Arctic winter is good construction weather at Kotzebue boat harbor

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder

In many parts of the country, drops in temperature and the arrival of snow and ice bring construction efforts to a stop for the season.

Not so in the Arctic, where the stability of frozen conditions are something to be taken advantage of.

That's what the city of Kotzebue is doing this month as they begin work on the Swan Lake small boat harbor.

That harbor was originally created in the early '80s, said Kotzebue City Manager Derek Martin, which the current $4.9-million project aims to improve and update.

"We're cutting down eight feet of lake bottom," Martin said, "so we can get our boats in and out of there. It's going to create a deeper basin, and a deeper access channel."

The Department of Transportation provided about $1.9 million of that funding, said Ryan Anderson of the DOT.

Last week, Anderson visited the construction site — where Drake Construction began work Nov. 1 — and said the project seems to be progressing successfully.

"They've come up with a pretty good construction savings plan," Anderson said. "We do a lot of work up north in the freezing conditions because it's a lot easier to control."

Drake opted for the mechanical dredge option that winter's cold temps allow, Martin said, rather than using hydraulic hose and suction to deepen the lake during the summer months.

This decision was made in part so that summer boat traffic wouldn't be disrupted, Martin said.

"Although it's cold out, it really minimizes the impact to the community," he said.

And there's no better time than the present.

"This is their ideal time for performing this method of construction," Martin said. "Now they're able to get in there with dozers and other equipment to start cutting that lake down."

The firm, frozen tundra is able to support the machinery needed to get the job done, without the obvious issues that a lake full of water would create.

By cutting and removing the ice, the crews are able to get down to the lake's bottom and dig it out.

One of the reasons the DOT was supportive of this project, Anderson said, was the fact that the recent Front Street project in Kotzebue decreased the accessibility of small boat parking previously available along the shore in front of town.

"So we are participating (with) money to help with some of the displaced boats from building that," Anderson said.

The city has been trying to move on this project for a while, Anderson said, recognizing a need to remedy the shallow access points at Swan Lake.

Martin is hopeful that the project will be completed by the end of next fall, though Drake is contracted for two years should the project require that time.

Other funding sources for this project include the Denali Commission and the state Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. It is being run through the city of Kotzebue's capital projects department.

This report first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is reprinted here with permission. Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at hheimbuch(at)