Stories From The Lake: Appreciation

06/29/09 5:20PM Lynne McCrea, Neal Charnoff
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VPR/Lynne McCrea
(Charnoff) It's All Things Considered on Vermont Public Radio, I'm Neal Charnoff.

Next week, our region will observe the 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain's arrival on the lake that bears his name.

All this month, VPR news has been exploring the influence of the lake on the history and culture of the Champlain Valley.

This afternoon, we wrap up our series "Stories from the Lake" with a look at the role Lake Champlain plays in our lives today.

(Canoe in water)

(Sweeny) "This is a unique area - where the
Missisquoi River enters into Lake Champlain..."

(Charnoff) Mark Sweeny is Manager of the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge, on the northern part of Lake Champlain. He's paddling down the Missisquoi River, a few miles from the lake.

(Sweeny) "The river slows down as it approaches the lake, and it's all marshy, and very wet land. And these wetlands are valuable to wildlife - it's a place they seek - to nest and raise their young and that's just what we have here".

(Charnoff) The refuge is a symbol of the lake's past and its future. This is a place that draws wildlife... and tourists. It's a place of great beauty, and an area - like elsewhere around the lake - that wrestles with pollution.

(Hear birds)

Further down the river, Sweeny points out a great blue heron rookery, where more than 300 nests have been counted this year.

(Sweeny) "We're hearing great blue herons, we're hearing double crested cormorants, hearing heron chicks... You feel like you're in a prehistoric place when things are really active here, when most of the chicks have hatched, and when they're flying around like that you feel like you're back in caveman days.

And I think probably great blue herons were definitely here when Samuel de Champlain was in this area.  So, he would have seen and heard the same sorts of things that we're seeing today."

(Charnoff) Sweeny says this rookery gets a lot of visits by boaters and paddlers who come here to appreciate the wildlife and scenery.

And that's as it was beginning 150 years ago - when some of the earliest visitors came to the region in search of relaxation. 

(Strum) "Recreation really doesn't become widespread until after the Civil War, when there starts to be a growing middle class, disposable income..."

(Charnoff) Rich Strum is the author of "Ticonderoga" - a book about the steamboat that traveled the waters of Lake Champlain for nearly 50 years.

After its last run in 1953, the Ticonderoga was restored and now sits on the grounds of the Shelburne museum.

Strum says many of the first tourists to the region came by railroad, and then traveled across the lake on steamboats.

(Strum) "There's a big rush to visit the Adirondacks after 1867 when William Adirondack Murray writes a book about his experiences roughing it in the Adirondacks. And literally he creates the first tourist boom in the Adirondacks. Murray also wrote a book about Lake Champlain - not as well known - about all the opportunities for vacationing on Lake Champlain itself."

(Charnoff) Tourism would continue to grow on the lake - and throughout the region - for more than a hundred years. But recreation, and the industrial revolution that preceded it, left their mark.

By the 1970's, a new issue was drawing attention: pollution, and the overall health of the lake.

(Winslow) "Since the passage of the Clean Water Act we've had much more attention paid to how we manage the pollutants that go into the lake..."

(Charnoff) Mike Winslow is a staff scientist with the Lake Champlain Committee. He says a major pollutant in the lake is phosphorous, which causes algae blooms that harm fish and the quality of the water. Winslow says strides have been made in cutting down on how much phosphorous goes into the lake.

(Winslow) "We took phosphorus out of laundry detergents - prior to that it was going in without being treated at the wastewater treatment facilities. So that was probably the biggest reduction in phosphorous we had."

(Charnoff) Winslow says much more needs to be done, especially in controlling runoff from parking lots and farm fields, which drain into the lake and leave more pollution behind.

(Hear birds and paddling)

Back at the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge, Mark Sweeny says invasive plant species - like water chestnuts - are another big concern.

(Sweeny) In the last 400 years, certainly the water quality of Lake Champlain has deteriorated. And largely because of the activity of man, I hate to say that but that is, unfortunately, the truth.

(Charnoff) But Sweeny is optimistic about cleanup efforts.

(Sweeny) People are starting to become concerned and want to do something about it. They're getting impatient about the pace of cleanup, and I think those are all good things. Hopefully it'll lead to making a positive difference here in the lake.

(Hear wind and waves)

(Charnoff) Down at the southern end of the lake in Addison, Chimney Point offers a dramatic gateway to Vermont. A state historic site here preserves some of the history of the earliest European settlements. Elsa Gilbertson runs the site:

(Gilbertson) "It's so important to think how precious this is and to know all the people who came before us, because the more we can know about a place, the more we can revere it and respect it and then make sure it's here for the next generations."

(Charnoff) Reverence for the lake has always been key for the Abenaki people, who believe the world, in part, was created here.

(Abenaki song)

(Wiseman) "The lake is very, very spiritual..."

(Charnoff) Fred Wiseman is a professor at Johnson State College who specializes in Abenaki history and culture. He says the Abenakis believe in a ‘transformer being' that rose up out of the Earth to create the Lake Champlain basin and the surrounding mountains.

(Wiseman) "The transformer himself, this being, is believed to be here today still and ... this place is a place of veneration that is still visited by the Abenakis. I know this summer we have other Native American people that are coming from other parts of the U.S. to the Quadricentennial. One of the things we want to do is take them to this sacred spot in Lake Champlain to do a ceremony honoring this, the fact that Lake Champlain is a place of creation."

(Longtoe singing)

(Charnoff) Roger Longtoe is an El-Nu Abenaki who works to preserve tribal culture of the region. He's participating in many Quadricentennial events like this one at the Flynn Center in Burlington. He hopes that in the celebration of Samuel de Champlain, there's also recognition of the Native American people who preceded him...

(Longtoe) "It's a celebration, yes.  The more important  part for us  is - not that Champlain came down the lake and things changed - but that we have a chance to shine. And show who we are and what we are. And hopefully the people of Vermont and other places will see that we're here. And we're not hidden in the shadows anymore."

(Charnoff) As we approach the 400th anniversary, Native American people are present, and sharing their story. So, too, are scientists, who continue to push for cleanup of the lake... Historians, who work to preserve its legacy... And people of all walks of life who revere this body of water ... that we call Lake Champlain.

For VPR news, I'm Neal Charnoff.

"Stories from the Lake" was produced by Melody Bodette and Lynne McCrea. The editor was Ross Sneyd. John van Hoesen was executive producer.  Our technical director was Chris Albertine. Professor of History at Champlain College, Willard Sterne Randall, has been our historical consultant. Our theme music is from the Spencer Lewis CD "Vermont Serenades."

Thanks to volunteers Peter Biello, Eileen Kristiansen, Eugenia Saganich and Robin Twery for their help in the production.




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