Middlebury High Schoolers Reintroduce The Historic Lake Champlain Trapping Boat

Mar 19, 2015

Although the use of small trapping boats on Lake Champlain may be a thing of the past, students from a career center in Middlebury are keeping the tradition alive by building full-scale replicas.

A group of students at the Hannaford Career Center in Middlebury spent the fall researching and building real trapping boats, which are unique to the region, as part of an engineering class at the tech center.

Students Riker Billings and Jake Dombek joined Vermont Edition to talk about their research and experience building the trapping boats.

“Trappers could actually do most of their work from the shoreline,” Dombek says, “but some trappers would trap in deeper waters and would need a boat to get to their traps.” Most Vermonters using the boats were trapping muskrats, according to Billings, because they were abundant and stayed close to the water’s edge.

The students explain that trappers would send the pelts to a broker, who would eventually ship them up north to Canada. “The price fluctuated quite a bit. It could have been anywhere between $15 and $20 for a pelt. Which is pretty good, because they could get [up to] 40 pelts in a day,” Dombek says.

Most of the students’ research was done through interviews, Dombek says, because there wasn’t much documentation on the history of trapping boats. “We were pretty much finding out new information that no one had found before. So that was pretty cool,” says Dombek.

Riker Billings, left, and Jake Dombek stand in front one of the replica trapping boats their class at Hannaford Career Center in Middlebury created. The project was part of an engineering class at the tech center.
Credit Douglas Brooks

One aspect of their research involved speaking with a present day trapper, Barry Forbes, who Dombek describes as “kind of gruff on the outside, but really kindhearted.” They went to the camp of another trapper in Addison named Bud Smith. Billings found seeing the camp a stimulating experience. “It was really interesting because they had a dozen people in this tiny little room staying weeks at a time. They went out every morning, checked their traps, went back to the camp, then checked them again in the evening,” says Billings.

Although trapping boats aren’t used in present day, a group of students set out to build two full-scale replicas. They describe the boat as basic, the bare minimum that a trapper would need. “You can see in the other boat a long pole, which they would use to push the boat along, because they’d mostly be in shallow enough water to use that,” says Dombek. Typical trapping boats had only one seat. “It was manned by one person, typically. They went out by themselves and actually … they would carry their gun in case they encountered any game while they were out,” he says.

"Many different techniques were taught to us, some traditional Japanese styles we used because that's what Douglas [Brooks] specializes in. So that was cool to learn those and apply it to this project." - Jake Dombek, Hannaford Career Center student

Neither of the students had any experience building boats before the project. “Douglas taught us a lot,” Dombek says. “Many different techniques were taught to us, some traditional Japanese styles we used because that’s what Douglas specializes in. So that was cool to learn those and apply it to this project.”

The students' red replica sits proudly next to a historic trapping boat at the the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History in Middlebury.
Credit Douglas Brooks

Dombek is referring to Douglas Brooks, a local boat builder who instructed the students through the boat trapping project with Jake Burnham, the engineering instructor at the career center.

Burnham says he was looking for something to help evolve the computer-aided design, or CAD, program to become an investigation into a variety of career paths. “I’m not sure whether the students saw that long-term connection” between engineering and boat building, he says, “but from a curriculum standpoint it fit in really, really well.” Burnham says that although the project took more time than would have traditionally been spent on naval architecture, it was definitely worth it. “Just the social experience, the interviewing the trappers … This is an era of time that won’t really be repeating itself, given today’s technology, how fast we move and the lack of muskrats,” he says.

Brooks, for his part, approached the career center when the project was brought to him. He says he is most excited about the CAD drawings the students created of the three historic boats. “They represent … the first thorough documentation of a vernacular Lake Champlain boat. No other institution has done that before this high school class. So for me, the cultural preservation itself is really important,” he says.

The students' CAD drawings of the historic trapping boats are the first thorough documentation of a vernacular Lake Champlain boat, according to Douglas Brooks, a local boat builder who helped with the class.
Credit Hannaford Career Center

Brooks hopes that the drawings can eventually become a tool to encourage people to start building the boats themselves, even if they aren’t going to be using them for trapping. “I’d like to think that if somebody’s out there and they’d like to try building a boat, this is the perfect boat to do it. It’s a perfect beginner boat. And why not build something that is intimately connected with our region?” he says. “I think of it in terms of ecology, reintroducing a species, let's reintroduce a traditional Lake Champlain boat.”

"I'd like to think that if somebody's out there and they'd like to try building a boat, this is the perfect boat to do it ... I think of it in terms of ecology, reintroducing a species, let's reintroduce a traditional Lake Champlain boat." - Douglas Brooks, boat builder

Although Burnham is impressed with the work the students have done on the boat project, he explains it’s the type of work they do at career centers every day. “People would be very surprised that this is original work done by high school students,” he says. “But if they knew more about what we in the tech centers are capable of, they would expect it.”  

"People would be very surprised that this is original work done by high school students," says instructor Jake Burnham. "But if they knew more about what we in the tech centers are capable of, they would expect it."
Credit Douglas Brooks

The students’ boats and research are on exhibit at the Frog Hollow Vermont State Craft Center in Burlington and at the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History in Middlebury.