LONDONDERRY — It floats!
The 20-foot umiak made by students in the HOME (Hands On, Mind Engaged) program at Leland and Gray’s Union Middle and High School completed a successful maiden voyage on Lake Lowell on Friday morning.
The handmade boat, modeled after a traditional boat made by indigenous Arctic peoples, was paddled around the lake in Lowell Lake State Park by the students who helped build it over the past three years — with their teacher, Bill Gallagher, shouting encouragement and initial instructions from the shore.
HOME middle schoolers started making the boat in 2019, but like many things, its progress has been delayed by COVID-19.
When school resumed, most Leland & Gray students stayed with remote learning, while HOME students went to school and built an outdoor structure where they could work on their umiak, Gallagher said.
“This design comes from the Arctic Circle,” he said.
The trial was designed to allow students to familiarize themselves with their boat and now learn how to maneuver it, he said.
Eight students worked on the boat this year, but three missed the launch due to illness. Ironically, probably COVID, Gallagher said.
But the whole class will take the boat for their traditional June camping trip on the Somerset Reservoir, where the school has a field, cabin and yurt, as well as a tent platform, Gallagher said.
He and three para-professionals who help with the HOME program, Benn Nicholson, Tom Russell and Seth McCoard, helped prepare the boys – all middle schoolers – for the launch on Friday morning.
Enough paddles? Check.
Fishing equipment ? check and check.
Insect repellent? check, check and check.
With all five teenagers in the craft, four paddling in two teams of two and one as captain, once launched they moved swiftly through the water, much to the delight of their teachers again. down. They would follow later in their canoes.
The students took their umiak out into the calm lake, paddling together, to return and circle Picnic Island and other islands in the man-made lake, which has been a state park since 1977.
Gallagher, who taught at Leland & Gray for about 25 years, said they chose to make an umiak because it was a challenge and an unusual type of boat.
“We just love old skills that endure,” he said.
In the past, students in the HOME program had built kayaks, shelters or other hands-on learning experiences before going to high school.
He said the class cut down an ash tree for the wood, but then decided to make the boat, using the ashes for the boat’s gunwales, keel and stringers. They fetched wood for the boat rods and settled on apple prunings at Green Mountain Orchard in Putney.
The students steamed the apple wood to make the rods for the boat.
Umiak is traditionally made from animal skins, most often sealskins sewn together. In 2022, the sealskin was replaced with ballistic grade nylon, grayish white in color.
Sewing the stiff nylon to the wooden frame was the hardest part of the job, the students said.
There’s no metal in the boat, Gallagher said, which makes it flexible.
Indigenous peoples, mostly women, used umiaks to move large amounts of goods, he said. The boat was used by the Inuit of Greenland and also of Alaska.
“They used to move the whole village,” Gallagher said.
But that didn’t mean students didn’t have to struggle to sew the bulky fabric – ballistic nylon – onto the ash and apple frame.
The sewing was the hardest part, said Windham ninth grader Jack Spangler.
The students – all 7th, 8th or 9th graders – who worked on the project this school year included Orren Styles, Kenrick Ewing, Derek Pierson, Braden Brooks, Dillon Burke, Riley Taylor, Tyler Rousseau and Spangler.
Friday morning was a perfect, albeit overcast, day on Lake Lowell. The students only had to share the 102-acre lake with a lone kayaker and a loon. Lake Lowell is tucked away off Highway 11 near Mount Glebe and is for non-motorized boats only. After paddling around the lake, the class planned a barbecue.
Somerset, where the class is heading in a few weeks, “is as close to the wilderness as it gets” in Vermont, Gallagher said.
“It was a tough program, and they all delivered,” he said. “It took three years of preparation.”
The maiden voyage went off without a hitch.
“The umiak worked perfectly,” he said. “And it’s a great place to do it.”