Mapping the Otter Creek

As the new Ecology Programs Director at the Maritime Museum, one of my first projects was the Otter Creek Mapping Project with the Boy Scouts from Vergennes. This spring the Museum received funding from the Lake Champlain Basin Program to offer a program for area youth to explore and map Otter Creek from the water, using longboats. For me the project was a fulfilling opportunity to get to know fellow staff members better, to learn to row a longboat and to become much better acquainted with Otter Creek. Most importantly this trip served as a pilot for new education programs to come.

I was hired in May by the Museum to teach the Paddling Ecology trips that Matt Witten and Ben Mayock have led for years in canoes. But I had no experience rowing the big gigs.   So veteran LCMM boat builder Nick Patch taught Paige Brochu (History and Archaeology Youth Programs Instructor) and me to coxswain.

Unlike the big guide boats I’ve rowed full of gear, the longboats are designed for groups of people. They provide an ideal “container” for lessons about teamwork. If you aren’t rowing for competition they also offer perfect front row seats from which to view sites along the shore and overhead.

LCMM Deputy Director Erick Tichonuk,  Paige, and I spent the week prior to the program arranging logistics. On Saturday morning June 6 Boy Scout Troop 539 met us at the Vergennes Falls. Some of the scouts were tentative about the trip but all were curious about the beautiful boats.

Over the next five hours they pulled seven miles, from Vergennes to the mouth at Lake Champlain. Throughout the day there were waves of struggle and of pride.  The underlying principle of relying on each other and pulling together hit home early.  It was rewarding to see the boys dig in and–despite some protest—most seemed to like the work of rowing.

All the boys clearly enjoyed being outdoors.  Ages ranged from 9-15 and degrees of leadership and “followership” fell into place nicely.  The boys came with enough knowledge of hunting and fishing to point out lots of wildlife on their own, making it easy and fun to connect what they knew to concepts like watersheds, habitats, human impact and landscape connectivity. Beaver dams led to talk about the history of the fur trade and the importance of river corridors not only to wildlife but also to people.

On the river we stopped at historic sites from the Revolutionary War—the Brickyard, the Dugway and Fort Cassin—as well as the much older Dead Creek site where Paige was able to show artifacts from the site and explore the context of archeology in today’s world. Over lunch we talked about the ownership of artifacts and the ethics and legalities of stewardship.

Day two of our program brought the boys to the Museum to create their map. They entered data from waypoints they had marked the day before into ArcGIS software. This software is used by professional mapmakers and has applications to many occupations.  What they found important on the river became the waypoints described for others to find in the future.  Their map has become both a journal and a resource for the future.

Educational experiences like this project expand what educators can do to meet kids’ needs to learn actively.  Seeing osprey nests above your head in cottonwood trees has more impact than seeing photos in a book or watching a video online. Marking waypoints with a GPS unit and uploading data to a personalized map helps place learning into a context that feels relevant and important. Learning traditional navigation skills ties us to ongoing history. Making the map as a group connects us as a small community of explorers to a place we love.

Read More about this Otter Creek Mapping Project


This project was funded by an agreement (P14AC01016) awarded by the United States National Park Service (NPS) to the New England interstate Water Pollution Control Commission (NEIWPCC) in partnership with the Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership. NEIWPCC manages CVNHP’s personnel, contract, grant, and budget tasks, and provides input on the program’s activities. The viewpoints expressed here do not necessarily represent those of NEIWPCC, CVNHP, LCBP, NPS, or the U. S. Government, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products or causes constitute endorsement or recommendation for use.