Lake Champlain


(This 707th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on October 17, 2004.)


Lake Champlain was in the news a year or so ago when it was proposed as a sixth Great Lake. There were good reasons for its rejection but a minor one might have been the difficulty of coming up with a mnemonic to replace the acronym HOMES, familiar to school children for the initials for the current lakes -- Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior. When you add C for Champlain to that mix, the only anagram my dictionary produces is MOCHES representing members of a pre-Incan Indian tribe and certainly not much help to the memory.


Despite all the time I have spent in the Adirondacks, until this year I had never visited either Lake Champlain or Lake George. I had only observed Champlain in the distance from atop Giant Mountain and I had not even seen Lake George. In late-September I responded to that deficiency with a weeklong visit to those lakes by car and scooter. I chose a perfect week: because I was too early for fall colors, I was between tourist seasons and had all but the main roads to myself.


Champlain may not be technically one of the Great Lakes but its rich history is, I believe, a match for all of them put together. Lake George also plays an important role in our country's legacy and that history was much in my mind as I toured those lakes.


They were first formed as melt-water Lake Vermont when the glaciers retreated. Only later was the southward flow of this lake into the Atlantic blocked and waters joined the Gulf of St. Lawrence to establish a saltwater fiord called the Champlain Sea. As the water level fell, fresh water flowed northward from Lake George through Lake Champlain on down the Richelieu River into the St. Lawrence River. Mountain streams like New York's Ausable, Boquet and Saranac and Vermont's Missisquoi, Lamoille, La Platte and Otter also contribute to these waters.


For years before Samuel de Champlain first made his way to the lake named for him, Lakes Champlain and George provided contacts between the Indian tribes of Canada and the Iroquois of New York State. Unfortunately the contacts were mostly northward and southward raids, so-called Beaver Wars that were to continue into the 18th century.


By a remarkable coincidence, Champlain's 1609 expedition reached the south end of Lake Champlain within a month of Henry Hudson's venture up the Hudson River to Albany, only about 80 miles away. Champlain's voyage also had an important negative effect for the French. He and his men shot three Iroquois chiefs, earning for his nation those Indians' lasting enmity.


Increasingly the Europeans brought their conflicts to the region with the British allying themselves with the Iroquois, the French with the Algonquins. The Seven Years' or French and Indian War of 1755-1760 found thousands of troops of both sides marching or sailing up and down the Lake Champlain-Richelieu River valley. They fought several pitched battles until finally the British evicted the French from Canada by defeating them at Montreal.


Then followed our two wars with the British. Early in the Revolutionary War, Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys accompanied by Benedict Arnold surprised the defenders and captured Fort Ticonderoga and we mounted expeditions against Montreal and Quebec. Unfortunately, the tide then turned: we were turned back from Quebec, Arnold's small fleet was soundly defeated near Valcour Island and Fort Ticonderoga was recaptured by the British. General Burgoyne won the fort without loss of life simply by mounting cannons on nearby Mount Defiance, left undefended by General Schuyler. Fortunately, British mistakes and valiant fighting by our troops, some led by the same Arnold despite a serious injury, later let to Burgoyne's defeat at Saratoga.


After the Revolution, the Champlain Valley was finally opened to farming and the lake became an important trade route between the United States and Canada, the War of 1812 thankfully serving only as a brief interlude. We won the major Lake Champlain battle of that war, Lieutenant Thomas MacDonough defeating a well-matched British fleet at the Battle of Plattsburgh, forcing the accompanying British land army to retreat.


Now the peaceful Champlain Valley is a pleasant mix of open farmland, orchards and woodlands with many tourist cottages lining the lake at various access points. Just back from the lake are the forests of New York's Adirondack Mountains and Vermont's Green Mountains. They give a sense of what this country was like when the first settlers had to clear these lands.


All this history gave me much to think about as I rode my scooter for 300 miles along the lakes mostly following the Champlain Bike Trail and occasionally crossing by ferry. How blessed we are to be beyond those early wars and to have peace here with our good neighbors to the north.-- Gerry Rising