Located at the southernmost end of the Alaskan Highway, the picturesque town of Homer attracts adventure seekers, independent types, and colorful nicknames like “Cosmic Hamlet by the Sea,” “Halibut Capital of the World,” and “End of The Road.” The last was bestowed by famed storyteller and Motel 6 spokesman Tom Bodett, who once made the small town his home. What many people may not know was that Bodett worked in construction before he turned writer and raconteur.
“Yeah, I knew Tom,” said Ray Clapp, president, Coast Range Construction Inc. “Tom moved here from Michigan. He was an independent building contractor and I was a carpenter. That was in the 1980s. Of course, Tom hit the big time and later moved to Vermont.”
Like Bodett, Clapp migrated to Alaska from the lower 48. Originally from Oregon, Clapp always wanted to go to the Land of the Midnight Sun, so he put his tools, hang glider, and kayak on top of his truck and headed north. He drove all around the state and even worked in the bush, but decided he liked Homer best and settled there.
Where Land and Sea Meet
Clapp’s construction company, one of a competitive handful in the area, specializes in setting foundations for lodges and cabins and doing house-site development for contractors. Taking advantage of the barge and ferry terminals in the area, as well as the highway, Clapp is able to move his equipment wherever the job might be. What distinguishes his company from the others is what he calls his secret weapon — a Hitachi ZX200LC equipped with a Helac quick-coupler.
“With the help of CMI, our area Hitachi dealer, we put two sets of hydraulic piping on the machine. One set is high-pressure low-flow, and the other is low-pressure high-flow. That way, I can run all kinds of attachments, and do whatever it takes to do the job.
“I even have a small vibratory plate hammer for pile driving in tight areas. Usually, I can work from the land, but sometimes we drive in dock pilings using a barge as the platform. The 200 is a lot cheaper than bringing in a large crane with a large hammer on a big barge.”
Failure Is Not an Option
Coast Range’s 200 has about 8,000 hours on it. To protect his investment, Clapp decided he needed a second ZX200LC — one for everyday digging and stumping. He equipped it with a more traditional quick-coupler and a thumb-equipped bucket.
“I’ve owned an EX-3, an EX-5, and several ZX-1s. I’ve rented others, including a ZX350LC-3. We’ve not had trouble with any of them. That’s the reason I keep going back to Hitachi. We’ve just never had any failures. … You’ve got to have something that starts up day in and day out. No matter how cold it gets, the Hitachi units fire up in a heartbeat. They don’t even struggle.”
Although the Hitachis don’t struggle, Clapp takes no chances. He’s adamant about keeping on top of scheduled maintenance. And when it comes to greasing, he admits he’s obsessive — greasing every 8 to 10 hours.
“We’ve never had to replace any pins,” he points out. “In fact, I’ve never had a hydraulic failure or even a motor failure. I think the biggest thing I’ve had to replace is a fan switch.”
Busy Year Round
Coast Range Construction is busy every month of the year. Winter grants them access to areas normally boggy and unreachable in warmer weather. So once a good snow base has accumulated, they’re often out in the bush pulling brush or setting steel pilings for lodges and private cabins.
Due to its size, the ZX200LC excavator can be barged, towed on a sled, hauled, or walked wherever it needs to go — whether by land or sea. It’s accompanied by a small all-terrain vehicle that carries the various attachments.
“The Hitachi does all the work. We can’t do anything without it,” said Clapp.
For years, Coast Range was the only company to use a power tool on its excavator. But since other area contractors have caught on, it’s been open season, which is not surprising since much of Homer is set on hillsides, so slopes and grades are the norm. Due to the dual piping and the Helac’s rotational versatility, Clapp can wield his Hitachi with surgical precision, cutting all the slopes and angles with one machine. He’s even been able to ditch his small dozer as an unnecessary piece of equipment.
“It’s getting pretty competitive,” said Clapp. “I’m not running out of any work, but I do try to stay ahead of everyone else, always looking for that next specialty tool. I’m working on one idea now, but I can’t share it — it’s a niche that no one else has so far in our area.
“I typically work by the job, not by the hour. I know what my Hitachis can do and how fast they can do it. By quoting a final number, rather than a per-hour rate, my customers know what the final cost will be. Leaving it open-ended by the hour scares them off. And really it’s to my benefit quoting by the job, because I’ll usually make more money that way.
“If I have a project where I need to lease some excavators, Hitachi is always my first choice. … Even if I have to drive twice as far to get my hands on a Hitachi, it’s always my first choice.”
Coast Range Construction Inc. is serviced by CMI Equipment, Anchorage, Alaska.