Buzzards Bay Coalition President details plans for Wickets Island, outdoor education center

Nov 3, 2015

The hilly forests of Wickets Island will now be a place of learning, rather than a dilapidated piece of private property, slowly eroding into Onset Bay, thanks to the Buzzards Bay Coalition’s plans to turn it into part of an outdoor educational center.

In the wake of the October Town Meeting vote to help the coalition purchase Wickets Island, Coalition President Mark Rasmussen sat down with Wareham Week this week to talk about the group's plans for the island, renovation of the Onset bath house and new educational and recreational programs centered on Onset Bay.

The purchase is part of a larger plan to create an Onset-based outdoor discovery center that includes the later purchase of about 21 acres of shoreline along Burgess Point facing the island. Rasmussen said the organization has all sorts of plans for the island, as well as the weatherbeaten bathhouse on Onset Beach.

Construction will not happen for at least a couple more years – but, in the meantime, Rasmussen said the coalition plans to pilot several programs for future use and tweaking.

“Learn to Quahog, Itty Bitty Bay Explorers – that kind of thing,” Rasmussen said. “Boost them up a bit, and see who shows up for kayaking, who shows up for sailing, who wants to do more shellfishing, and maybe base some of that out of Onset Beach, to see what we want to do.”

Rasmussen said the coalition plans to use the bathhouse as a sort of base out of which it can run several programs out to Wickets Island, and Burgess Point.

“We have our headquarters in New Bedford, and a summer office in Woods Hole, and if you go around the bay, all the other towns have community boating programs,” Rasmussen said. “But then there is this hole in the middle. Unless you are a wealthier kid who can go to a yacht club, and you live in Wareham, there’s really not much else for you there.”

Assistant Harbormaster Jamie McIntosh said he and the rest of the staff at the Harbormaster’s office are excited to work with the coalition. The office will not only provide rides out to Wickets Island for those interested in taking a day trip, but also hopes to work closely with the coalition to help teach Wareham High School students about shellfishing and aquaculture – a “hugely growing field.”

“I was talking with one of the commercial growers around here,” McIntosh said. “He has tripled his productivity. Oyster growing has really taken off.”

McIntosh said the Harbormaster’s office currently has its own program in which it introduces a hardier oyster hybrid into the bay, in order to avoid many of the diseases wild oysters contract. The office currently oversees between 250,000 – 500,000 oysters per year, but would like to boost that number to between 1 million and 1.5 million, with the help of the coalition and dedicated high school students.

“From start to finish, [the students] would know about the entire aquaculture process,” McIntosh said. “It’s not just a couple-week classroom. It would be a dedication throughout the school, and for students who really wanted to get involved in it.”

Rasmussen also said the coalition plans to renovate the old bathhouse on Onset Beach, and use it as a base of operations for explorations out to Wickets Island and Burgess Point. Built in the 1890s, Rasmussen said the bathhouse “used to be a really cool structure,” but has been ravaged by several different hurricanes over the years.

“And this is what the poor thing looks like today,” Rasmussen said, gesturing to a recent photo of the bathhouse. “We have been talking to the Selectmen about how we could lease the bathhouse, and restore it to look like what it used to look like, and make that second floor into where we gather everybody, and have classrooms, and then send them downstairs and get their boats, and they are out for the day.”

The coalition’s model for the programming is the nonprofit Duxbury Bay Maritime School that serves almost 2,000 people per year. Founded in 1998, the school does not focus on serving the wealthier population of Duxbury. Instead, the school was created “to serve all the other kids in that area, who didn’t have access to the water.”

“They are very cheap programs,” Rasmussen said. “They are for everybody. There is no exclusivity. It’s not a yacht club, and neither [are] we. Their idea is that you create stewardship and a sense of connection not by preaching to people, but just by getting everybody’s hands in the water and feet in the mud, and let them make their own connections.”

Rasmussen said the programs the coalition plans to offer will, for the most part, be free. Some of the physical activities the coalition plans to offer include programmed overnight camping, kayaking, rowing, and stand-up paddleboarding – “even down to learn to swim.”

“If kids are showing up and they want to explore Onset Bay, but they don’t know how to swim, we are going to have to teach them how to swim,” Rasmussen said. “That will be part of the program.”

The island is currently owned by BRT-Wickets LLC, a subsidiary of Danbury-based real estate development firm BRT General Corp. The company bought the island in 2002 for $625,000.

The coalition received financial support to buy the island at Town Meeting Oct. 26, when voters approved transferring $400,000 of Community Preservation funds to the organization to help it buy the island for a total of $525,000. Rasmussen said the organization will be seeking outside sources of funding for the final $125,000, such as grants from historical and environmental organizations, as well as individual donations from interested residents invested in the island’s future.

Though a few voices objected to the plans at Town Meeting, Rasmussen said the overall sentiment has been positive and supportive. McIntosh agreed, saying he is personally looking forward to the island being opened to the public.

“It’s time to restore the island to what it should be, and it should be for public use,” McIntosh said. “I think, altogether, this is going to be great for Onset.”

Onset resident Dick Wheeler concurs. Wheeler said he and his wife Sandra can see the island from his house on South Boulevard. As the “single piece of geography out there,” Wheeler said the couple is “delighted it’s not going to get built on.”

“It was always going to be there, but there was this fear that someone with more money than brains would come and build on top of it,” Wheeler said.

Though coalition sees the island “as a Bay feature that should be preserved for itself,” Rasmussen said the organization also sees the discovery center as a way to bring more tourism to the area, and create a solid partnership among the various groups and organizations in the area, such as the Onset Bay Association and the Boys & Girls Club of Wareham.

“They have a lot of kids there all summer, who would get down on the water more, if they had the means to do it,” Rasmussen said. “If we can serve to be the group that opens up Onset Bay, I hope that then all these other groups can use it.”