Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Public Works chief Borders retires


It’s not yet 5 a.m. Sunday, the final day of the Southeast Alaska State Fair. There are no cars on the roads. Except for laughter and the sound of a trumpet on Second Avenue, the town is quiet. Saturday night partiers dance in the street in front of the Pioneer Bar. The last begin to clear out.

“What is that? Are those fish?” a young woman laughs, pointing down at the painted crosswalk, slowly making her way across Main Street.

At the borough’s Public Works shop on Union Street, superintendent Ralph Borders is in the driver’s seat of the department’s full-size pickup on his last day on the job.

Borders, 64, typically doesn’t work weekends. It’s the route of another Public Works employee, a member of Borders’ four-person crew. On busy weekends, he splits the work with the staffer.

Borders pulls into Tlingit Park and parks near the trash cans. “Nothing too exciting happening today,” he says, grabbing two large buckets of toilet paper, trash bags and cleaning supplies.

Tents are scattered throughout the park’s grassy area and a few campers are puttering nearby.

Borders refills the toilet paper, picks up paper towel scraps, and quickly cleans the women’s bathroom. He heads to the men’s room, but a sleepy camper beats him to the door.

Next to the bathrooms is an outdoor shower installed last year to cut down on visitors using bathroom sinks to wash more than their hands. Two other public showers are located at Port Chilkoot Beach and the Fort Seward parade grounds.

The department Borders oversees is responsible for streets, parks, cemeteries and some buildings. Tasks typically include working on water and sewer lines, cleaning ditches and working on city vehicles. Recently, the department spent a few days replacing the transmission of a fire truck.

Borders says the best part of his job is snowplowing. “It’s fun, riding around on a nice piece of equipment.” He likes seeing the immediate results of his work, and it’s appreciated, he says. “It’s the easiest thing we do.” Borders, who starts plowing as early as 4 a.m., doesn’t drink coffee. He brings hot chocolate.

The worst part of the job, he says, is middle-of-the-night calls about a line springing a leak, which happens every few months.

The camper exits the bathroom. Borders picks up the buckets and heads in. About 15 or 20 years ago, he says, someone tried to blow up the park’s toilet using seal bombs. There are other surprises in restrooms for the borough crew. “Sometimes they don’t use the toilet. They use the floor.”

Borders heads to Fort Seward to clean bathrooms and empty trash cans. He peers into the large recycling totes. “We got these this year for Beer Fest...they seem to be working.”

“Ralph really stepped Public Works up,” said water and sewer supervisor Scott Bradford. Borders puts in “extra preparation” for special events and is responsive to other department’s concerns. People used to camp out on the grass near the library, Bradford said. There was a suggestion regarding how to fix the issue. “And the next day, it happened...he (Borders) did it.” There are now boulders there. “You know, those kinds of things. He gets things done.”

At Picture Point, Borders explains the history of a patch of grass between the pavilion and the beach. At a child’s birthday party, guests couldn’t see the water due to the brush. “So we took some brush out and planted little grass there.” One of the trash cans is giving him some trouble. It’s slightly broken, as earlier this summer someone disposed of fireworks and “burnt it up.”

The department finds fish carcasses in public trash cans once or twice a week. Last summer, a man hid sheetrock scraps in dog food bags he dumped in public trash cans. Hidden camera footage captured him in action at 2 a.m., as well as his license plate number. “I figured he was working on a project somewhere,” Borders says.

In the bathroom, Borders is fiddling with a lock on a toilet paper dispenser. “Seems strange to lock your toilet paper up,” he says, but the department had to when rolls started disappearing years ago. “They’ll steal it,” he says. “Rafters.”

Borders moved to Haines from Anaheim, Calif., in 1973. He was 21. For 16 years, he worked in the meat department of the Food Center grocery store. In 1979, he married Ellen Borders. In the mid-1980s, the couple had a house built off Young Road. Ellen died in 2011. He still lives in the house.

Borders started at the borough in 1989 as a Public Works laborer. The pay was more than $5 less than what he was making, but he wanted a job with benefits.

In addition to mowing lawns, the job included serving as dogcatcher before the advent of Haines Animal Rescue Kennel. It was tough because municipal leaders sent mixed messages about animal control, Borders said. They wanted him spending fewer hours catching dogs, despite ongoing complaints and issues.

Once he was told to spend 40 hours a week on animal control. That first day, he caught eight dogs. The next day, he caught three. “Then they were gone....out of dogs.”

He set live traps downtown to keep strays away from the school, sometimes catching cats and crows. Trapped dogs went to a kennel near the sewer plant.

“We’d advertise them. Try to find the owners,” he says. If nobody came forward, or if the owner decided to sign the dog over for a $25 fee, Borders put the dog down using a .22 pistol. “It was pretty unpleasant, alright.”

Once a young woman arrived by bicycle to turn over her dog. She knew it was a death sentence, and she brought pills she claimed would help calm the dog. The pills didn’t work, Borders said, and the girl stuck around. “I shot the dog. She cried. I cried.”

In 2000, Borders was promoted to equipment operator. He became Public Works superintendent in 2013.

He considers himself fortunate to have had “good bosses who’ve helped make (his) job easy.” They’ve helped field public complaints, usually related to road conditions.

“He’s an easy-going kind of guy. He makes it easy to work with him,” said Tammy Piper, Haines Visitor’s Center information coordinator. “I’ll miss being able to joke around with him...while still being professional.” He is “straightforward” and gets things done “with no argument.” Piper’s known Borders since before they became borough co-workers. He was her softball umpire for many years.

At 6 a.m., Borders “conk(s) out on the couch” at his house and then attends a church service.

At noon, Borders repeats his morning routine. There’s more trash in the garbage cans and dumpsters, evidence that visitors are clearing out.

He drives across town to Lily Lake access trail, where he closes and locks the trail’s gate. He had unlocked it for the running races held the previous day, including the half marathon he ran before heading downtown to set up the parade judges’ platform.

“Ralph is a fun co-worker who manages to balance humor with good natured grumpiness,” said deputy borough clerk Krista Kielsmeier. “He also is an inspiration for health, hiking the Chilkoot Trail in one day, and running marathons and the Mount Ripinsky race.”

Borders became a serious runner when he moved to Haines. He plans on competing in a marathon near Washington’s Lake Chelan during a post-retirement road trip. He’ll drive his truck to California, see family and friends there, and turn around after the San Diego Zoo. “I haven’t been there in years,” he says.

Borders, a Hospice of Haines volunteer who also has volunteered for the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, also hopes to devote more time to Hospice in his retirement.

Borders heads home and makes a pastrami and pepper jack cheese sandwich. He has some friends over. At 5 p.m., he’s back at Tlingit Park, where campers have left trash cans full and a dumpster overflowing.

He finishes hauling the garbage into the back of the truck and heads to the bathrooms. A young woman is nearby, packing up her car. “You rock!” she yells to him, as she drops a small bag into the dumpster. “Thank you for cleaning up.”

At Picture Point, Borders is emptying a trash can near a metal stand with bags for people to use to clean up after their dogs. “I never thought when I put them up five years ago that people would use them, but they do.” Bags disappear and you’ll see them in the trash, he says.

Back at the Public Works lot, Borders hauls the last truckload of garbage into the department’s dumpsters.

Borders was looking forward to his first day of retirement. “I get to go running in the morning. I don’t have to wait ‘til after work,” he says, grinning, walking back to the truck. He just needs to park it before he begins his walk home.

It’s almost 6 p.m. He climbs into the truck, and it disappears around the back of the shop.


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