Alaska’s Ports, Harbors, and Docks

May 12, 2014 | Transportation

Tom Anderson

A small portion of construction materials for the water and sewer project for Emmonak. There was no more room at the Emmonak dock, located near the mouth of the Yukon River, so a new staging area had to be permitted before delivery.

Integral to commerce and travel

When singer Otis Redding and guitarist Steve Cropper penned their soulful melody with the iconic chorus “I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay, wastin’ time,” they definitely weren’t referring to the Alaskan men and women who keep the state’s harbors, ports, and docks operational.

Management of water access infrastructure is no easy task. As capital monies and legislative purse strings tighten, commercial and government agencies that oversee ports, harbors, and docks are feeling the pinch. Many managers are finding it necessary to balance waning legislative funding with the ebb and flow of customers and tourists who pay for the facilities’ services.

The good news is that the majority of Alaskans and tourists, whether commuters and passengers, pleasure boaters, commercial and sport fishermen, or shippers of cargo and freight, seem to recognize that accessible waterways benefits everyone.

Water Matters

Take a look at the entire nation’s surface water and you will find that Alaska holds more than 40 percent of the US total.

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources Mining, Land & Water Division states that when it comes to rain, an average of 1.05 million gallons of precipitation per day falls in the state.

What is even more impressive is the fact that the state has more than 3 million lakes (sorry Minnesota), over twelve thousand rivers, thousands of creeks and streams, and over one hundred thousand glaciers. The Yukon, Kuskokwim, and Copper rivers are in the top ten list for the nation’s largest rivers. All in all, whether dealing with travel or commerce, Alaska is as much about water as it is about land, mountains, trees, and air.

The Alaska Association of Harbormasters and Port Administrators (AAHPA) is the trade organization for the commercial and non-commercial marine industry. Municipal and nonprofit members exchange information relating to maintenance, operations, safety, enforcement, and regulations.

“We have thirty-seven port and harbor management members throughout the state who represent their respective communities,” says Kim Erickson with AAHPA. “Fortunately they are engaged and active in the association, which makes us more effective when dealing with policies and budgets for new projects. We actively advocate for legislative funding from the State Legislature every year to ensure needed projects keep getting completed.”

The AAHPA holds an annual conference and pays deference to the size of the state by holding the venue in a different member’s location each year. One reason this is done is so harbor administrators can learn about their peers’ operations and processes while boosting the local economy in which the event is held. Solidarity in funding requests is also a target, yet there is a sense of self-preservation that also flows through each community’s project requests.

The 2014 AAHPA Annual conference will be held October 13-17 in Ketchikan.

What’s the Difference?

Alaska may be large, and its water integral, but the nomenclature for access methods bounces across the spectrum of size and shape.

Take, for example, a port. This is a location along a shore or coast with at least one harbor where marine vessels can dock and transfer people or cargo from and to land. The harbor is a body of water that is deep enough and protected so as to offer anchorage for marine vessels. Then there is a dock.

The term “dock” could mean the area of water between two piers or alongside a pier to receive a vessel for loading, unloading, or repairs. It might also refer to a single pier, or a wharf, or the old wooden structure that floats at your family cabin and from which you cast a trout line. Docks can be on a river, lake, or in the ocean. The word is also a verb, as written above, and the act of mooring or coming into contact with a structure or land from water.

When asked about the difference between Alaska ports, harbors, and docks, even Michael Lukshin, the Statewide Ports and Harbors Engineer, admits everyone does not use the same definition. To make things more complicated, because vernacular varies and reporting is inconsistent, there is not a precise count for all marine facilities (ports, harbors, docks) in the state. Lukshin estimates that there are more than five hundred marine facilities throughout Alaska.

As for funding, every community has its druthers, but what Erickson, Lukshin, and the Alaska marine industry can agree on is that ports, harbors, and docks are critically important to commerce and travel throughout the state. Funding and project momentum help achieve modernization, and absent local, state, federal, and corporate monetary support, business function could stagnate in the state.

Across the Map

A handful of infrastructure and facilities offer a sampling of some of the differences and similarities comprising Alaska ports, harbors, and docks and a glimpse at the changes underway.

Two views of the Alaska Railroad Dock Terminal in Seward.

Seward—Alaska Railroad Dock Terminal: Seward is a community of approximately 2,700 people within the city limits and more than 2,500 on the periphery. The city was founded in 1903 as the ocean terminus of the railroad, now operating as the Alaska Railroad and owned by the State of Alaska.

Resurrection Bay in the Gulf of Alaska flows into the Alaska Railroad Intermodal Terminal. The state’s facility information literature notes that many port users “make intermodal connections through the Alaska Railroad terminus on the Seward waterfront” and that each year “more than 130,000 people and more than 2 million tons of cargo enter or exit Seward via the Alaska Railroad dock facilities.”

For transportation and commercial freight applications, there are three docks at the harbor: East Dock, West Dock, and the Coal Dock.

The East Dock is the loading point for freight and also receives passengers from cruise ships when the West Dock is full. The dock was originally 620 feet by 200 feet but was widened an additional 120 feet on the east side to provide more room for trucks and equipment in 2007.

“We’re working on a new project that’s going to widen the freight [East] dock to make it larger,” says Louis Bencardino, Seward Dock manager. “We dredged last year and reduced the depth of water to 42 feet, which is very good in comparison to most ocean-docking areas in the state,” adds Bencardino.

The Seward Terminal applied for and received permits for the new construction, so by late spring Bencardino hopes to begin the next phase of a multi-million dollar project that requires state and federal budget allocations.

The terminal is directly connected to the state’s rail system. The facility website highlights the fact that the dock-to-railroad accessibility affords “freight, resources, and passengers to key hubs in Whittier, Anchorage, Wasilla, Palmer, Denali, and Fairbanks/North Pole and communities in between.”

The West Dock is designated for passenger ships as large as 3,000-plus in size, with a size of 736 feet by 200 feet, and is connected to the Dale Lindsey Seward Intermodal Facility. This is the dock that visitors may first glance at when arriving to town as the enormous pleasure cruise ships float alongside each other.

Adjacent to this dock is the 1,700-foot -long Coal Dock, used for coal loading.

Seward—Small Boat Harbor: Established in 1964, the small boat harbor in Seward is the primary destination for tourists and boating enthusiasts. A full-service port with 50-ton and 250-ton travel lifts and a 5,000-ton syncrolift, as well as boat repairs, potable water, and all necessary power utilities, having a slip (docking place for a boat) in Seward is a mariner’ dream. The harbor has multiple dock floats labeled from A to P, X, and Z, and most sport fishermen, charter services, and water enthusiasts launch from this point.

In terms of budget and upgrades to keep the harbor safe, the same problem exists in this Kenai Peninsula community as with all other Alaska harbor towns—funding. Seward is a busy place, particularly in the summer. The small boat harbor has 3,608 vessels registered with 200 more on the waiting list.

The original infrastructure was built shortly after the 1964 earthquake. The wooden D-float was over fifty years old, and a rebuild began in September last year to remove the old float and install a new one.

“We’ve made great upgrade to the harbor,” says Harbormaster Mack Funk. “Absent direct grants from government sources, we have to build up the funds with fees we charge the slip holders and cover projects from that income, so the construction process can take time. The D-float cost around $2 million, with state money and user fees covering the project. We still have three more docks that need to be replaced based on slip fee income and hope that in the next five years we can finish the float-replacement project.”

The Emmonak city dock before the erosion project was completed. Equipment for improvements is staged in the background.

Heavy equipment crowds the city dock in Emmonak.

Emmonak: While Alaskan cities like Seward and Anchorage and other communities have the good fortune of road and rail access and tourism, it’s the smaller Alaska towns that consider ports and docks a literal life-line to their survival. Competing against larger cities with a platoon of state legislative champions makes funding support a tenuous effort in rural Alaska.

The City of Emmonak has a population of approximately 811 residents. The community is located at the mouth of the Yukon River, 10 miles from the Bering Sea. It lies 120 air miles northwest of Bethel and 490 air miles from Anchorage, resting in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.

In contrast to a deep-water port, the Yukon River generates its own challenges with transportation and marine mobility into Emmonak.

For the Fiscal Year 2014/2015, City Manager Martin Moore Sr. has been seeking funding from the State Legislature for a port. In his capital budget request to Senator Lyman Hoffman and Representative David Guttenberg, Moore noted that the Emmonak City Council’s first priority in 2014 is building a new regional port. The benefits for such a port permeate the lifestyle and commerce of every family, he contends.

In his letter to the Alaska Legislature, Moore reminded the state’s policymakers that “efficient and cost-effective transportation is one of the root problems in rural Alaska.” He added in his reasoning that a fully-functional port “will ensure that lower-Yukon residents yield benefits from barged goods and materials and help foster ongoing economic development.”

Illuminating the tangible struggles of marine transportation and commerce in rural Alaska, Moore light-heartedly explained the community “sort of” has a city dock. The current structure is used for unloading and loading from various commercial barges, but most of the time the shipping companies have a difficult time with such limitation in space, so they’re forced to unload on the right-of-way and roadside.

The two phases of the port and dock facility construction is no easy or inexpensive task. Emmonak projects the dock/wharf build to cost approximately $10 million and the landing ramp almost $6.5 million.

The banks of the Yukon River in Emmonak serve as a city dock and constant reinforcement is needed from ongoing river erosion. The community has asked the state to fund construction of an actual dock.

Support is blossoming for the projects, as President James Kameroff of the Emmonak Corporation reminds in his legislative support letter, noting over five thousand Alaskans could benefit from the new dock “as far north as Kotlik, up the Yukon River to Russian Mission, and south to Hooper Bay.”

In addition, the safety concerns mount as profiled in a support letter for the project sent to the Emmonak City Council from Bering Pacific Construction, revealing that every year ten to twenty feet of bank erodes into the Yukon, and continued erosion may damage the local tank farm and the Kwikpak Fisheries Processing operation.

Two workers look out over the Akutan Boat harbor.

Akutan—Boat Harbor: Port and harbor needs have few boundaries along the Alaska map.

Far south of Emmonak is the Aleutian city of Akutan, a community of 1,154 people, where Akutan Island’s first boat harbor is being built in phases.

Akutan Island is located on the eastern part of the Aleutian Chain in the fish-laden Bering Sea, 790 miles southwest of Anchorage. The island is home to Trident Seafoods, one of the largest frozen seafood processors in North America.

The initial $31 million harbor design and construction project has been achieved thanks to the US Army Corps of Engineers and Aleutians East Borough. The city’s mayor, Joe Bereskin, has been emphasizing protection of the local environment throughout the project, which will produce a mooring basin of twelve acres, serving the local commercial fishermen and marine industries.

Mayor Bereskin says when finished, the plan is to have room for up to fifty-seven large fishing vessels in addition to space and facilities for disabled vessels and repair services integral to commercial fishing and processing.

“The project is coming along and we have the land opened and break water, so now we’re working with the State of Alaska and our legislators to secure funding for the actual harbor and floating docks,” says Bereskin. “Our community works with Trident and commercial fishermen, but the harbor is essential.”

A 2011 “Small Boat Harbor Planning Design Report” prepared for Akutan delineated the various harbor user-groups, once completed. Trident, local pollock co-op members, and Akutan commercial fishermen will be the primary clients to a new harbor, with trawlers, cod/crab/halibut fleets, and mixed-use industries dominating the commerce.

In unison with other Alaska city officials, Bereskin alluded to the fact that budgets are tight throughout the state, and the Legislature and state administration are the sources from which the next level of funding can be derived and the project completed.

“We have one of the largest fish processors in the country right here, and with a float system in the mooring basin including gangway connections, pier spacing, and slip sizes—and everything the design report describes, we can keep our vessels in Akutan rather than long distances away in Kodiak or Seattle,” says Bereskin.

Skagway Small Boat Harbor, the northernmost ice-free, deep-water port in Alaska.

Skagway—Small Boat Harbor: The northern most point in Southeast Alaska is the community of Skagway. Over a hundred years ago, in 1900, Skagway became the first incorporated first-class city in the state. In 2007 the city designation was dissolved and another first ensued, with a restructuring and renaming to the Municipality of Skagway Borough.

“We have so much freight coming in that room is limited,” says Harbormaster Matt O’Boyle. “Skagway’s harbor is critical for recreational and commercial use, and to those ends we’re pleased to be expanding services to the marine trades. Skagway harbor is the economic highway to the community, and any growth to that infrastructure is a direct benefit.”

Skagway’s population is slightly more than nine hundred people. It is the northernmost ice-free, deep-water port in North America. Skagway is a year-round transportation hub connecting the state of Alaska to the Yukon and Northwest Territories of Canada, as well as northern British Columbia.

Money is as tight in Southeast, when it comes to port development, as any other region of the state. Skagway Small Boat Harbor has 103 slips and two thousand feet of linear moorage. Water is available at the dock year round, with a thirty-ton Sealift trailer for haulouts.

The harbor is currently in the process of constructing a new facility within which marine vessels can conduct repairs in a warm, dry environment. Skagway has also recently contracted with an engineering firm for the expansion of the North and West side of the harbor. This enhancement will add an additional thirty-two slips to the harbor, lightening demand for room and accessibility.

Aerial view of the Port of Nome infrastructure.

Nome—Harbor: The city of Nome is made from legend and lore and is possibly the most famous Alaska city when it comes to the rush of adventure, exploration, and gold.

Nome is located on the southern Seward Peninsula coast on Norton Sound of the Bering Sea. The community is inching towards a population of four thousand, while its most essential service is likely its harbor.

The Nome harbor infrastructure is somewhat complex because of its multiple sizes and design, yet it remains a precious safe haven for ships when the temperamental Bering Sea forces mariners inland.

Nome has a small boat harbor that includes small dredges on barges as large as 90 to 100 feet in length used for gold mining operations.

The city’s Outer Dock, or “Causeway,” and its main port facility include two docks: The City Dock is on the outer perimeter with a depth of 22.5 feet. This is where all large ships, such as research vessels and US Coast Guard vessels, some more than 400 feet, come to refuel, re-stock, and weather a storm. Last year smaller expedition cruises from Norway, Germany, and other foreign countries also came to town. The Inner Dock, or “Westgold,” is typically used for rolling stock (cargo that can be wheeled off a barge), construction materials, supplies, and containers of rock and gravel.

As for projects and growth to handle more customers, Nome’s harbor system hasn’t gone without attention. In 2006 the US Army Corps of Engineers completed improvements projects, adding a 3,025 foot breakwater east of the existing Causeway and a 270 foot spur on the end of the Causeway, making it a total of 2,982 feet.

However, an essential expansion that is being sought this year is the construction of a middle dock. Nome is a hub community for the region, which means more than two-thirds of all goods and fuels that arrive into Nome’s harbor are intended for neighboring and regional villages. This includes barges with fuel, produce and food supplies, construction containers, and equipment.

The middle dock concept was originally envisioned to connect the inner and outer two docks with sheet pile and bumpers, but the price tag became too high. Nome decided to scale back its initial concept, now focusing on a new 230-plus-foot dock positioned in the middle of the harbor. If successful, this effort will increase Nome’s harbor transit and loading capacity by 100 percent with a roll-on/roll-off “row-row” ramp designed for barges to go nose-straight onto a road and quickly connect with equipment that can offload modular homes, rock crushers, generators, and myriad other cargo onto semi-trucks.

“Nome is a hub community for this area and having a new middle dock will directly impact our region for better,” says Nome Harbormaster Lucas Stotts.

Stotts has been working at the Nome Harbor for almost five years and has been in charge since the summer of 2013. At age twenty-seven, he may be one of the youngest harbormasters in the state.

“When it comes to funding and budget, we met with state legislators during the 2014 session in Juneau and have explained that an additional dock will reduce shipping and fuel costs for consumers and commercial interests. It will also improve our safety protocols during inclement weather,” Stotts says.

Shipping in general is increasing in Nome. Stotts notes that every day the city has boats at its docks, with two to four vessels often “jogging,” or turning circles, in the Bering Sea awaiting room to come into the harbor to moor.

The middle dock project will cost approximately $9 million. Nome has secured funding commitment of $6 million from the State of Alaska and Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation, leaving $3 million as the remaining budget necessary to start building the new dock.

“We have research vessels coming to the Nome Harbor from Korea to Greenland, anxious to re-fuel and re-stock, as do we have Alaska’s [US] Coast Guard and a multitude of commercial barges in town to provide essential supplies and services, and that’s why the additional dock is such a priority,” adds Stotts.

Tidal Wave of Projects

As current and future projects go, nearly every community in Alaska with a port, harbor, or dock seeks upgrades and modernization, if not expansion. This mentality may be a matter of basic economic growth, or perhaps it can be attributed to Alaskans thriving on marine commerce and recreation.

State Engineer Michael Lukshin listed some of the cities he’s been working with, beyond aforementioned construction projects, which include: Ketchikan Bar Harbor, South Petersburg North Harbor, Sitka ANB Harbor, Sand Point Harbor, Unalaska Robert Storrs International Harbor, Juneau Aurora Harbor, Juneau Statter Harbor, Juneau Douglas Harbor, Hoonah George Hall Harbor, Seldovia Harbor, Hydaburg Harbor, and Homer Harbor.

The list of state-partnered projects is comprehensive and indicates Alaskan officials also see the benefit of new and improved marine access and moorage. The future of Alaska waterway transportation and freight delivery, as well as tourism and fishing, will undoubtedly rest in the hands of these policymakers and regulators, as well as the business owners who see the merit in continued investment. All will cost, and prioritization will be the word of the day.

Perhaps Otis Redding never had the chance to visit Alaska and its beautiful ports, harbors, and docks before he wrote his most famous song, but there’s no doubt he would have changed his tune after seeing the phenomenal marine infrastructure and dedicated professionals Alaska has to offer.


This first appeared in the May 2014 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.

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