(Host) Lake Champlain is big and varied. Commentator Tom Slayton is here to tell us about one of the lesser-known regions of the lake.
(Slayton) From the veranda of the Grand Isle Lake House, the broad expanse of Lake Champlain spreads out vast and shimmering, with the Green Mountains rising on the eastern horizon. It’s a spectacular view, one that helps make the Champlain Valley one of the most scenic places in America.
Lake Champlain has many aspects. You could almost say it is many lakes. The broad lake can surely be grand and glorious. But other parts of the lake can be secluded and intimate, almost mysterious.
That’s the way the lake is south of Chimney Point in West Addison. It’s a different lake down there, much of it winding and narrow, with marshes and cattails and occasional boats quietly bobbing in the evening waters. Great blue herons stand elegant sentry in the bays and inlets of the southern lake. Its waters are opaque with suspended clay particles, and the farther south you go, the less like a lake and more like a broad, winding river it becomes.
The southern arm of the lake doesn’t look as though it has changed much in the last millenium. But that’s misleading , because in the past this part of the lake was more than busy – it was vitally, strategically important to the emerging American nation. The course of Empire and the first, crucial stages of the American Revolutionary War literally surged through this part of the Lake Champlain.
Fort Ticonderoga, which overlooks much of the southern lake, is known, of course, to every Vermont schoolchild because of Ethan Allen’s surprise capture of it in 1775 and its subsequent defense, along with Mount Independence on the Vermont side, against a British invasion from the north.
Although Mount Independence eventually fell to the British, it held them off for a full year before ultimately being overrun, thus setting up the Battles of Hubbardton and Bennington and the stunning British defeat at Saratoga, New York, just to the southwest.
Later, the south lake was an important commercial thoroughfare. The completion of the Lake Champlain Canal in 1823 linked Champlain and Canada with the Hudson River and New York City, effectively turning America’s first frontier into its first superhighway. Burlington was the largest lumber port in the world in the 1860s, thanks to commerce on the lake and the Champlain and Erie Canals.
There have been no hymns of praise written to the muddy southern arm of lake Champlain, and today the surrounding fields of Shoreham and Orwell are farmed and quiet. It’s been somewhat overshadowed by the broad, blue waters to the north. Yet in its own way, it’s a fascinating place, rich in both beauty and history.
The big lake is like that, always varied, often subtle and surprising. It yields its secrets slowly, and sometimes its subtlest pleasures are its most rewarding.
Tom Slayton lives in Montpelier and is editor of Vermont Life Magazine. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.