Cordova Chronicles: Gabions galore

Viewed from below, Pip Filliingham’s gabions atop Cabin Ridge Road almost look like a medieval castle. Photo courtesy of Dick Shellhorn

Gabions are rectangular wirework containers that are filled with rock or other materials for use in construction of dams and retaining walls.

They are often used in places difficult to reach or as a substitute for much more expensive concrete structures.

Gabions come in compressed folded form, typically in dimensions that are three feet tall, three feet wide, and vary in lengths from three to twelve feet.

When erected, these wire structures contain several 3x3x3 “baskets”, and require rigorous heavy-gage internal wiring to prevent them from bulging out of shape.

Special attention must be paid regarding the strength of the surface on which their considerable weight is placed, as well as careful fastening and leveling when stacking them on top of each other.

Cordova, with its abundance of challenging building sites, as well as easy access to round glacial rock for filling them, is a natural place for the use of these handy baskets.

A quick drive around town reveals long stretches of them in front of the Little Chapel on Lake Avenue and along the north edge of Davis Avenue above the Sunset View Apartments. The first illustrates the success of careful installation, perhaps in no part due to its accessible location, where preparation could be done by heavy equipment, and the rock could be hauled in by vehicle and dumped into the baskets. The second illustrates what happens when the subsurface is perhaps not stable and the baskets are not carefully wired together. Aging, weathering, and drainage have caused some of the gabions to settle and bulge out of shape.

Perhaps the most dramatic installation of gabions in Cordova can now be seen from many parts of the city, including the boat harbor.

At the top of Cabin Ridge Road, located on the old Ski Hill area, Pip Fillingham has been busy installing gabions of various size to stabilize his property, which has a panoramic view in all directions. So far he has completed forty-five such rock-filled containers.

Fillingham is no novice to gabion work. Back in the early 80’s, he was hired by city waterworks boss Mac MacMasters to ramrod the installation of these wire baskets and metal pipe for repairs to the remote Heney Creek water system, which had been severely damaged by record rain fall. The gabions and pipe were flown in by helicopter, and all the work was done by hand to get water flowing back into the city reservoir above Whitshed Road.

On that project, the rock was gathered from the surrounding area, which proved to be a very challenging task.

For his recent work, round glacial “bone” rock has been delivered on site by Wilson Construction, and a small Bobcat front-end loader is being used to move the rock to the baskets.

But assembling the gabions, placing them in position, fastening them together, using rebar to imbed them into the rock faces and interconnect them, as well as filling them properly, all has been done by hand.

Which Fillingham has done by himself. Beginning in April. And he still isn’t finished.

Fillingham, a gill netter, admits that rare is the day, when not out fishing, that he is not up working on this project.

Boat names often reveal much about their owner, and his bow picker is named the “Whatever”, which happens to be one of his favorite phrases. The story goes that when work on his new vessel was almost complete, the boat builder mentioned it needed a name. Pip, of course, replied “Whatever.”

Surely picking fish is a lot easier than moving all the rock and wire he has handled atop Cabin Ridge Road.

The gabions he has installed create the appearance of a medieval castle, and provides a great viewpoint of bow pickers heading out to fish on Copper River openers.

Fillingham’s boat is among them, and when he glances up on the way back to town, even he will have to admit that what he has created on the upper reaches of Cordova is anything but “Whatever.”