New boat launched

Fishing from a wheelchair no longer a handicap

Posted: Friday, July 20, 2001

Ideas usually start with a goal. And one area outdoorsmen and entrepreneur has just launched his.

Fishing guide Dan McDowell, whose business card reads "The Last Frontiersman," has bet it all on a new frontier for a Kenai River boat he designed and had custom built that can do more than take anyone fishing or on a river tour. It is also an emergency rescue boat, the first of its kind on the Kenai River.

What makes the boat so unique is it is wheelchair accessible.

"I did it for the veterans. For people with walkers and wheelchairs," McDowell said. "I don't want anybody to be a spectator. ... anyone who is handicapped and wants to enjoy the river. I've got my life savings invested in this boat. I'm very patriotic."

He has close to $30,000 invested in the boat, including the rescue and safety equipment aboard. He wants it to be considered a community boat.

"I have a back board (for carrying people with back injuries), life rings, sleeping bags, spare life jackets and several hundreds of dollars of first-aid equipment," he said.

The custom-made boat is 24 feet long with a 7-foot, 10-inch beam. On the front of the boat is a 9-foot cabin wide enough for several people. Inside the cabin is a queen-sized inflatable bed.

"Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation can be done on the deck of the cabin. If someone is in trouble on the river, we drop what we are doing and come to aid," McDowell said.

Dale Bondurant, a member of the nonprofit group that is in the process of building a fire station and emergency services at Mile 16.5 on Funny River Road, said the craft is a welcome addition to the river.

"Dan's boat is going to be a real success," he said. "From the campground at Bing's Landing up, it is not accessible by car for someone who has a need. There are already plans for a helicopter pad."

Justine Polzin, director of the Soldotna Visitor Information Center, said now when people in wheelchairs call about access to a boat, they have an option.

McDowell said he wants his clients to feel they have the freedom to get into the boat. He wants them to feel independent, and he is asking for help to work out any "bugs" that may be in the system. He is ready for his first wheelchair client. He has tested the loading procedure with a person in a wheelchair, but not with an actual client yet.

"All I want is suggestions for people to make it the best boat on the river," he said.

He has two ramps for loading and unloading: a 5-foot ramp made of custom diamond plate aluminum to load from dock to boat; and a 7-foot ramp to access from the top of the cabin to the working deck of the boat. The longer ramp is aluminum grating with teeth that wheels can grab onto.

"Everything is designed to make people with wheelchairs feel safe," McDowell said, adding that the boat is stable, too. "I take people down and up the Naptowne Rapids. You can easily drink your coffee going over the falls," he said.

The boat's Honda outboard has not only a trim tilt, but a vertical lift.

There are seating options. The seats come out easily to make room for the wheelchairs, he said.

"I know some people don't want to leave their wheelchairs behind."

The deck space can hold up to six wheelchairs, and it has hinged, cargo tie-downs that lay flush on the deck when not in use.

The boat can service the entire river, but there are some problems.

"The dock at the Pillars is perfect," McDowell said. "The docks at Moose River and Bing's Landing are not wheelchair accessible. My boat is ready, the docks aren't."

At Bing's, he has to lift the wheelchairs onto the dock. After that, the boat and ramps are ready to load and launch.

McDowell said he thinks all landings should be handicapped-accessible and that there should be toilet facilities up and down the river.

"All the guides could take turns servicing the toilets," he said. "This cost me my life savings, but I know I'm on the right track."

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