By Rebecca Band
Photos by John Storey
Popular among avid fishermen, retirees and eco-tourists alike, the tiny resort enclave of Shelter Cove is truly a hidden gem of Northern California.
Located 90 miles away from the nearest city, deep inside the King Range, Shelter Cove is definitely off the beaten path. But its spectacular charter fishing, giant redwoods, black sand beaches and quaint B&Bs make Shelter Cove a quintessential Lost Coast destination.
Most who choose to travel or retire here are looking to get away from it all, while still enjoying all of the amenities they’re accustomed to, including the basics like electricity and clean, running water.
But those essential utilities would cease to function without Shelter Cove’s dedicated team of public service workers, proud members of IBEW local 1245. The seven members that keep Shelter Cove running are employed by Resort Improvement District #1 (RID), a special-purpose district established 50 years ago for the purpose of installing and maintaining wastewater, water distribution and electrical utility services for the Shelter Cove Sea Park Subdivision. IBEW local 1245 has represented the RID workers for the past 20 years.
Typically, a utility crew would be significantly bigger, with highly specific roles and classifications. But the RID is a different kind of utility, with a different kind of crew. Each member has a specific assignment, but they never hesitate to help each other out.
“There are no specialists or prima donnas at the RID; everyone pitches is when the chips are down to fix whatever needs fixing,” said IBEW 1245 Business Representative JV Macor. “Everyone falls into their roles respectively and respectfully of each other.”
Construction Superintendent Brian Speelman has worked for RID at Shelter Cove for 20 years. The team he works with are a small but dedicated group of jacks-of-all-trades, on hand to address every type of maintenance issue that may come up. Every day is different, and most of the time when he goes to work, there’s at least one surprise task in store for him.
“Today, we started out with trying to get some water pump stations back online, and get some chlorine residuals straightened out, you know, water clarity issues. Then we shifted gears and went to hang up a banner for an upcoming event for the local community here… then we ran into an issue with one of our underground vaults that needed some immediate attention,” Speelman said. “We never know what we’re gonna hit for the day. We plan for everything, and we very seldom get to stick to our plan.”
Speelman was originally hired as a lineman and worked with the electrical crew, but his experience and background in the logging industry allowed him to transition into general construction as well. He still works with the line crew whenever they need him and does some line clearance tree trimming as well. He also helps other members take care of the golf course, the airport, the water treatment plant and all of the wastewater collection systems. It’s no small job, but Speelman and the men enjoy the variety.
“It’s challenging… you never know what your job for the day is, and it’s never boring,” he said, likening it to going into a three-ring circus. “You keep your head down and you get the job done, but you never know what it’s going to be.”
No Easy Feat
Providing these essential services in Shelter Cove comes with an enormous set of challenges, most notably the rough terrain and remote locale.
“We have a large service area but a small customer base, with roughly 50 miles of overhead and 4.5 miles of underground power lines, 44 miles of water lines, 27 miles of sewer and 4,500 lots but only 600 customers,” Speelman said. “Our terrain around here is rather difficult; we go from sea level to about 2,400 feet in a short distance, and we’ve got a lot of pressure zones on our water system that make it extremely difficult [to maintain].”
But those challenges are what the RID guys like most about their jobs. These experienced crew members know exactly what to do and how to do it, so the locals and tourists never have to worry about whether they’ll have access to clean water and reliable power.
These unsung heroes take an incredible amount of pride in the work that they do.
“It makes you feel good to go back home at the end of the day knowing that you got everybody back up and running,” said Speelman. “We make it look easy, but it’s really not.”
A Sense of Brotherhood
Before he came to Shelter Cove, Speelman was an IBEW member in Alaska, which he says gave him “a really good sense of brotherhood.” He is proud to be a lifelong IBEW member, and never hesitates to say that whenever he hears other people bad-mouthing unions.
“The benefits of being in the union are 110% more than what people realize… I came off the street and went to work, and I was immediately accepted into that brotherhood,” he said, noting how much the union has provided for him, both personally and professionally.
“The money that we made, the benefit packages, it made all the difference in the world compared to the other trades I’ve worked in. Having a little bit of extra money in your pocket, being able to settle down and have a family, doing the work that you feel comfortable and are qualified to do, it’s just meant a lot to me.”
John Storey contributed to this report.