Bemidji Pioneer: An on-campus summer camp

BEMIDJI—As the sun began to rise one cold and rainy morning a few years ago, when most people might be sipping coffee, popping a bagel in their toaster, or still snoring, Mark Morrissey was already on the road.

A legally blind kayaker left the day before to travel the length of the Mississippi, but had gotten lost in the beginning miles of the winding river near the headwaters and had been forced to make camp for the night. Morrissey used a GPS waypoint to retrieve the kayaker and was back at his desk at Bemidji State University’s Outdoor Program Center by 9 a.m.

Morrissey is an assistant director of campus recreation and runs the program center, where he and a staff of about a dozen college kids rescue about one person a week during warmer months. He said he’s set up the center like a ski patrol, somewhat, and is notorious for devising ways to flummox his staff during safety drills, like fiddling with a rescue boat so it runs out of gas after a few minutes.

“We would spend all day having him jump off sail boats, and come back to rescue him with different injury scenarios,” remembered Ann Farley, a former employee.

The program center’s staff are well-trained enough that they often help with 911 calls on Lake Bemidji. They keep an eye on the south base in particular, and have assisted capsized sailors, boaters with engine problems, or exhausted swimmers who try to make it from one shore of the lake to the other by themselves.

But Morrissey and the OPC staff aren’t just lifeguards: they rent out canoes and camping equipment; teach swimming, kayaking, and boating lessons; take students in programs like Upward Bound out sailing; organize skiing, hiking, and climbing trips; and help out with Lake Bemidji mainstays like the annual Dragon Boat Festival or the Loop the Lake bicycle event.

“We’re kind of like the summer camp of the campus,” Morrissey said.

On a particularly windy Thursday, Morrissey helped two of his staffers “reef” a sail, which reduces its surface area and makes a boat easier for relative beginners to handle, like training wheels. (Four other boats had capsized since Sunday, Morrissey said.)

And at sunrise on his birthday last month, Morrissey and some of the staff at the program center leapt into Lake Bemidji from a trestle bridge and, as four safety boaters paddled alongside them, swam about two miles to the program center.

“That was…kind of a cool little Bemidji adventure, but you gotta do those things right,” Morrissey told the Pioneer. “You should have some backup and some coverage.”

For more information about the program center:…