Entrepreneur looks to offer Cook Inlet boat tours

AP PHOTO/James Poulson/Daily Sitka Sentinel
For nearly a decade, Jerry Norman has dreamed of offering boat tours in Cook Inlet. With permits and finances falling into place, he says the idea is getting close to reality.

"I’m very optimistic I’ll be driving pile by the first of April and we’ll be turning a prop by the end of July or the first of August,’’ said Norman, who along with sons Jon and Erik, own Cook Inlet Excursions Inc.

The idea is to build a walkway and floating dock just south of the mouth of Ship Creek, and take folks for a two-hour trip through Knik Arm to Fire Island in a 60-foot, 150-passenger catamaran.

The project would cost about $500,000, not including the lease of the catamaran, Norman said.

Norman expects more than 50,000 people to take the trip in a peak year. The company would employ about a dozen people, including boat crews, bus drivers and tour guides, Norman said.

Many tourists would rather take a scenic boat ride and do some whale watching than walk around downtown or shop, Norman said.

"It’s going to give them the opportunity to see country they had never been able to see before,’’ Norman said. "A big drawing card will be beluga whales.’’

The walkway and floating dock near the Ship Creek public boat ramp, according to Norman, would consist of 35-by-120 foot barge anchored using special pilings that would allow the structure to ride up or down with the tide, so that folks would not have to climb ladders to get onboard a boat.

An 850-foot long walkway would connect the dock with a staging area near the public boat ramp.

Buses would take tourists from downtown to the site. Portable buildings and restrooms may be added at the staging area, according to the company’s permit application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps’ public comment period for the proposed project ended Dec. 24. Norman said that to his knowledge, no negative comments were received by the Corps.

Project managers for the Corps were on vacation over the Christmas holiday and could not be reached for comment at press time.

Norman initially had proposed linking his dock directly to the public-owned dock at Ship Creek, but that idea drew much criticism, so he amended the plan to keep the two separate.

Bill Sheffield, port of Anchorage director and a former governor, has long been a proponent of a day-boat operation in Cook Inlet.

Sheffield said summertime tourists often get bored waiting around in Anchorage to take a cruise ship south or a train north.

"There are as many as 5,000 people a day hanging around in Anchorage wanting to do something,’’ Sheffield said.

Matanuska-Susitna Borough officials have unofficially offered to pay for the design of a ferry landing on the Anchorage side of Knik Arm, at Ship Creek Point and have said they may fund the construction of the facility there in the future.

Officials from the borough and the Port of Anchorage have been crafting a "memorandum of understanding" outlining each party’s responsibilities over the last several months.

The agreement had not been signed by either party.

Mat-Su borough officials say having a ferry landing on both sides of Knik Arm will encourage new business at Point MacKenzie.

The Mat-Su borough has $11.8 million in federal money to build a ferry system across Knik Arm. The money would go toward design and engineering of the ferry landings, utilities and access roads, and toward construction of a ferry.

Marc Van Dongen, port director at Port MacKenzie, said environmental and feasibility studies for a deep-draft dock will be done in 2002. He said a ferry could be negotiating the 2-mile gap in as little as two years.

Sheffield sees the proposed ferry landing as a place where tour boat operators could moor and offer sightseeing trips in Cook Inlet.

"A day boat would draw a great amount of business," Sheffield said.

The idea has been tried in the past. More than a decade ago, a converted World War II tug was transformed into a tour ship, offering dinner cruises in Cook Inlet. The venture failed.

Norman said that operation failed because it depended on locals.

"They did not have the tourist base we have today,’’ Norman said. "Things are tremendously different now.’’

01/06/2002 - 8:00pm