BC 'Great Books' Scholars Swap Plato for Paddles in Annual Rite of Spring, 24-Mile Canoe Relay on Charles
They spend the academic year mulling the classics of Western literature, from Homer and Herodotus to Descartes and Dostoevsky. But on April 29, students of Boston College's Arts and Sciences Honors Program set aside the Great Books in favor of paddles to compete as a group in the annual 24-mile Run of the Charles canoe relay race.
Forty paddlers from the Honors Program competed in the daylong relay that began at the Dedham-Needham line and finished at Herter Park in Brighton. The annual event raises funds for the sponsoring Charles River Watershed Association and its river cleanup efforts. Canoes were entered by each of the Honors Program's four classes, from freshman to senior.
The Class of 2003 boat was the top BC finisher, completing the 24-mile relay in 5:29:23, good for 97th place out of 134. This was the seventh year that students from BC's Great Books program have taken part, building esprit de corps while aiding a good cause. "As a 'Rite of Spring,' it's our answer to Stravinsky,'" said Honors Program Director Mark O'Connor. "Instead of sacrificing young maidens to the sun god, we paddle ourselves to death."
The scholar-paddlers take a serendipitous approach to the exercise. Competing in canoes with such names as the Beatrice, the Narcissus and, fittingly, the Job ("it finished last," notes O'Connor), some have been known to spend their 5-plus-mile relay legs classifying riverside flora and fauna, or discussing the Summas of St. Thomas Aquinas. Others have had their reveries end in unceremonious dunks in the drink, or have even managed to get lost, no small feat on a river.
"As rowers, we're great intellectuals," said O'Connor, who as bow-man on his Holy Cross college eight was nicknamed "Bookdog" for his off-the-water devotion to the library. "It's all the great discussions we have in the boat: Where are we? Who are we?"
The Jesuits who founded Boston College as a place of classical learning have long hearkened to the call of the waters. Rivers and Jesuits have been linked in the North American imagination since Pere Marquette explored the Mississippi in the 1670s. A painting of the famed French missionary, in black robe and clutching a crucifix as he stands astride an Indian-powered canoe, adorns the Gothic rotunda of Boston College's Gasson Hall, and a site devoted to the Honors Program's canoeing exploits.
Heir to the Marquette legacy on the BC campus is the university's vice-president for mission and ministry, Rev. Joseph Appleyard, SJ, whose participation in the Charles River Run has led Honors Program colleagues to nickname him "the paddling Jesuit."
"My experience with the race is less than illustrious," Fr. Appleyard, former rector of the BC Jesuit Community, acknowledged. "Marquette would be embarrassed at my performance. The first time I canoed, our team came in dead last, though the leg I had was a beautiful paddle through one of the wilder stretches of the Charles above Newton Upper Falls.
"The second time a senior and I waited for two hours at the Waltham dam for the boat to show up that we were supposed to paddle on the final leg. It never came. We thought it was a blessing in disguise because there was a strong headwind coming up the river and the final leg is something like five miles. Somehow, though, I got two T-shirts that year. I think I'm getting too old for the race now, but if anything could tempt me, it would be the really nice T-shirts."
On a recent Saturday morning, a group of students gathered with O'Connor and Adj. Assoc. Prof. Timothy Duket for a practice session on the Charles by the MDC footbridge off California Street in Watertown Center. Pairs took turns paddling Duket's 17-foot fiberglass Mohawk canoe, navigating swift currents while dodging bridge stanchions and overhanging branches and staying well clear of the falls at the river's bend.
"That was very zig-zagged," said Laura Pyeatt '04, of Kingsport, Tenn., emerging from the canoe after taking her first turn on the water.
"I almost hit a tree. Several trees." Christopher Farady '01, of Ipswich, preparing for his fourth Run of the Charles, looked on as two fellow paddlers attempting a landing grounded the canoe on some tree roots.
"There's always a lot of this," he said. "It's not the most competitive thing in the world. We just have fun."
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