]).
About the Community Conservation Corps
As Alaskans, we know that we all need to pull together to make our communities work. As a nation, we need to rise to the challenges we face, and overcome division to make investments that will ensure a prosperous future. This is especially true in the face of the COVID19 pandemic, which has restructured our local and national economy, leaving many Sitkans lacking financial and social stability, at a moment of widespread economic, environmental, and social change.
When the City of Sitka requested proposals for programs that put Sitkans to work developing and maintaining community recreational infrastructure, SCS responded. We have always been inspired by the 1930’s era Civilian Conservation Corps that FDR developed as part of the New Deal. The CCC put hundreds of thousands of Americans to work planting trees and building parks and trails across the country, including the Mt. Edgecumbe trail and shelters at the Halibut Point Recreation Area in Sitka. With our response to the City, we’re envisioning a CCC for the 21st century, addressing the current unemployment crisis while creating lasting benefits for the community.
The City was pleased with the Sitka Conservation Society’s proposal (and SCS was the only entity that put together a project proposal!) and we’ve now established a contract for the program to put Sitkans back to work building and maintaining recreation and visitor industry assets. Through the rest of 2020, SCS will be working closely with many local partners to plan, design, build and improve trails, cabins, and other infrastructure in the Sitka area, while providing skills to Corps members to help them secure future employment.
We are currently recruiting Corps Members and Leaders for our Community Conservation Corps. The positions are open to Sitkans who have been impacted by the COVID crisis and are unemployed, underemployed, or furloughed. We are looking for people with a diversity of skill-sets who are eager to contribute to their community and willing to work outdoors this fall. The work is full-time but there is some flexibility in the timing of the work and scope of employment – applicants do not need to commit to 3 months of full-time work. We anticipate that folks may be able to work on specific projects over shorter time periods, as needs and skills align.