Bill Stephens tosses a floatation device into Lake Mendota during a training run. It takes three seasons for lifesaving personel to finish official training. For more photos, click gallery, above.
Nestled on the southeast shores of Lake Mendota next to James Madison Park is the UW Lifesaving Station - a concrete structure resembling a fortress.
In many ways, the Lifesaving Station operates as a fire station does, except that its purpose is to provide lake rescue services. Four limited-term employees (LTEs) are on call 10 hours a day, seven days a week, April to October. They take watch shifts in the station's 40-foot tower using high-powered binoculars to scan the lake for distressed boaters. And they go on 500 to 800 runs per season.
The station is part of the UW Department of Environment, Health & Safety. It serves UW students as well as private boaters and swimmers.
The Lifesaving Station provides help in all types of weather - wind, rain or storms. Bill "Smiley" Stebbins, who has been an LTE at the station for 39 years, says he's experienced his share of adrenaline rushes.
"There have been times out on that boat when we put our life jackets on and you're not 100% sure you're going to make it back yourself," he says.
Most of the station's runs are assists or rescues. In an assist, boaters need a tool or life jacket to help them get back to shore. In a rescue, boaters rely on the rescue boat to tow them back, supervisor Chris Kleppe says. A small fraction of the station's runs, about three to eight per year, are life-threatening situations.
"They'll usually turn to you and say, 'You saved my life,'" Kleppe says. "That's a very rewarding part of the job."
Kleppe says people have different ways of showing their appreciation for the station after they're saved. Some bake cookies or bring pizzas, while others write grateful letters to the chancellor. One fisherman, who was rescued after falling into the water while intoxicated, brought his psychiatrist to the station to meet the lifesaving staff.
Often, the station's efforts go unnoticed. One of their mottos is "Quietly saving lives for over 100 years." The station has been patrolling the lake since 1909, but it's less well known than the Dane County Lake Patrol and the Madison Fire Department Lake Rescue Team, the other groups that provide lake rescue services.
"Everyone knows when somebody dies on the lake," Kleppe says. "Very few people know when somebody is saved on the lake."
Stebbins is the most experienced staff member. He began working at the station in 1973, and his father worked there from the mid 1950s through the late '70s. Stebbins remembers visiting his dad at the station's original facility behind the UW's Red Gym. He recalls the winding staircase that led to a tiny lookout tower and the station's old wooden rescue boats.
"I was fascinated by [the station] early on, and I kind of knew I always wanted to do it," he says.
The station's turnover is low because its staff members love what they do. Stebbins says the work environment is unique - sometimes challenging, sometimes relaxing, sometimes fun.
"We actually look forward to coming here, and that's special," he says.
LTEs need to have CPR and EMT skills, as well as experience operating boats. Once they're hired, it takes three seasons before an LTE is officially considered "trained." Assistant supervisor Sean Geib stresses that training is an ongoing process since each situation is unique.
"Once you realize you can control your nerves, you can approach any situation with a calm, clear head," Geib says.
On busy days, the LTEs respond to back-to-back calls.
"It's all seamless," Geib says. "You've got to work as one cohesive unit."
Naturally, the 10-hour shifts yield some down time. There is maintenance work and cleaning to be done, but also plenty of time for socializing and fun.
The staff members like to reminisce, telling old stories.
"You still talk about 15-20 years ago almost like it was two, three, four, five years ago," Kleppe says.
One of their favorite tales is the one about Stebbins' first week on the job. He was mowing the lawn outside the station on a steep, slippery bank when he fell, grasping the mower as he slid down the bank on his behind.
"I let go of the mower and it shot down the bank and went off the sea wall just like a ski jump," he says. "It shot out about 10 feet into the lake and hit, and it gurgled and flipped over and sank."
Stebbins has developed more than a dozen nicknames over the years. He gives them right back, and almost everyone who works at the station has at least one: "Steve-er," "Big Mike," Spray," "Peter Pan."
The staff is an eclectic bunch, and they've learned to embrace each other's quirks. Despite their differences in age, politics, religion and background, they share a love of the lake.
"We're just used to everyone's personalities and idiosyncrasies," Geib says.
There's Michael Johns, known for his vintage Speedo collection. "Big Mike" is a photographer and builds helicopters for his cameras, hovering them over the lake to take aerial photos. Stebbins is the storyteller, although you can't always take what he says at face value.
"It was definitely an adjustment to understand the humor and the personalities of all these characters who've been there for decades," first-year LTE Zak Markman says.
Grilling out and sharing meals is another station tradition. But the staff members have to be ready to go out on the rescue boat on a moment's notice.
"Things can change suddenly," Stebbins says. "You can go from just kind of watching the lake to being on an emergency run."
Just after the sun sets, the lifesaving staff get ready to head out after a long day on the water. They are tired, maybe sunburned, but mostly they feel fulfilled. Before they leave for the night, they walk under a phrase that is painted just above the door: "Nobody injured, nobody killed."