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Kids, Trees, and a Boat That Floats
By Chris Granstrom
Northern Woodlands, Summer 2001

Students and educators for Champlain Longboats, 2001
Left to right: Juliette Plantier, Nicole Swenor,
Ryan Kayhart, Chad Carpenter, and Pat Summer,
with classroom aide Jeremie Matrichon.
Photo:Chris Granstrom

Put a boat builder and a forester—especially ones with environmentalist leanings—together in a new wooden boat, and this conversation is almost inevitable. “It’s a beautiful boat,” forester David Brynn said, and it was: a 32-foot Scilly Isles pilot gig—a lithe, fast, six-oar rowing boat. “There’s only one problem: You don’t know where the lumber came from."

Boat builder Nick Patch readily agreed. "The Atlantic white cedar we planked this boat with was beautiful material to work with, except that I don’t know what bog down in Virginia they clear-cut to get it."

This little exchange took place last summer during an evening’s row on Lake Champlain. Patch, who leads a group of special education students each winter in a boat building project at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Panton, Vermont, was already looking ahead to the construction of the 2001 boat. He knew that doing the right thing as a boat builder meant accepting some responsibility for the forest where his lumber came from.

Brynn, who is the Addison County (Vermont) forester and founder of a sustainable-forestry group called Vermont Family Forests (VFF), never misses the chance to promote his vision of responsible forestry. Here was an opening that he could drive a log truck through. So he and Patch agreed that VFF would supply the lumber for the 2001 boat-building project at the museum. It’s an arrangement that has become a demonstration project of VFF’s vision of sustainable forestry and community involvement.

The white pine logs came from the 31-actre Bristol woodlot of long-time VFF members Ron and Karen McEachen. They are lovely, straight, and knot-free, just right for building a boat. The McEachen’s woodlot had been under careful management for 15 years. During this time, they’ve had several timber stand improvement cuts done. Lots of poor quality wood was removed and a network of access roads was established. The roads are a key element in VFF’s notion of using the forest itself as a timber warehouse. Rather than cutting timber and dumping it onto the commodity market and hoping for a decent price, under the VFF system, the specific use of the timber can be identified first and then an intentional harvest made, "like plucking a ripe tomato from the garden," as Brynn like to put it. The landowner gets paid more as a reward for careful management, and the logger earns more as an incentive for taking on small jobs and doing them carefully. In this case, logger Bill Torrey cut exactly four white pines, which yielded 2280 board feet, enough to plank two boats. "And not a teaspoonful of soil will be lost from the site," Brynn said.

It was a bitterly cold December morning when the eight students participating in this project went to the woodlot. These kids have various academic and emotional challenges, though the wind was cold enough that day to challenge anyone’s attention span. These kids may never master the technical points of forestry, but by the end of the day, they had clearly made the important connection between the forest and their boat. In fact, this was an opportunity that few wood users ever get—to visit the forest where their raw material grew. They were there a day behind the logger, and got to see the logs on the landing, the stumps where the logs had come from and tops of "their" trees.

Brynn explained how they chose which trees to cut for the boats. "We found a handful of trees that were mature, ready to go. This tree had white pine blister rust ooze near the top. That says to me—this tree is ready to go." The kids also got a quick lesson in the installation of water bars to prevent erosion, and the use of a Biltmore stick to measure tree volume. One of the students, Ryan, wanted to know if the tree tops were good for anything. "As they rot, they will make good amphibian habitat," Brynn replied.

Brynn was in his glory that morning. This project has all the elements of the new kind of forestry he is promoting with Vermont Family Forests: the community involvement, the good ecological practices, the return to the local economy. This last is at the heart of his vision of forestry—that people will be more likely to take care of their woodland if it pays them to do so.

He’s glad to have gotten someone like Nick Patch to share his vision of forestry, but realizes that there are plenty of people still unconvinced. Brynn is an environmentalist with a nuanced view that insists on a place for people in nature. By placing himself in the complicated middle of the question, he foregoes the comfortable self-righteousness of the extremes.

Even so, he doesn’t mind doing a little tree hugging himself. When showing the students around the woods, he walked up to a tall pine that was swaying in the stiff wind, and put his arms around it. "Give it a try," he suggested to the kids. Most of them looked shy for a moment, but Juliette, one of the bolder students, walked up and wrapped her arms around it. She looked back with a big smile. "I’m a tree hugger," she announced.

Champlain Longboats boatbuilder
Photo:Chris Granstrom

Six weeks later, in the boat shop, Juliette and the others were well into the project—sawing, planing, nailing the planks from the pine trees into the shape of a boat. Under Nick Patch’s gentle and skillful direction, the kids, who had started off looking as bored and distracted as any group of teenagers, had taken on an air of focused purposefulness. Their transformation was nearly as dramatic as the one from pine tree to boat.

Not that the work was perfect; there were plenty of hammer dings and glue smears, but there was no doubt that this was going to become a boat. What’s more, the kids knew that they were going to get in it and row it.

"We’re not under any illusion that these kids are going to become professional boat builders," Patch said. "The goal with these kids is to develop skills to be able to function in the workplace, to develop cooperative skills, and to learn the meaning of work."

In keeping with the VFF vision of using existing infrastructure—and supporting the local economy—the pine logs had been sawed by local sawyer Stephen Taylor on a Wood Mizer band mill. Nick Patch was at his side during the sawing, specifying the lumber he needed. This was truly a case of lumber to order. Then the planks were stickered and dried in the museums’ boat shop—thin lumber (only three-eighths of an inch thick) dries fast—and planed with their equipment. Patch was very pleased with the quality of the lumber.

A lot of the work the students were doing in the shop was somewhat slow and repetitive (like much of life), but the progress was undeniable. Each plank that went on made it look more like a boat. The kids put in hundreds of copper nails each day and, what’s more, they seemed to enjoy it. Impressive as their focus in the shop was, Patch kept pointing out that the real rewards come when they take their boat out on the lake, learn to row as a team, and enter competitions with teams from other schools.

"When the kids show the finished boat to the community, people way, "Wow, you made that?" They get a lot of positive feedback, and they’re not used to that." On that exciting day, though they probably won’t be thinking about it, the launching of the boat into Lake Champlain will make a nice symbolic connection between the forest and the lake.

Boatbuilders and educators work on a gig, 2001
Photo: Chris Granstrom

Paul Ralston, executive director of VFF said, "This project—the boat, the trees, the forest—this is what I call a legacy project, where the outcome is a legacy piece, a boat that’s going to be used for probably a hundred years."

"We need to think about two products of the forest," David Brynn pointed out. "One is the wood for the boat, and the other is the water that the boat is floating on. Some people suggest that clean water is going to be the premier forest product of the 21st century, and making the connection between a carefully managed forested landscape and high quality water—this is a project that does that."

The project also gave this group of youngsters the experience of achieving success—a rare experience in many of their lives. They learned some forestry and they learned some carpentry, but mostly they learned that they were capable of doing something—building, launching, and rowing a boat—that few people have ever done.