Baker Construction is a general, mechanical, and electrical contractor working throughout the North Slope region, including all of the villages. The company does residential, commercial, and industrial work.
Richard Baker lives and works in Barrow year-round, 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle and the northernmost settlement in the U.S. In the winter months, the area experiences two months a year of total darkness, with average low temperatures of 20 below zero F.
Richard ships over a million pounds a year of cargo on Alaska Air Cargo.
*Barrow officially voted to change its name in December 2016 to the native name Utqiaġvik. There is currently some conversation and controversy regarding changing it back. For the purposes of this story, we are using the easier-to-pronounce “Barrow.” For an interesting look at what the name Utqiaġvik means, and how to pronounce it, please see this article from Anchorage Daily News.
How do you get building materials into the Arctic? There are no roads; you cannot ‘drive’ to Barrow. So, getting things up here is a unique and ongoing challenge. We get one big barge a year from Seattle and some smaller barges from Prudhoe Bay, usually in August. And the rest of the year we rely on air freight. Barrow is the main hub for the entire North Slope area. Everything that comes into Barrow — all food, all mail, all building supplies, everything — is shipped by air.
What’s it like being in the construction industry in the far north? Well, the entire North Slope is on tundra, so the building seasons are reversed. In the Lower 48, foundation work, for example, is done in the warmer months. Up here it’s the opposite. We can only drill into the tundra when it’s frozen, typically starting in late November. In the warmer months, it’s a swamp. Not only can we not drill into it, but the big rigs required to set pilings would get stuck and destroy the fragile tundra. We try to save above-ground work, like framing, for the summer. We do work year-round, but when it gets to 30 below it’s hard on equipment. Due to the harsh environment and changes in climate, buildings need constant repair, so you have to be adaptable. We have a saying in the North Slope: “If we waited for good weather, we would never get anything done.”
What options are there for air freight? There are two options for air cargo. And I ship as much as I possibly can with Alaska Air Cargo. Alaska’s people are genuine, and they honestly care about their customers. When you have Alaska’s sales manager texting my personal cell phone and saying, “Hey, we got a freighter in, your shipment is arriving,” it shows they are interested in my welfare. They do their best to take care of my freight to make sure it doesn’t get damaged. And when there is an issue, they work it out with me.
How critical is getting timely freight in the bush? The way I build homes up here doesn’t change much. The only real variable is getting the materials, that’s the “live-and-die” aspect of working in the bush. If the freight doesn’t arrive, jobs shut down. The timeliness of your freight determines whether you will be a successful company or not.
How does Alaska Air Cargo rate for timeliness? They’re great. If they have to, Alaska staff will personally make sure freight gets on a plane. I’ll give you an example: We install boilers in homes for heat. And if a boiler breaks down, there is no heat, which up here on the North Slope is critical. An entire home can freeze up and cause thousands of dollars in damage. We recently had to replace two boilers in a duplex, and Alaska pulled out all the stops to get them on a plane the next day. So we were able to install them before the house froze up.
How important is Alaska Airlines to the North Slope communities? Alaska Airlines flies in and out of Barrow safely when no one else can fly. Alaska can operate in bad weather, due, I believe, to their unique avionics systems. They take care of both passengers and freight with excellent customer service. I think the community is really grateful and is going to support Alaska in their expanded cargo endeavor.