- Ken Picard
Vermont is amply stocked with local fishing opportunities. Whether fly fishing for rainbow trout on the Battenkill River, bass fishing on Lake Memphremagog, hooking walleye on the Connecticut River or pulling salmon from Lake Champlain, anglers can catch more than 20 freshwater species in the Green Mountain State.
But sharks? Not likely.
One Seven Days reader wrote in recently to ask about a motorboat, painted to resemble a shark, that's jutting from a lawn along Route 128 in Westford. On a recent drive-by, a dusting of fresh snow created the illusion of sea foam churning around a fish lunging out of murky depths.
Sharks tend to capture our imagination, despite their nasty — and largely unwarranted — reputations as aggressive, cold-blooded killers. Shark activity in New England was at a record-setting high in 2019: Marine biologists tagged 50 great white sharks between July and November, the most ever, according to the Massachusetts-based Atlantic White Shark Conservancy. With more than 200 confirmed sightings last year off Cape Cod alone — including Massachusetts' first fatal attack in more than 80 years, according to New England Cable News — swimmers avoided New England ocean beaches almost as much as in the summer of 1975 following the release of Steven Spielberg's blockbuster thriller Jaws.
Still, despite the fact that more than 33 shark species live in New England waters — including the world's second largest, the plankton-eating basking shark — the only ones you're likely to encounter in Vermont are the St. Albans Sharks swim team and Shark Communications, a Burlington-based marketing firm.
So, what's the story behind the breaching briny beast in Westford?
"It probably involved a little more beer than anything else," explained Nathan Lavallee, creator and owner of the Westford land shark. "We were sitting around a bonfire one night talking about what to do with a buddy's boat from up the road."
According to Lavallee, 41, his friend bought the salvaged vessel, a 30-foot Baja speedboat, from a seller in New Jersey, then trailered it to Vermont and stripped it for parts. Rather than send the remaining fiberglass hull to a landfill, he added, "We repurposed it."
Lavallee said that, when he was a kid, his family used to take a lot of road trips out west, where they often passed folk art of various kinds on people's front lawns. Though this is Lavallee's first stab at public art, he pointed out that his father, who lives nearby, once built a life-size tin man by his mailbox.
Initially, Lavallee said, he planned to position the hull vertically and perhaps create a totem pole out of it. So he and a few friends dug a four-foot hole, set the boat inside it, then backfilled it with dirt. "But once we put it in the ground," he said, "it was actually a lot heavier than we thought," so it tilted.
For about three years, the boat remained unpainted and askew, looking like an old vessel catching waves or foundering fast. According to Lavallee, it attracted a fair amount of commentary, both pro and con, on the online community newsletter Front Porch Forum.
"And then, my wife finally got sick of it," he admitted. So last May, Lavallee decided to paint it to look like a shark, which resulted in far more positive feedback. In fact, he noted, it's become an easy landmark: "If I say, [our house is] the one with the shark, everyone knows where I live."
By no means is Lavallee's land shark the most famous wildlife art in Westford. Last year, local native Ted Pelkey erected a 700-pound wooden sculpture of a hand flipping the bird to Westford town officials because they refused to issue him permits to move his truck and trailer business there from Swanton. The massive middle finger, which is lighted and sits atop a 16-foot pole, became a national media sensation. As WCAX-TV reported, singer-songwriter Bob Ritchie, aka Kid Rock, phoned Pelkey to order one for himself.
Lavallee, who works as chief operator at the City of Burlington's wastewater treatment plant, emphasized that he's not making any social commentary or political statement with his land shark.
"There's not some amazing story behind it, like that guy up the road with the middle finger," he said. "It's just being different in Westford."
Hey, whatever floats your boat.