University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Lake View

view of Lake champlain and the breakwater toward New York state

By Joshua Brown, Sarah Tuff Dunn, Thomas Weaver
Principal photography by Bear Cieri

Crest the hill on Main Street and there sits Lake Champlain.
Welcome to Burlington.
Generations of UVM alumni remember that love at first sight and what it grew into across the years.
In this issue, we celebrate the lake with a look through the eyes of alumni, faculty, and students who know Lake Champlain as playground, workplace, laboratory, and passion.

 

Steve Pond and Jerry Williams in the wheel room on the Lake Champlain ferry

Steve Pond, left, started work on the Lake Champlain ferries as deckhand; Jerry Williams, as an engine room oiler.

THE CAPTAINS

Boat captain has likely been scrawled on reams of “What I Want to Be When I Grow-Up” lists. Ferry boat captain on Lake Champlain? Not so much. It’s a rare vocation, deeply embedded with the landscape and history of the region, that crosses the radar of few.

But for Jerry Williams ’72 and Steve Pond ’73, a pair of locals drawn to the lake early in their lives, this profession essentially “found them.”

The pair of captains share a good deal in common. Their long careers with Lake Champlain Transportation began as teenagers—Pond as a deckhand; Williams in the engine room as an “oiler.” They were UVM students during the same era—Williams earned his degree in business; Pond studied sociology before going all in with work on the lake after his junior year. 

And there’s a core likeness in their characters—steady, unflappable, yes, even keel. The sort of person you want in the captain’s house of a 500-ton vessel full of vehicles and passengers crossing a deep, cold lake in a winter storm.

Pond is at the helm when Williams, who retired last year, joins him for a photo shoot and morning crossing of the lake from Burlington to Port Kent, New York. They discuss the challenges of piloting a safe crossing, the path of ice floes, the special trick of navigating heavy waves with a large log truck on board, stacked high and at risk of rolling over onto an adjacent Subaru.  

“Maybe a couple of winters ago, it was blowing about sixty out of the south with ice in the lake,” Pond recalls. “You can do down into a wave and you chip off these chunks of ice that are the size of boulders and they wash on deck. You don’t really like those sliding around, smacking into cars.” Times like those, it’s the captain’s call to stay at dock.

The captains know what’s beneath the waves – from various shoals to one of Benedict Arnold’s sunken gunships (location top secret). And they know what likely isn’t down there. They can count on tourists’ questions about Champ. Their professional opinion: those mysterious ripples are more likely rogue wave than rogue reptile.

Both alums have a love for being on the water, at work or at play, that hasn’t been diminished by years of eleven-hour shifts. And they still aren’t immune to the splendor of Lake Champlain. 

“What still takes my breath away sometimes is coming down College Street or Main from the top of the hill,” Williams says. “You see that metallic look down there. It’s beautiful.”              
TW


THE LAKE QUIZ (Answers at end of story.)
1. Lake Champlain flows south.
    True or False
2. The Battle of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain, Oct. 11, 1776, was one of the first naval battles of the American Revolutionary War. The American fleet was led by:
    a)    Alexander Hamilton
    b)    Benedict Arnold
    c)    Marquis de Lafayette
    d)    Ethan Allen

 

 

Two students sailing a UVM sailing team boat on Lake Champlain

“Some kids think it’s just a lake and don’t realize how hard it can blow. It requires a tremendous amount of physical endurance as well as mental.” Caroline Patten, UVM Sailing coach

BROAD REACH

It’s 2:45 p.m. on Labor Day afternoon, with the remnants of Hurricane Harvey whipping across Lake Champlain, turning the sapphire-blue surface into a froth of whitecaps. An exhausted-looking man cleats his Laser to the dock at the Community Sailing Center, clearly beaten by the aggressive breeze. “Anybody want to sail?” he says, ironically.

“Yes!” says Caroline Patten with no trace of irony. As the coach of the UVM Sailing Team, she’s as game for the big gusts as the thirty-four athletes who’ve been prepping by smearing on sunscreen, gobbling up late-lunch sandwiches, zipping up booties, and securing Helly Hansen gear to help keep the water at bay on this seventy-seven degree day.

On Lake Champlain four days a week from 2:45 until 6 p.m., traveling to four to six regattas on weekends and working out with a trainer two mornings a week, this team is as serious about sailing as Alabama is about football. What it lacks in varsity status, it more than makes up for in conviction, camaraderie, and showing how Catamounts can shine on these double-handed dinghies.

“Every single person on the team is highly competitive and wants to win,” says Lindsay Doyle ’19. “Eat, sleep, homework and sail. Not too much time for anything else, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

 Team president Brittney Manning laughs when asked about the typical perception of sailing. “The expensive, ‘Let’s wear white linen and drink cocktails on a nice yacht’ kind of thing?” she says. “We find that comical because we know what we are doing is just as intense as any other sport.” The team does its own fundraising, and will soon be moving into Burlington’s new sailing center after years of working out of containers.

It’s not always this windy on the lake, of course. Dead calm can reign, or rain can, or freezing sleet and snow. Two years ago, Manning was part of a crew that ventured out on February 2 to kick off the spring season, bailing ice out of the boats. 

The payoff is not only national-class results, but also a remarkable sense of place for all members of the UVM Sailing Team. “Champlain is one of the absolute best venues in college sailing,” says Patten, explaining how training inside or outside of the breakwater can simulate a wide variety of conditions on lakes and oceans. “For a big portion of our seasons, there are few other boats on the lake, so it feels like our own personal playground. We also get to see some pretty epic sunsets over the Adirondacks.”                    
SD

THE LAKE QUIZ (Answers at end of story.)
3. Lake Champlain’s greatest depth equals:
    a) Half the height of Ira Allen bell tower
    b) The height of Ira Allen bell tower
    c) Twice the height of Ira Allen bell tower
    d) Twice the height of Ira Allen bell tower, plus a stack of fourteen Ira statues
4. Ninety-three fish species are found in Lake Champlain. Among the species listed below, which is not found in Lake Champlain?
    a) Burbot
    b) Northern Hog Sucker
    c) Tessellated Darter
    d) Bluefin Tuna
    e) Slimy Sculpin

 

 

Old postcard of Lodge at Basin Harbor

FAMILY TRADITION

As Pennie Beach ’67 reflects on the Vermont Legacy Achievement Award she recently learned Basin Harbor will receive from UVM’s Grossman School of Business, she jokes, “We’re the old guys on the block.”

Yankee humility aside, true enough. It would be tough to find a family business in Vermont with deeper roots and more closely tied to the Vermont landscape than Basin Harbor, a postcard-perfect lakeside resort in Vergennes whose ownership dates back across four generations to the 1880s.
 
It all begins with Great Aunt Ardelia, says Pennie Beach, over breakfast in the lodge dining room named for Ardelia herself. After years working in Iowa as a school administrator, Ardelia Beach staked her claim back in Vermont when she bought 200 acres of the original Basin Harbor property for $4,000 in an 1882 tax sale. Four years later, she made good on her plan to return to Vermont, enlarge the windows in the lodge so “people could really see the lake,” and transform it into a resort.

Pennie Beach’s grandfather, Allen Penfield Beach, UVM Class of 1911, set the course for what Basin Harbor has become today—600 acres, an eighteen-hole golf course, marina, space for 400 guests in the lodge and individual cottages, a prime wedding locale.  “A.P. was a very entrepreneurial guy, a polymath, really,” Beach says. Her grandfather started work as a hired hand at Basin Harbor during his sophomore year of college, and the farm boy from down the road like what he found. “He used to tell people that he was tired of playing chambermaid to a cow: he’d much rather get into the people business,” Beach says.

When Aunt Ardelia passed away in 1909, A.P. convinced his parents to buy the property. He would soon set plans into action with ingenious, simply built cottages, and a golf course carved out via horse-powered earth moving equipment.

Today, Pennie Beach oversees operations; her brother Bob runs the physical plant; they’ve shared management since taking over from their parents in 1990. In recent years, she’s had the pleasure of also working with her daughter, Sarah Morris, the fifth generation of Beaches on the management team. “Everyone should be as lucky,” Pennie says.
 
Asked how Basin Harbor has changed during her leadership years, Beach says what many legacy guests love about the place is that it doesn’t change. Yes, there are the twenty-first century necessities like WiFi. But, more importantly, when sitting in an Adirondack chair gazing across at Split Rock Mountain, there’s the sense the steamboat Ticonderoga might still come chugging up the lake.              
TW

THE LAKE QUIZ (Answers at end of story.)
5. If the average volume of water in Lake Champlain, 6.8 trillion gallons, were placed in one-gallon milk jugs (six inches wide), and those jugs were  placed side-by-side, how many times would they circle the Earth at the Equator (24,901 miles)?   
    a)    25,860    b)    15,615
    c)    31,223    d)    8,964
6. This celebrated author once said the two finest sunset views are Italy’s Bay of Naples and Lake Champlain from Battery Park:
    a)    Mark Twain
    b)    Rudyard Kipling
    c)    Henry James
    d)    Edith Wharton
    e)    W. Somerset Maugham

 

ADIRONDACKS BOUND

In the late nineteenth-century, as Northeast city dwellers began to travel north in search of solitude, the sublime, and the cure-all of bracing mountain air, the Adirondacks became a key destination, according to Dona Brown, professor of history and author of Inventing New England: Regional Tourism in the Nineteenth Century.
 
In those days, Champlain was part of the journey, but likely not the destination. Train or steamboat to Burlington, maybe an overnight, then across the lake to the allure of the High Peaks.

“The Adirondacks were not just a scenic destination, they were the focus of wilderness travel, health-related wilderness tours, not just for tuberculosis, but for psychological illness, neurasthenia, sleeplessness, overwork, stress,” Brown says. “The Adirondacks were touted as being a great cure for all of those—the anti-civilization cure, breathe the balsam in the air, fish and hunt like your ancestors.”

Brown suggests that the lake and its Vermont shores may have been slow to develop as tourist destinations because the waterfront was still very much a working landscape in many places.
—TW

 

WILD TROUT RETURN

About two miles southwest of the Burlington breakwater, Ellen Marsden leans over the stern of the RV Melosira, waiting for fish. Two reels take up the steel cable of an incoming trawling net and soon the professor is helping her technicians and students dump a squirming, liquid-silver mass of life onto a processing table on the back of the research boat.

She’s hauled up several species of fish, some tiny Mysis shrimp, plus one sea lamprey, but much of the haul is trout—lake trout.
“One, seven, five. Unclipped,” she calls out a few minutes later, measuring one of the trout along a ruler.  She tosses it into a plastic bag for freezing and later dissection. She’s been quizzing these students, enrolled in her Fisheries Biology & Techniques course, about trout anatomy—but she’s conducting research at the same time.

And she’s very excited about what she’s found on this hot September afternoon. Of the seventeen lake trout the team caught in this haul, not one had a clipped fin—meaning it didn’t come from a state fish hatchery. In other words, wild lake trout are starting to reproduce again in Lake Champlain. “One hundred percent of these trout are wild,” she says with her distinctive grin and remnants of an English accent.

“Since 1972, the state has been stocking trout in the lake. Eighty thousand a year for the past twenty years,” she tells her students. These hatchery fish find mates and food, they deposit eggs, and the eggs hatch. The young fry find food too, survive their first weeks of life, and, in the spring, leave their spawning reefs to go to deep water. “And then we never see them again,” Marsden says, and—though she’s been investigating this mystery for two decades—“we don’t know why.”

At least that was the story until 2015. That year, Marsden and others began to find wild trout in their net surveys, above twenty percent of the total catch. Last year, it was about a third. “So far this year, we’re about fifty percent wild fish,” Marsden says—though she cautions that this rising statistic could be as much about where the Melosira is trawling as it is about fish populations.

Marsden is exploring several reasons for why lake trout, Salvelinus namaycush—a native species that disappeared from Lake Champlain by 1900—has “stunningly, unexpectedly returned,” she says. Her favorite hypothesis now is that changes in the base of the food web—particularly, rebounding populations of those Mysis shrimp she held up with her fingernails to show her students—have given the trout a new start. “But we don’t know. That’s why we call it research,” she says.

“Why is the return of these fish important? “ asks Marsden, a professor of fisheries in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. “Because it’s a sign of recovery. If lake trout can recover after forty-five years of trying, it’s possible to recover other species too, here in Champlain and in the Great Lakes. You take the pressure off, you take the insults off the system—and the creatures will come back.”  —JB

lake champlain in shades of blue

LAKE LABORATORY

At the foot of College Street, on the shore of Lake Champlain,the Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Laboratory is UVM’s not-so-secret weapon
for research and teaching in aquatic and watershed ecology. And, from a slip right outside the back door, the Melosira, UVM’s research vessel, takes faculty and students onto the broad lake. These resources are often key to a wide array of lake research critical to the ecological, human, and economic health of the region.

Changing Climate, Changing Lake What makes some parts of the Lake Champlain Basin resilient in the face of extreme weather events, increasingly common in a warming Vermont, while other parts fail to recover and rebound?

In 2016, a $20 million award from the National Science Foundation to Vermont EPSCoR provided funding to help answer that question, generating critical information for decision-makers as they govern the region and develop policies that reach far into the future.

The five-year project supports research teams from UVM and colleges across the state that will collect data from sensors in streams, soil, and the lake and gather information on adjacent land use.

A computer model will then be created, integrating all three information sources. The model will be used to test management scenarios and identify strategies for maintaining infrastructure, environmental health, and drinking water quality in the event of intense storms.

Do it with Drones A team of scientists from UVM’s College of Engineering & Mathematical Sciences and Rubenstein School flew drones with cameras over four rivers in central Vermont that dump sediment into Lake Champlain. Their study offers watershed managers a new way, says Scott Hamshaw G’06, an engineer and post-doctoral researcher, “for reliably quantifying streambank erosion over relatively large areas more efficiently and with less resources than is available through current surveying methods.”

Why is the Beach Closed? Some research has pointed a finger at eroding streambanks, vilifying their washed-out soils as a major source of phosphorus pollution that triggers algae blooms in many lakes—including Champlain. But ongoing studies by Don Ross, in the Department of Plant & Soil Science, complicates that picture. In a 2015 study of Chittenden County streams—and a forthcoming study in the Missisquoi watershed—Ross shows that, indeed, eroding streambanks may increase the raw-total amount of phosphorus in the lake. But, unexpectedly, these soils, floating in the water, might soak up more phosphorus than they release—altering its form so that algae can’t use it as fertilizer. Without more study, Ross worries that the efforts of regulators might decrease total phosphorus going into Lake Champlain, but, “there could be just as much bioavailable phosphorus coming in.”

One World, Many Lakes Jason Stockwell, associate professor and director of the Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Laboratory, will conduct research at France’s Freshwater Ecology Lab on Lake Geneva during the spring semester. Stockwell, a Fulbright Scholar, will partner with fellow international scientists to study storm impacts on twenty-five lakes in Europe, Asia, South America, and North America. “The research will enable us to put Lake Champlain in context, to see where we are on the spectrum of how storms impact lakes,” Stockwell says. “We’ll contribute to knowledge in this area, but also be able to take new insights from the work and apply them to Lake Champlain.”

Price on Clarity Everyone likes clear lake water, but what’s it worth? A 2016 study by UVM faculty and students found that Vermont lakeside communities would lose nearly $17 million in economic activity and two hundred full-time jobs—in July and August alone—for every one-meter decrease in water clarity. The study was the first to investigate the relationship between home prices, tourism, and Lake Champlain’s appearance.

Banks Too Green to Fail “There’s a lot of talk about how much we spend on upgrading wastewater treatment plants,” says UVM geographer Beverley Wemple, “but what’s the value of planting trees and restoring wetlands?”  The Vermont chapter of The Nature Conservancy is working with her, engineering prof Arne Bomblies, conservation expert Taylor Ricketts and other Fellows at UVM’s Gund Institute for Environment to explore which green infrastructure investments promise the most return for Lake Champlain.  “Our model is looking at nature-based interventions along riparian zones to see what is going to work best—and where—for improving water conditions in the floodplain while protecting against flooding,” Wemple says, “and, ideally, capturing phosphorus too.”

On the Network Lake Champlain and Shelburne Pond  are two of nearly two hundred lakes and ponds around the world that form GLEON, the Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network. The grassroots organization is building a web—from Antarctica to Brazil to Finland—of floating platforms and other sensors that gather long-term data about lakes’ changing conditions. Then they share that data in near-real time. Four UVM researchers have been participating in GLEON—UVM graduate Lisa Borre ’86  now helps lead GLEON’s efforts as a research specialist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. The researchers are hunting for signals of how slo-mo shifts in climate and land use—and sudden disturbances, like hurricanes—change the life and chemistry of lakes.

What’s in the Water? Christine Vatovec, an interdisciplinary scientist with appointments in both the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and UVM College of Medicine, is leading efforts to study the presence and impact of prescription drugs—antibiotics to antidepressants—flushed down toilets and, potentially, eventually into Lake Champlain.
 
“There are 70,000 to 100,000 new chemicals in our environment that were not invented when wastewater treatment plants were designed a hundred years ago,” Vatovec says. “It’s impossible to know yet what these chemicals mean for Lake Champlain—so we’re trying to figure that out.”  Her research program is following the circular path in both directions—out into the ecosystem and back to human medical care. “The part I’m most passionate about,” she says, “how do we prevent overprescribing?”  

THE LAKE QUIZ (Answers at end of story.)
7. In square miles, Lake Champlain’s watershed is approximately the same size as:
    a)    Connecticut    b)    Hawaii
    c)    New Jersey     d)    Delaware
8. The Abenaki believe that this tiny island in Lake Champlain is the physical manifestation of Ood-zee-hozo, the creator of the lake. It is commonly known as:  
    a)    Juniper Island b)    Rock Dunder
    c)    Hen Island      d)    Carleton’s Prize

 

spiral fossil in Chazy reef

In 2009, portions of these Champlain Islands were designated National Natural Landmarks. Photograph by Joshua Brown

CHAZY FOSSIL REEF

Near Quarry Road on Isle La Motte—the northernmost island in Lake Champlain—geologist Char Mehrtens crawls slowly over a gray wedge of bedrock. Two fat raindrops splat down, making the limestone look black where it’s wet. Mehrtens doesn’t look up, her silver hair and hand lens just inches over the rock. “Oh, here’s an excellent one,” she says, and traces her fingers over a pale scar that winds outward to form a spiral nearly as big as her hand. “This is the index fossil for these rocks,” she says, sitting up on her knees and smiling, “It’s Maclurides magnus. When you see this large snail, you know you’re in the Chazy Reef.”

The study of geology makes even the bedrock seem as gauzy as cotton candy. “The lake is not a permanent feature of the landscape,” says Mehrtens, gesturing west toward the shoreline hidden behind a row of cedars and an incoming bank of storm clouds. Over the last 20,000 years, Lake Champlain—“our little bathtub,” says Mehrtens—has shape-shifted from a 900-foot-deep pool of glacial meltwater, to the salty Champlain Sea swimming with beluga whales as far west as Ottawa, to its current form.

But these dramatic changes took no more than a “frame or two,” Mehrtens says, in the long film of Earth’s history. About 460 million years ago, where we sit, near the Canadian border, was a magnificent reef under the shallow warm waters of the Chazy Sea, part of the ancient Iapetus Ocean—and located far south of the equator where Zimbabwe now stands.

This reef stretched for more than a thousand miles, from what is now Labrador to Tennessee, perhaps a bit like today’s Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Mehrtens, professor of geology at UVM since 1981, has been studying this fossilized reef for decades. “People often refer to this as the world’s oldest coral reef,” Mehrtens says, “but that’s not quite right—since coral had only begun to appear. The reef-building here was done by other creatures, like bryozoa and stromatoporoids,” whose skeletons of calcium carbonate piled up in mounds that slowed the incoming waves, and provided many niches and hidey-holes for a profusion of other sea species, like echinoderms and brachiopods, trilobites and cephalopods.

Merhtens wrote a scientific report, and led a multi-year effort, to petition the National Park Service to draw public attention to the remarkable reef. Her efforts paid off in 2009 when portions of three islands in Lake Champlain were dedicated as the Chazy Fossil Reef National Natural Landmark. “That’s probably the work that I’m most proud of,” she says. The oldest reef in the world—revealing a pivotal moment in the evolution of life, our first record of multiple organisms collectively building a structure that modified their environment—is, as Mehrtens says, “just too important to be made into road gravel. ”                   
—JB

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THE LAKE QUIZ (Answers at end of story.)

9. During the War of 1812, a British squadron fired on Battery Park from the lake. During this era, UVM shut down and troops were housed on campus. Which building served as a barracks?    
    a)    Old Mill
    b)    Chittenden-Buckham-Wills
    c)    Royall Tyler Gymnasium
    d)    None of the above
10. Lake Champlain is part of the Atlantic Flyway, a major migratory corridor. Approximately how many birds travel up and down the lake each spring and fall?    
    a)    10,000    b)   40,000
    c)    100,000    d)  150,000

 

“NOCTURNE”

When we go below,
we almost expect to see the stars,
mirrored by the surface so vividly at night,
fixed in their places along the bottom.

The big fish—the elegant pike,
avuncular channel cat,
the lordly muskellunge—they graze
the hillsides around and below us like cattle.

The little fish—shiners in a school,
tessellated darters scattering
like grace notes on a score so the silence
appears to have secret music,
appears even to have birds.

Are there seasons here?
Like storm clouds, the hulls of boats.
An occasional swimmer in flight.

Are dusk and dawn the same?
There are no pedestrians,
no panhandlers, no streetlights.
No distant porchlight but the moon.

Small boats, moored along the bottom,
appear homesick to those of us
who love our homes. We listen
for fishcalls, as if a pumpkinseed
were a flugelhorn. But these corridors
of mud are silent as catacombs.

Daniel Lusk
Lake Studies: Meditations on Lake Champlain
Published by Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, 2011
Poet Daniel Lusk is a senior lecturer emeritus in English.

 

THE ADVOCATE

As executive director of the Lake Champlain Committee, Lori Fisher ’81 guides multiple efforts that steward the well-being of this vast resource—from marshalling volunteers to monitor cyanobacteria (and dipping water samples herself) to establishing a forty-campsite paddlers’ trail to enhance lake access and foster appreciation.

“People care about what they get to play on and use,” Fisher says. With a watershed the size of New Jersey, spanning two states and two countries, home to 571,000 humans, Lake Champlain needs many caring partners taking personal action and pushing public policy.

Fisher and the lake are in a long-term relationship. An English major at UVM, she initially connected with the Lake Champlain Committee on a book project.  Since then, Fisher figures she has held every position within the organization.

There was a break in there, a couple of years not long after college, when Fisher backpacked in Australia, New Zealand, and Southeast Asia. The latter, in particular, showed her the multiple negative impacts triggered by a scarcity of clean water. The experience deepened her resolve to protect what we have in Vermont.
 
“Flying back into Burlington and seeing the lake, there was this almost gravitational pull, this feeling I was home,” she says. “That has always stayed with me. I feel lucky to be able to work on a cause that is so fundamental to our quality of life in this region.”                              —TW



THE LAKE QUIZ ANSWERS

1. False.  Lake Champlain flows from Whitehall, New York north almost across the U.S./Canadian border to its outlet at the Richelieu River in Quebec. From there, the water joins the St. Lawrence River, which eventually drains into the Atlantic Ocean at the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
2. b) Benedict Arnold
3. d) The waters of Lake Champlain reach their greatest depth (400 feet) in the area between Charlotte, Vermont and Essex, New York.
4. d) Bluefin Tuna
5. a) 25,860
6. b) Rudyard Kipling
7. c)  New Jersey New Jersey’s area in square miles: 8,721. Lake Champlain Watershed’s: 8,234.
8. b) Rock Dunder
9. d) None of the above The soldiers were housed in UVM’s original building, the College Edifice, later destroyed by fire in 1824. The Edifice was on roughly the same site as Old Mill.
10. b) 40,000

Got them all correct? Let me know: Thomas.Weaver@uvm.edu

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