Web posted Monday, March 4, 2002

Kenai guide offers wheelchair-accessible boat

By James MacPherson
Journal Reporter

photo: focus

Dan McDowell, right, and his son Skyler, demonstrate their new handicap-accessible boat to Rep. Ken Lancaster, R-Soldotna.
PHOTO/Courtesy Last Frontiersman

It's Dan McDowell's wish to see anyone wanting to fish or sightsee on the Kenai River to be able to do so, especially those confined to a wheelchair.

His wish is coming true but it hasn't been by the wave of a wand or the clicking of heels. McDowell has sunk his life savings into building a boat that caters to the elderly and to those with disabilities, and to anyone else wanting to catch a monster salmon for which the Kenai is known.

McDowell, owner of the Last Frontiersman, a charter boat operation on the Kenai, doesn't want his $30,000 craft to be known as the "handicapped boat."

"This is a boat for everyone and for everyone to enjoy. It's not emblazoned with handicap signs," McDowell said.

The 8-foot-wide by 25-foot-long flat-bottomed boat features wheelchair ramps, removable seating, special tie downs, tire-gripping decks and fishing rod holders.

The boat can accommodate up to six wheelchairs.

It also is equipped with lifesaving and first aid gear, making it the only rescue boat on the Kenai, McDowell said.

For years, McDowell dreamed of building such a boat, and while the idea never languished, for one reason or another he never got around to it until last year.

Part of his motivation and idea for the boat came from his son, Sean, whose job in the U.S. Navy is to ferry people by small boat to the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.

Many of his son's passengers are elderly and disabled war veterans, McDowell said.

That was the inspiration he needed.

He commissioned Mike Kunz of Mike's Welding in Sterling to build the boat, which was modified from an existing aluminum hull.

Kunz spent most of last winter working on the boat, putting about 200 hours into the craft.

"We snazzed it up, and I think it turned out pretty nice," said Kunz, who in addition to building boats, specializes in making aluminum snowmachine sleds and all-terrain vechicle trailers.

He only charged McDowell for a fraction of his time, since he, too, believed in the project.

"Dan is a real genuine person and genuinely wants to help disabled people," Kunz said. "He went out of his way to try and make this thing work. I couldn't have asked for a nicer customer."

McDowell has received other accolades, as well. He won the Outstanding Business in Tourism award from the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce last year. He also won the state-sponsored Barrier-Free design award given annually to a builder or architect for innovative ideas for handicap accessibility.

Awards are fine, McDowell said, but allowing people access to the Kenai is greater gratification.

"Just getting those folk on the river and seeing the fun they have and enjoying the day is the greatest reward for me," McDowell said.

One of McDowell's first customers last summer was Dianne Berthold of Park Ridge, Ill., who had polio as a child and uses a wheelchair.

On her first trip to Alaska a decade ago, Berthold said she was disappointed with the state's adherence to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Alaska has come a long way in the past 10 years with handicap access, Berthold said, adding that the most she expected on the trip to Kenai was to see the river from shore.

"I was surprised he was doing this," Berthold said of McDowell's operation.

"He is very nice and has a lot of enthusiasm and very safety conscious," Berthold said. "I'd like to see him get more business."

More disabled folks could be using the Kenai in the future with the Alaska Board of Fisheries' action in February, giving disabled anglers who meet certain criteria increased hours for fishing.

McDowell said he'd like to see regulations on the Kenai changed to allow larger engines than the 35-horsepower limit for boats hauling disabled passengers.

"This is an awful lot of boat to push with a 35 horsepower motor," McDowell said.

McDowell charges $225 a day for a place on the boat, whether it's for fishing or sightseeing. He said his rates are competitive with other guides along the Kenai.

He would like to see other guides offering similar services and wants all landings along the river to be handicap accessible.

"I didn't do this to be the only one on the river doing this. I want everyone to do this. I want to see Alaska opened up to everyone, not just a select few," McDowell said. "The resources belong to every one of us equally. I think this is an idea whose time has come. It is the 21st century."