ECHO Center open on Lake Champlain

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(Host) Commentator Tom Slayton has some thoughts on the newest addition to the Burlington Waterfront.

(Slayton) Towering above the just-opened ECHO Leahy Center for Lake Champlain is the new science center’s emblem: the silhouette of a lake sturgeon. It is both a symbol of the lake – and a statement. Recent research shows the amazing, prehistoric fish is still swimming there, in the deeps of the lake, but it is imperiled. ECHO Center director Phelan Fritz said that’s precisely why the new center chose the sturgeon as its emblem. “It shows the impact of humans on the lake,” he said. “But it also gives us hope that we can bring them back.”

Downstairs, in a large aquarium tank, two real, live lake sturgeons swam gracefully through the shimmering water along with several other large fish. Dramatic as the presence of the sturgeons is, there’s a lot more than fish going on at this amazing new attraction on the Burlington Waterfront. It’s a state-of-the-art look, a compelling detailed snapshot, if you will, of the lake and the 8,200 square mile basin in which it rests.

Part museum, part lake aquarium, part research center, and classroom for the region, the ECHO Center is the newest addition to the Burlington Waterfront. Dozens of exhibits, 12,000 gallons worth of fish tanks, a video presentation that collapses 800 million years of lake basin geology into a six minute story – told by an Abenaki storyteller – a replica of a 19th century shipwreck that children can explore – and more – highlight the attractions offered by the museum.

But even more impressive is the way the exhibits work together and the message they collectively send. You don’t learn only about the natural history of the lake basin; you learn — of necessity — about the human history and culture of the region as well. Literally everything from geology to farming problems and how you wash your dishes is included.

The center’s overall mission is nothing less than to make every resident of the basin a better steward of the lake. The museum staff believes that once people see and understand the wonders of the lake basin, they’ll begin to think hard on what it takes to keep and maintain those wonders.

If all this sounds virtuous and perhaps a little boring, it shouldn’t. The ECHO center educates through challenge and delight. Its exhibits are fascinating and beautiful, using water, living animals, and light in creative, imaginative ways. Senator Patrick J. Leahy, who rounded up about half of the $14.5 million cost of the center, should be proud of this latest contribution to the lake basin’s ecology.

We live in an amazing corner of an amazing world, and the more we learn about our place in it, the more miraculous it seems. Perhaps the ECHO Center will play a key role in restoring sturgeon to a vital lake ecosystem. That, in itself, would be no small miracle.

Tom Slayton is editor of Vermont Life magazine.

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