Four Brothers Islands

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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange spent several years living on the New York shore of Lake Champlain. His favorite islands are a little less grand than Grand Isle or the Heroes.

(Lange) The Four Brothers Islands lie in Lake Champlain just west of the Vermont border in a line between Willsboro Point, New York, and Shelburne Point. They’ve always been a haven for shore birds and waterfowl, most recently cormorants. Now they’re an Audubon Society wildlife preserve. You can go look at them, but you can’t land without a permit and a warden by your side.

Samuel de Champlain had a gift for naming geographical features. After giving the lake his own name, he called Vermont’s signature mountain the Couching Lion, which it resembles a lot more than a camel’s hump. The Four Brothers he named the Isles of the Four Winds. A lovely name; but about 100 years ago they were purchased by the Hatch family of Willsboro and renamed for the four Hatch brothers. And so they have remained.

Because of the bird rookeries, the islands haven’t attracted any development. But consider some of the events they’ve witnessed. Champlain cruised past them in 1609 with his Canadian Indian allies on his way to a skirmish with the Iroquois. In that confrontation, he shot a couple of Iroquois chiefs, and arguably guaranteed France’s eventual loss of North America to the British.

150 years after Champlain, French warships cruised the lake. Rogers’ Rangers sneaked past them over near the Vermont shore, on their way to attack the Abenaki village of St. Francis and end the raids on British settlements.

Less than 20 years after, the British were the enemy. The army of General Burgoyne, sailing south past the islands in an attempt to divide the colonies, camped on the New York shore a few miles away, at the mouth of the Boquet River. You can still find Burgoyne’s campsite and fire pits. It was here that he issued his infamous permission to his Iroquois allies to attack colonial settlers, which had the effect of uniting the colonies. He was defeated at Saratoga.

The British tried again in 1814. They anchored a gunboat at the mouth of the Boquet River and sent two bateaux to loot the mills at Willsborough Falls. Repulsed with heavy losses, they fired several shots at the town militia and retreated. For years afterward, townspeople retrieved the cannonballs from the bluff and used them to grind paint.

The Four Brothers were also a way point for bootleggers in the 1920s, running Canadian booze down the lake by night in speedboats. Tradition has it you can still dig up bottles, abandoned in the heat of the chase and buried in the sandbar off the mouth of the Boquet.

Well, today the islands witness the passage of pleasure boats and occasional kayakers. The birds nest here as they did 400 years ago. Everything has happened here, but not much has changed.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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