Waking up a river's life

08/31/2006
By From the Boston Globe

By Joyce Pellino Crane, Globe Correspondent

From the edge of the Rourke Bridge in Lowell, the Merrimack River is just a body of water separating two sections of the city. But from the ramshackle boathouse a stone's throw away, it could become a ticket to a nautical adventure.

The river once offered a windswept journey for Lowell kids, but today it awaits their return, as official s tie up some legal loose ends that have nothing to do with pleasure but everything to do with potential.

On an early morning in mid-August, rowers Karen Scammell of Groton, Jennifer Lown of Maynard, and a half-dozen others were gliding toward Tyngsborough and back, moving their oars in a circular pattern, pushing with their legs , converting strength into energy.

Someday, they could be joined by the small fleet of sailboats now languishing inside the Bellegarde Boathouse.

On one side of the aging boathouse is a garage door that opens to the sculls used by members of Lowell High School's rowing team, a club team at the nearby university, and members of the Merrimac River Rowing Association. (The club takes its name Merrimac, without the k, from the traditional spelling of the river.)

On the other side is a fenced area with a line of sailboats, and a handful of others scattered around the yard -- about 40 in all. One is turned upside down on stanchions, awaiting repairs.

The trouble is, the boat has been waiting four or five years, and unless a local physician with a love for sailing can resurrect the sailing program next summer , the boat will have to wait at least until summer 2008 for its maintenance work.

The boathouse is named in memory of Lowell resident Edmund A. Bellegarde, a World War II Navy veteran who in his later years volunteered his carpentry skills to build docks and maintain the building. Bellegarde died the year the boathouse was built.

The 1982 building has fallen into disrepair, and state officials padlocked the doors last spring after touring the building and seeing exterior walls so damaged by leaks that the oversized glass window panes were ready to fall out.

Inside were mottled plastered walls where gaping holes had been. The bathroom facilities were leaky, and some drains were clogged.

State officials determined the cost of repairs would be higher than allotted money would allow, so they blocked access, angering members of the high school rowing team, members of the Merrimac River Rowing Association, and state legislators.

State Representative Thomas A. Golden and Senator Steven C. Panagiotakos, two Lowell Democrats, helped push through legislation in July that transferred custody of the boathouse to the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, relieving the state Department of Conservation and Recreation of the responsibility to maintain the building.

With that transfer will come $1 million for maintenance of the building, breathing new life into a recreational program that some say will boost the river's image and its value to the community.

The transfer to UMass-Lowell is still pending, said Donald Lampron, who will be the university's project manager for the boathouse. Once the legal matters are resolved in the next few months, Lampron said, he can start working on the idea of offering sailing instructions to children.

For now, Lampron is taking inventory of the sailboats, which belong to the city. City and university officials will jointly decide which ones can be salvaged and which cannot. They will keep the good ones at the boathouse until everyone figures out whether the sailing program can resume.

Sitting in a scull on the water's edge on a recent morning, Jim Polcari of Melrose gazed at the hodgepodge of sailboats in need of care.

``This has been let go now for about five years," said Polcari, 45, pointing to the sailboats just before he zipped away on the river.

Polcari is a former UMass-Lowell crew coach and a 1982 graduate of the school. With Joseph Lafreniere, founder and president of the Merrimac River Rowing Association, Polcari taught sailing to Lowell residents until 2002, when the lack of money prompted the city to terminate the program.

``It was huge," he said. ``Chelmsford had their kids from the Y come in. Lowell kids came. I'd like to see it go again."

So would John W. Wang, a physician who devised a 13-page plan that was provided to city officials two years ago and passed on to members of the UMass-Lowell athletic department this summer.

Wang, one of the sailing program's founders and instructors when it began in the 1970s, estimates the program would need about $200,000 for instructors' salaries to get children sailing again. He said he hopes membership dues, fund-raising from businesses and individuals, state and federal grants, and contributions from nearby local governments will cover the annual expenses.

``I believe that such a program has tremendous potential in helping our youth find direction and purpose," he said. ``Instead of taking drugs and going into a gang, they learn discipline . . . and cooperation, showing them that life has greater purpose."

For now, however, the river's calm and glistening waters belong to the rowers.

The waning summer days have been breathtaking, said the boaters, who are preparing for the Textile River Regatta on Oct. 1. The event is organized by UMass-Lowell alumni with the help of the Merrimac River Rowing Association, including world class rower Jay Feenan, 48, of Windham, N.H., and the Lowell high rowing team.

Scammell, a 43-year-old graduate of UMass-Lowell, said she was captain of her rowing team in 1985 and rode stroke on an eight-man sweep.

``It's a good analogy for the work force," she said. ``I use my rowing experience when I go on job interviews. If every person tries for their personal best, the boat will fly."

Lown, 43, of Maynard said she's been rowing regularly since a friend took her out on the Seekonk River in Rhode Island 20 years ago .

``After that I was hooked."