ANCHORAGE - The Aleutians East Borough has signed a deal to buy a hovercraft linking King Cove and Cold Bay, part of a plan to improve safety for travelers between the two Alaska Peninsula communities.
Residents of King Cove, an Aleut fishing village of more than 700 on the Gulf of Alaska coast, for years have wanted better access to Cold Bay for medical, economic and social reasons.
Cold Bay, with a population fewer than 100, has a deep water port and an all-weather airport with a 10,415-foot runway, a 5,126-foot crosswind runway, a Federal Aviation Administration flight service station and a weather service office. The airport is large enough to make Cold Bay an alternate landing sites for the space shuttle.
A dozen people have died and more have been injured in the past 25 years attempting to reach Cold Bay from King Cove, often in medical emergencies, according to the borough.
Lying between the communities is Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, federal land where roads are prohibited. Conservation groups fought a proposal in Congress to allow road through Izembek, fearing that roads through other wilderness areas would follow.
As a compromise, Congress in 1998 agreed to provide alternative access for King Cove. The hovercraft will cost $8.8 million and is part of a $35 million marine and road transportation link paid for with federal dollars.
Aleutians East Borough Administrator Bob Juettner said residents went to Congress asking for an easement and came out with the multimillion dollar project.
"We would have preferred a road. However, Congress dictated a road-marine link," Juettner said. "Under the circumstances, the hovercraft best fits our needs."
Even now, if small airplanes cannot fly, King Cove residents must cross the 18 miles to Cold Bay by boat. Depending on the size of the boat and the tides, they might have to climb 10 feet to 16 feet up an ice-encrusted vertical ladder to reach a dock a quarter-mile from shore at Cold Bay, Juettner said.
Borough officials hope that the new transportation link also will have economic benefits.
"It could mean improved quality of millions of pounds of Alaska seafood processed in King Cove because of more reliable, faster access to the largest airstrip west of Anchorage," Juettner said.
The vessel has a freight capacity of 47,500 pounds, equal to two DC-6 aircraft. Borough officials hope King Cove-based Peter Pan Seafoods will use the vessel to carry seafood on a 20-minute run to Cold Bay.
Peter Pan ships out millions of pounds of seafood year-round from King Cove but limits air shipments to cod milt and salmon roe, according to the borough.
Borough officials also hope the hovercraft is a boon for Aleutia, the local brand of premium quality sockeye salmon marketed by Aleutians East families.