America’s Greatest Lake


August 2, 2003



Vermont,” said British general John Burgoyne, “abounds with the most rebellious race on the continent and hangs like a gathering storm on my left.”


He wrote these incandescent words in his diary while sailing on Lake Champlain for the first time. Headed south towards Saratoga with the largest army ever gathered in North America; he was to suffer the defeat that won the Revolutionary War for the colonies.


Burgoyne’s words came back to me three years ago when I first sailed on Champlain myself. I had lived in western Vermont for decades without actually being on the lake. Then my son bought an old, second-hand sailboat. One Sunday afternoon he took his mother and me for a ride.


There, sailing in the silence of the wind, with blue skies and waters meeting on distant horizons, there in the green valley between the mountains, a sense of wonder and peace prevailed, not unlike when I first stood on the great plains of northern Montana and listened to the wind in the deep grasses flowing westward toward the Rockies.


At that moment I was struck by the notion that even those of us of modest means could know how it was to be wealthy.  (The sailboat cost less than a small fishing boat with motor.) We sailed to the New York side, had lunch at a little restaurant on shore and then sailed

back to Vermont. I actually felt guilty – it was that perfect.


Now I understood why Senator Leahy was right to claim Lake Champlain was America’s sixth “great lake.” But he was right for all the wrong reasons! When mid-western senators said Champlain was too small to be a “great lake,” Leahy pointed out it was deeper than some of the Great Lakes and thus had more cubic feet of water.


I believe Lake Champlain is greater than the great lakes because it is a real lake. From its waters one may see green fields and rolling hills, dirt roads, villages and bays – church steeples and pastured cows. From the other Great Lakes the only thing on the horizon is the lonely sky. Champlain is thus the greatest of all American lakes, not because it is big but because it is small. Its horizons bespeak community and landscape – the gentle interface of man and nature – the ecology on which the human race depends.


And so Lake Champlain is most of all a metaphor for Vermont – a stunning affirmation that, indeed, small is beautiful after all.


This is Frank Bryan from Starksboro.