ECHO Center opens this weekend

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(Host) A new center devoted to Lake Champlain opens this Saturday on Burlington’s waterfront. The $15 million facility is part aquarium, part natural history museum. It provides a fascinating – and sometimes wet – view of the life and times of the lake.

VPR’s Steve Zind toured the center.

(Zind) The name of the center is about as long as a lake sturgeon – Ecology, Culture, History and Opportunities for Stewardship in the Basin at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain; ECHO for short. Twenty thousand gallons of water splash, spill, bubble and slosh between ECHO’s walls. Phelen Fretz is executive director.

(Fretz) “The idea is that when you first come into ECHO you’ll hear water. Water is everywhere.”

(Zind) Water is part of ECHO’s form and its function. A clear tower of effervescent water at the building’s center is purely aesthetic, but the water in nearby tanks has a more obvious purpose.

(Fretz) “Twenty thousand gallons of water and 2,000 fish. Where can you go and see a lake sturgeon? Where can you go see a northern pike or a walleye that’s as big as any fisherman would ever hope to catch?”

(Zind) Turtles, snakes, and frogs round out the collection of live animals at ECHO. Steve Smith is in charge of their care. He’s waiting for delivery of the three-foot lake sturgeon that will complete the collection of large fish in ECHO’s 7,000 gallon tank.

(Smith) “This is the big one. This is where all the big aggressive meat eaters go.”
(Guest) “Let me ask you an embarrassing question. Have you given these fish names?”
(Smith) “No, no.” (laughs)

(Zind) Smith’s job includes keeping ECHO’s fish, reptiles, amphibians well fed.

(Smith) “We have various sized crickets, we have red wigglers, we have earthworms, we have mealworms, we have waxworms….”

(Zind) A cricket has to eat, so Smith even has to purchase food for the food. ECHO’s tanks may not have the wallop of the Boston Aquarium – teeming with sharks and large ocean fish – but Lake Champlain has its dramatic side, too.

(Sound from a video) “Within this land, beneath our feet, and all around us the earth continues to reshape itself…”

(Fretz) “What we’re standing in is Awesome Forces, our multimedia object theatre. We tell a story of 800 million years of change in the basin that has been caused by awesome forces. We tell this story with a video, with a light show and lots of woofers and tweeters.”

(Zind) Much of ECHO is given over to colorful displays, games and hands-on activities designed to illustrate the lake’s geological and natural history – and how human activity impacts the lake, following the water up the rivers to the windy mountaintops.

(Fretz) “We’ll hold branches up in front of this [fan] and kids get a sense of why evergreens are shaped like they are in the alpine zone.”

(Zind) There’s a clear conservation message throughout ECHO and an effort to deliver that message in a light and entertaining way. The partnerships with the University of Vermont and the Lake Champlain Basin Program add an element of serious science to the center’s work. Fretz says after all the planning and construction, he’s looking forward to opening to the public Saturday morning.

(Fretz) “I want them to walk out with a sense of what it means to live in the Lake Champlain Basin. What it means to be a better steward of the basin. What it means to be an active participant in supporting this incredible resource around us.”

(Zind) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind on the lakefront in Burlington.

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