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Extended boat ramp opens today at Clarks Bridge Park
Volunteers tie buoys to the edges of the new boat ramp at Clarks Bridge Park before it is put in the water on Saturday. The buoys will make it easier for boats to navigate the new ramp. - photo by Robin Michener Nathan
Build it, and they will boat.

Kerry Hicks and a team of volunteers saw their grass-roots project to extend the public boat ramp at Clarks Bridge Park realized Saturday, when they successfully pulled a 24-foot pontoon boat from Lake Lanier on a new, 40-foot steel extension.

"That was a real good feeling to see that boat come out of the water," Hicks said. "We always had faith it would work."

With the drought-stricken lake at 20 feet below full pool, the north end boat ramp was one of many rendered useless by receding waters. Only two public boat ramps remained accessible before Saturday — Tidwell and Shoal Creek.

Hicks, owner of the Smokin’ Fisherman bait shop near Clermont, took it upon himself to raise money and recruit the manpower to build a temporary extension, with an agreement reached between the city of Gainesville and Hall County, which operate the park under a lease from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"Once Kerry started talking about it, word got around," said Terry Mintz, a welder and member of the Clermont Bass Club who donated his skills to the effort. "People wanted a ramp put in. Most of the guys were putting in at (Ga.) 53, and it’s dangerous to put in there right now."

"This will be a great improvement, especially on this end of the lake," said assistant county administrator Phil Sutton, who stopped by Saturday to lend a hand as the final touches were put on the ramp. "It’s great that they took the time and effort to do this."

More than a dozen full-time skilled laborers and part-time fishermen welded, drilled, sawed, graded and laid concrete to see the project to completion. Hicks has raised $3,000 so far, and is still taking donations for a project that has cost an estimated $4,500.

Volunteers laid 43 yards of concrete and welded together a 40-foot metal ramp that extends into the water to a depth of about 8 feet.

"The truth of the matter is I might have started this, but this is why it’s happening," Hicks said, motioning toward the volunteers hard at work Saturday. "These people love to fish, and something had to happen."

Mike Tripp, owner of Tripp Guide Service, said the ramp will alleviate a traffic jam at other boat ramps, where he has to get clients in at 5:30 a.m. to ensure a parking spot.

"Any thing right now will help," Tripp said.

The ramp will be open to the public starting today. Volunteers have room to install two more metal ramps, if funding allows, and Hicks is in talks with Oakwood officials to start a city-funded ramp extension project there.

Hicks cautioned boaters to rely on common sense when using the ramp, calling the project, "a temporary ramp for a temporary situation."

For the volunteers who watched as a Bobcat front-end loader pushed the ramp into the water Saturday, the screeching sound of metal grinding against concrete was like sweet music.

"When you take away somebody’s love, you take away a lot," Hicks said. "And we love to fish."