Going with the Flow
A grassroots student movement aims to make the Rock River a memorable part of everyone’s Beloit experience.
The final hours of Wisconsin summer heat floated above the Rock River one Saturday afternoon last September, while what looked like a huge Midwestern family reunion began to gather on one bank about two miles from the Beloit College campus. More than 200 Beloit students, alumni, faculty, and their families maneuvered to keep burgers, chips, and sodas balanced on paper plates while they watched other guests toss Frisbees or help pile up logs in anticipation of a bonfire later that night.
But most visitors were hanging out near the main event: the ebb and flow of kayaks and canoes being carried in and out of the bright blue doors of the Buccaneer Boathouse and down a slope to the edge of the water.
A battalion of certified student crew members were providing safety gear, demonstrations, and reassurances to the rookies until, fitted with life jackets and neon kayaks, they were ready to paddle out onto the Rock River.
“And then you have the best time of your life,” concludes Quin Brunner’21, one of the students distributing safety waivers, cinching up life jackets, and flipping veggie burgers that day.
Brunner, Philip Adrian’21, and Henry Westly’21 are the founding triumvirate behind the Buccaneer Boathouse, the name of both the student organization and the formerly derelict piece of college property beside the Rock River that they resurrected and reinvented last spring. In the time that it took for the ground to thaw, the three students—all first-years at the time—secured funding and support from the college, got a crew of fellow students onboard with their project, spiffed up the property and the shed that stands there, filled the building with boats and gear, and began putting Beloiters on the water.
So far, at least when the river hasn’t been frozen, the boathouse has hosted public boating days like the one on Homecoming weekend and private events for Beloit College groups, such as Black Students United, this year’s Residential Advisors, and the cast of the play “Men on Boats,” which was staged on campus in November.
And now that they have the capacity, Brunner says, “We’ve got a mile-long list of things we can do out there.” Above all, he and the rest of the Buccaneer Boathouse crew hope that the place becomes a routine destination for all Beloiters to decompress.
“I really hope that we can get more people excited about just going out there on a regular basis,” says Adrian. It’s crucial to the crew and the officers that boating expertise never become a prerequisite for hanging out at the boathouse. Outdoor activities, especially ones that necessitate the means to transport expensive gear—like boats and oars—tend “to be very exclusive and elitist,” Adrian points out, “and we’re trying to make it as available and welcoming as possible.”
Crew members are volunteers who have completed five hours of service at the boathouse and demonstrated ability in a kayak and canoe (although there’s no need for boating experience before they begin training). Once they’ve been certified, the crew can check out a key to the boathouse from dawn till dusk, and they can take anyone out on the water as long as they’re on it as well.
In addition to the founders and crew members, there are presently five boathouse officers who form a kind of executive board. Mustafa Quadir’20 is the inclusivity policy development officer, Evangeline McFarlin’21 is in charge of coordinating events, Elsa Cournoyer’21 trains and manages crew members, Ryan Jacquemet’19 is the “equipment guy,” and Hayley Tran’21 was just welcomed as treasurer.
Quadir, who learned about the Buccaneer Boathouse when he spotted Adrian kayaking through a shallow snowmelt puddle last February in front of Middle College, is creating a protocol to ensure that identity-based campus groups are guaranteed time on the water. He is also putting aside an event subsidy fund so that those groups don’t have to dip into their own budgets when they want to host an event by the river. The beauty of the Buccaneer Boathouse is that it “takes the shape of whoever’s currently using it,” Quadir says. It’s a space “where people can be unapologetically themselves.”
Becoming a River College
Founding a boathouse may not have been an explicit item on their agendas when Adrian, Brunner, and Westly first arrived on campus in August 2017, but it seems to follow naturally for each of them.
Adrian grew up boating around the Milwaukee area, and says that he chose Beloit in part because he felt grounded when he saw the Rock River from campus. Westly, who’s from near the Oregon coast, only applied to colleges near bodies of water. And Brunner, who hails from southern Minnesota and whose first job was at another boathouse, came to Beloit to be involved with the Powerhouse project and quickly noted the then-tenuous relationship between the college and the tremendous resource in its backyard. He says he was surprised that the college didn’t have a tangible way to get students acquainted with the Rock River.
That thought resurfaced one fall weekend when the trio was hiking near the Rockton Dam a few miles from campus. They noticed that the spillway could use a cleanup, thought they might as well take it upon themselves, and began to ask around to see if the college had any boats on hand. Eventually, Jen Walsh, Beloit’s former director of student engagement and leadership, brought Adrian and Brunner to the school’s defunct two-acre property on the water. They barely had to look at each other to know what needed to be done.
Along with Westly, they cranked out a constitution over the winter break with a plan for how the boathouse could be actively co-owned by anyone who wanted to use it. Then they spent months preparing an application for the college’s New Clubs and Organizations Committee (currently, the Buccaneer Boathouse still has trial organization status) and a Funding Board proposal detailing everything the property needed in order to become fully functional.
The administration’s reaction to their ambitions was empowering, the founders recall. “Everyone could see the value we were bringing to campus,” says Brunner. Walsh went out of her way to make sure the facility could be theirs, President Scott Bierman wrote a letter of support for the project, and one alumnus made a $2,000 gift toward the boathouse restoration.
Still, the property in question was “a mess,” says Westly. “It didn’t feel safe; it wasn’t clean … a lot of poor ownership had been going on.” He adds that the founders later discovered in College Archives that the boathouse had been revived and abandoned repeatedly since its first iteration in 1860.
“It makes sense that it dies” if the organization is not built to be sustainable, Brunner contends. The true goal for the present version of the boathouse is simply longevity. “I don’t care if someone comes in and reinvents the way it functions, as long as it still exists,” he says.
Since they started in on it, student volunteers have put in more than 900 hours of work on the property, which has been completely transformed. The building has been cleaned out, repainted, and decorated with student art, and the brush and weeds, especially the invasive species, have been cleared away.
“That much turnaround in less than a year is really motivating for [future] projects,” says Westly.
“They had a vision, and they were really good at conveying that vision to other people,” says Boathouse officer and event coordinator Evangeline McFarlin of the founders’ success at mobilizing other students.
McFarlin and Quadir are hoping the boathouse eventually becomes stable enough as an organization to host a faculty position and a paid student post or two, so that it can be operational whenever students need to get onto the water. That includes during summer vacation, when dozens of students secure on-campus jobs and internships and choose to stay in the Beloit area.
The remaining possibilities are untold, but in the meantime, the crew and the officers are focused on getting as many people out on the water as they can. “If we put five people on the water, that’s five more than would have been on the water otherwise,” Brunner points out. He compares it to the earliest stages of the project, when everything they did—even getting rid of a cobweb—made the boathouse a better space.
Being on the water at any given time is no less transformative for the Buccaneer Boathouse’s founders than it is for a first-time boater. “I don’t know if I could be [here] without the boathouse,” admits Brunner. “I don’t know what my college experience would be like without the boathouse.” It may not be long before many other Beloit students can say the same thing.
Clare Eigenbrode’20, a third-year environmental studies major from Moscow, Idaho, is one of those students who can no longer imagine Beloit without the boathouse, but she wishes the Rock River had some Idaho rapids. She is also a news editor for the Round Table.