The water’s mirrored surface reflected the Adirondack range to the west and the Green Mountains to the east as we headed south out of Burlington’s harbor. The bow of the 100-foot-long ship rippled the view while two hundred passengers elbowed the deck rails. All eyes skimmed the aquamarine surface, seeking a rise the way anglers seek a wily trout. But, our search was for a creature from the deep that is far larger and far more illusive. We were looking for a monster.
“Champ” is Lake Champlain’s legendary serpent. Similar to the Loch Ness Monster, this unique form of marine life is said to have descended from the dinosaurs and has lived in this lake for thousands of years. In fact, French explorer Samuel de Champlain reported seeing “a large reptilian creature” in the lake in 1609.
In case you think ol’ Sam was on the schnapps, it’s also on record that in 1984, 70 passengers aboard the Spirit of Ethan Allen caught sight of Champ as its undulating body breached the lake’s surface. In 1982, Vermont legislators passed a bill that protects Champ and encourages scientific exploration into its existence. Today the Spirit of Ethan Allen II, which can hold up to 500 passengers, offers daily cruises in search of the famous “Vermonster,” cousin to Scotland’s famous “Nessie.”
Lake Champlain is one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the United States, second only to the Great Lakes. It offers campers rich history and year-round recreation, boasting a host of outdoor opportunities. It’s no surprise, then, that Lake Champlain is quickly earning the nickname “America’s Sixth Great Lake.”
Vermont’s first inhabitants were the Abenaki, an Algonquin Native American tribe. It wasn’t until 1609, however, when Samuel de Champlain joined the Algonquin on a raid of the Iroquois, that the European saw the 120-mile long lake that now bears his name.
The land on the eastern side of Lake Champlain was claimed by the states of New York and New Hampshire during the American Revolution. However, on January 17, 1777, Vermont was declared an independent republic, due largely to the efforts of Colonel Ethan Allen, whose “Green Mountain Boys” fought valiantly during the revolution. In 1791, Vermont was admitted to the union.
Today, the Lake Champlain region is at peace, of course, and the state of Vermont (from the French “verd mont” for “Green Mountains”) controls the once disputed eastern shore. Travelers to the region find a people with reverence for history, a commitment to political freedom, and an intense spirit of ingenuity and hard work. With these traditional New England virtues comes a modern twist: Vermont’s high-technology workers are among the most productive in the nation, proving that renowned Vermont craftsmanship is not just found in wood and stone.
AROUND THE LAKE
We began our exploration on Vermont’s Route 7, at the southern tip of the lake where the Champlain Valley is broad and beautiful, banked by the Green Mountains to the east. A short ferry ride to the west deposited us on the New York side of the lake for a visit to Fort Ticonderoga, originally called “Carillon.” Built by the French in 1775 at the outset of the Seven Years War to block British presence on Lake Champlain, it provides overlook views of the lake and an up-close-and-personal examination of history dating to the American Revolution.
Returning by ferry to the eastern side of the lake, we found ourselves in the midst of a pastoral setting with a number of museums and homesteads worth visiting. Our first stop was the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum at Basin Harbor, an active historical center that also offers courses and workshops on traditional boatbuilding. Lake Champlain lore — including numerous shipwrecks — is well covered, and historic vessels can be taken out on the water.
Just up the road is the Shelburne Museum, founded in 1947 by Electra Havemeyer Webb and called a celebration of American craftsmanship and ingenuity. There are 200,000 or more pieces of Americana on exhibit in over 35 buildings. Connected by shuttle bus, the exhibits include such treasures as an 1890-era jail, a working print shop with presses ranging in vintage from the 1820s to 1950s, a one-room schoolhouse circa 1840, and galleries of American paintings and prints. A locomotive, side-wheel steamboat, covered bridge, and gardens are just some of the many outdoor attractions.
Nearby is Shelburne Farms, a 1000-acre working farm and education facility landscaped by the famous designer Frederick Law Olmsted. There are guided tours of the property along the shore of the lake that include formal gardens and the enormous turreted barn where Shelburne Farms cheddar cheese is made.
Continuing north, we took a side trip to Mt. Philo State Park where a brief drive led us to the top of a hill from which we could survey the surrounding valley. Easily seen from this vantage are the tall tops of Camel’s Hump, so named because of its shape, Mt. Ellen, and Vermont’s highest peak, Mt. Mansfield. Next we traveled to Burlington, the state’s largest city and home to a university and several colleges. While there, we toured the Ethan Allen Homestead with its restored 1787 farmhouse.
From Burlington, we wound our way through Vermont’s Islands Region (from South Hero to Alberg, just shy of the Canadian border), where views of islands, farms and marinas dot the lightly populated area. Our favorite spots were North and South Hero Islands, and Isle La Motte, where the St. Anne Shrine marks the first French settlement in Vermont in 1666. Outdoor masses are held daily in the summer, and there are picnic grounds and a beach.
As we were leaving, after a weekend of touring and camping around the shore of Lake Champlain, we cast our eyes back upon the lake’s surface hoping to see Champ. America’s Sixth Great Lake reflected back the surrounding natural beauty of the region, but no unnatural beast.