Log Cabin Chronicles

Low Water, Deep Time


Low water makes me want to think about deep time.

Thanks to reduced Spring run-off and a bit of a drought, Lake Champlain is showing its bones early in the season this year. Not stunningly; not like the ribs of a concentration camp survivor poking out of gaunt flesh. But enough to make the lake look strange, like the beginning of another world.

It's a much longer boat ride than usual, rambling far out around the islands to stay in deep water. The heavy, steel ferry slaps through sharp waves, driving spray along its full length. Green capped lumps string along the horizon, separated slightly by lake blue, chained toward each other by long, gently sloping litters of brownish-black boulders. The contours connect smoothly. It's easy to see these low islands as hilltops joined in a long peninsula.

Later, on the beach, exposed, water-smoothed rocks thrust thirty feet farther out than usual. Wind driven waves thrash in frustration far away. A big new treefall blocks the path, its shallow roots tilted skyward like a drunken spider web. High water grabs the trees and low water joins the islands.

If the lake were to drop just another two or three feet, whole bays could turn into mud flats, new islands could pop up, thousands of acres of swampy ground could become prime real estate. It's happened before, lots of times. Up and down, up and down...

Folks at the National Weather Service in Burlington flatly deny that the rise and fall of Lake Champlain is changing at all.

Their chief climatologist rather defensively denounces certain journalistic speculations that the lake is rising. These irresponsible speculations, he says, followed in the wake of the record high water mark of 101.88 feet above sea level set in April of 1993. There is no trend, he fumes.

Of course, the poor man is only looking at data from the last twenty five years or so, hardly a pimple on the ass of climatologic change.

The institutional memory seems so very short. Even though modern records of lake levels appear to have been kept since the 1870s, the Weather Service people can't seem to find any data earlier than 1970, much less analyze it.

We do know, with a fair degree of certainty, that the record low Lake Champlain level is 92.04 feet above sea level recorded in November of 1908. The event went mostly unremarked at the time. Headlines in the Burlington Free Press for that year seem oddly familiar though, focused mostly on politics and crime; politics few remember and that matter not at all; crime, mostly murder often as lurid as anything we hear about today.

Of some remote interest, almost weekly the Free Press would report the lynching of a black man somewhere in the south or Midwest. Their language is consistently dry and matter-of-fact; an angry mob of citizens brushes aside inadequate jailers, strings a guy up from the nearest lamp post, suffers no repercussions, and the sometimes brutally tortured and mutilated black man is always assumed to be guilty of whatever heinous or trivial crime charged.

There was drought that year of 1908 and some suffering on the farm, but farmers are used to it. In that era, drought in the eastern United States meant forest fires, big forest fires.

The great eastern hardwood forest, from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, from Georgia to Canada, by that time, had been nearly slashed to pieces and those pieces, thick acres of branches and brush, remained on the ground drying out, waiting for a flash of lightening in a drought.

The year 1903 seems to have been about the worst fire year in Vermont, another year of drought. By June there had been no rain for nearly two months. Tinder sparked and whole mountains burned.

The Free Press reported major fires at Groton, Hardwick, Waterbury, Lake Willoughby, Castleton, Middlebury, and Vergennes. Hunger Mountain in Worcester burned until rain eventually put it out.

The ladies of Grand Isle reported a thick pall of smoke hanging over Lake Champlain for days inhibiting small boats from venturing away from their docks.

Environmentalism hadn't been invented yet. Vermont must have looked like a charred cinder along its mountain tops. People seemed to take the destruction in stride, like it was no big deal.

Not much of economic value was lost, the Free Press commented, because most of the valuable timber had already been cut.

A few drought years a hundred years ago still won't tell us much about how Lake Champlain might have changed, might be changing. We need to sink back into a deeper rhythm.

Pretty far back, long before there were people, a mile thick glacier stomped the land. A whole lot longer ago than that, Europe, Africa, and America smashed into each other, squirting tall mountains into the sky. A whole lot of other stuff happened in between. Sometime early on, a drainage crack through the mountains opened up, soon widened into the Champlain Valley, and has maintained ever since.

Before the mountains were built? Well, we'll get to that later, much later.

The Champlain Valley was French territory for a hundred and fifty years before Vermont was invented. Quite a substantial little village, half French, half Abenaki, grew up around Fort St. Frederick at the Crown Point narrows in the years before the English conquered Canada.

Stone buildings and farm fields dotted both the New York and Vermont sides of the narrow lake channel. You can still make out some of the old French property lines running along the lake at Chimney Point. French and Indian families also settled on a small island off the Vermont shore they

named "les Isles aux Boiteaux." Some time after the English conquest this little island disappeared. What happened to it? I'd like to know.

A few years earlier, in 1666, the French built the first European structure in what is now Vermont, Fort St. Anne on the northern tip of Isle La Motte, the site of a Catholic shrine today. A few years into the 20th century, the Church authorized some limited archaeological excavation at the old fort, the outline of which could still be seen at the time. Many artifacts were removed.

Today, the site is gone, covered by the waters of Lake Champlain. Isle La Motte must be smaller than it used to be.

As the last great glacier slowly melted its way north torrents of water and debris raced south. A cork in the outlet channel to the Hudson River backed up a huge lake that geologists call "Lake Vermont" which covered the whole Valley, lapping up as far as Montpelier and Stowe. The big lake drained off after the glacier released the St. Lawrence outlet to the ocean.

The land groaned and stretched after shaking off the burden of all that ice and started to bounce back like an expanding sponge. The ocean raced in and made Lake Champlain part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence for a while. But the land kept rising and eventually the sea was blocked by the land forms we see today. Eventually, people arrived.

The land might still be rising a bit. It wouldn't take much to tilt the whole basin back toward the south. Just a few feet of change would cause the whole of Champlain to run into the Hudson rather than the St. Lawrence. Whitehall would drown. Missisquoi Bay would dry up.

If you sit on an island and look at the lake long enough you can see these things happen. You can sift through a year in a moment, the winter thrust of ice, the late summer low water mark. You can see the markings of drought and flood over a century in another moment.

To go farther you must slow down, work your mind a little harder. Think with the stones. Think from the perspective of the most ancient old tree gripping a shattered ledge.

It's just a meditative exercise, I suppose, but fun. A microchip designer thinks in nanoseconds. An historian thinks over the intervals between written documents, be it seconds, years, or centuries. An anthropologist thinks over the course of human evolution. A geologist measures things by the millions of years. A cosmologist contemplates the birth of the universe twenty billion years ago.

Each specialty requires a certain kind of mind set and temporal frame of reference that requires much skill, much practice. But an amateur can taste them all, at least a little, and thereby grow a richer life.

Michael J. Badamo edits THE WATCHMAN in Montpelier, Vermont.

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