Vermont’s Other Playground

A large measure of Vermont’s quality of life proceeds from the fortunate contiguity of its mountains, valleys and Lake Champlain

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Lake Champlain is considered the most historic body of water in North America. It was a key strategic location for troops in the French and Indian War, the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Over the years, it has provided sustenance both winter and summer for trade and recreation. 

A large measure of Vermont’s quality of life proceeds from the fortunate contiguity of its mountains and Lake Champlain. 

A sizable number of businesses depend on the lake and its attraction to residents and visitors alike. We asked some of them what’s on their minds when it comes to the lake. We heard some intriguing (and varied) responses.

Bill McMahon, the owner of Cobil Diesel & Marine Corp., has a shop in Charlotte. He also works out of Malletts Bay Marina. McMahon likes to talk about  his days as the second captain of the Andrea Gale, the boat featured in the movie The Perfect Storm. 

Having been in business four or five years, he wanted to find a niche that covered a service nobody else was doing, he says. In a nutshell, McMahon rebuilds, remodels and repairs older boats, even making house calls (or dock calls) to pick up, deliver or repair boats. “We repair gas engines,” he says, “but there isn’t a diesel engine I can’t make run.”

High on McMahon’s list of concerns, he says, is “people who don’t really know what they’re doing.” He’s referring to boaters who ignore the safety rules. “I’ve seen boats with little 6- or 5-year-olds with no life preservers. They could fall overboard, and by the time you turn around, your baby’s going to be gone.”

Several of our sources expressed concern about dock space, especially for the growing number of larger boats. Boats R Fun is a new-boat dealer in Willsboro, N.Y., owned for the last three years by John Andrews and his wife, Michelle Boulais. The company is a certified yacht broker for power boats and sailboats. They stock 27-to-30-foot boats and sell boats from 5 to 45 feet in length. The majority of their clients do not live in the area.

“Two years ago,” says Andrews, “there were plenty of slips. Last year there were a lot less, and this year, there may not be many, because the Canadian dollar is getting stronger and stronger.”

Brad Wright, the owner of Boatworks on Prim Road in Colchester, was direct. “There are not enough marinas; dock space is at a premium.” Boatworks stocks boats from 18 feet to 29, but also sells boats as long as 35 feet. He confesses that, for some of his customers, he pulls in favors from the marina owners.

Dennis Fox, who owns Fox Marine Service and Sales in Colchester with his wife, Nancy, also helps his customers find dock space. The Foxes sell boats from 18 to 40 feet in length. Service is a large part of the Foxes’ business.

Robin Doyle, the owner of the International Sailing School in Malletts Bay, says she agrees 100 percent that slips are harder to find, and “it’s getting worse, unfortunately. I was pretty much sold out this year without even mailing my contracts,” she says.

This is the first year Doyle has not had any openings this early in the year, and she says she knows others on the bay are also filled up. “I’ve been on the bay since ’82 or ’83, so I’ve seen it evolve, and the public access spots are getting super-crowded, too, especially on weekends.”

The reason, says Doyle, is the limited number of marinas on the lake, “and locations for them, because you need a little sweet, protected spot for them, you have to go through a lot of red tape, paperwork, environmental studies.”

Doyle’s other concerns, the lake’s health and boater safety education, also echoes what we heard from others. 

“I want the public to have as much access as possible,” says Raymond Giroux, co-owner, with his son, Bryan, of Champlain Bridge Marina in West Addison. “The need is there, but I can’t give them more access,” he continues, citing the red tape and backlog of permits.

John Freeman, the owner of Small Boat Exchange in Shelburne, is a small-boat dealer. Most of the boats he sells are trailered or carried on car tops. “I have really felt in the last five years that if somebody is check-in-hand serious about getting a dock or mooring space, they can get it.” It may not be in their top location, he adds, but early application and persistence pay off. 

Freeman is one of several who mentioned the difficulties involved with marina development, particularly when it comes to applying the Public Trust Doctrine, which declares that lakes are held in trust by the state for the benefit of all Vermonters and requires that proposed projects not adversely affect the public good.

His major concern, though, is the continuing pollution around the lake. “I think the primary attention needs to be on nitrogen and phosphorus,” says Freeman. “You really do hate to pick on the farmers, but I think agricultural runoff is a big pollutant. Look at the big blooms up in Missisquoi Bay, and blooms don’t happen without fertilizers.”

Freeman says he finds the lake “slightly eutrophying” every year, and believes agricultural runoff is the main cause.

This concern about the lake’s water quality was the most often mentioned. Paul Clark, the owner with his wife, Anne, of Northland Boat Shop in North Hero, summed it up well. A native Vermonter, Clark grew up on the water.

“I guess Vermonters need to understand that, like Mount Mansfield and the ski resorts, we have another great natural resource here in the lake. The quality of life in Vermont is directly attributed to the mountains and the lake.

“Water quality is a major concern for us. I live on the lake, and I experienced some of the blue algae that has formed in the last two years here. 

“In the last 10 years, we’ve seen a continual degeneration of the lake. We used to swim and enjoy, now we swim and do upkeep — pull out things — to the point where we don’t swim in some areas. I don’t think the average Vermonter understands the importance of the resource we have. We take it for granted. People come from other states and say, ‘Wow! This is great!’ And we, being the citizens and the marinas that are using this facility, whether you’re using it or not, you need to take care of it.” •

Sources: Lake Champlain Basin Program; Lake Champlain Maritime Museum; Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife; Lake Champlain International Inc.; Vermont State Police, Marine Division; U.S. Coast Guard.

Boating 

• Vermont registers about 40,000 boats a year. This number does not include non-powered boats or transient boat traffic, which would more than double the number of registered boats. 

• Vessels must be registered.

• The minimum age for operating a boat in Vermont is 12. The operator of a personal watercraft (such as a Jet Ski) must be 16 years old.  In New York, the minimum age for both is 10, with certificate. Without education, the minimum age in New York for operators of personal watercraft is 24.

• The Marine Division of the Vermont State Police is charged with overseeing the state boating laws. The division is also the agency responsible for victim recovery. In New York, the State Police and county sheriffs do that job.

• Vermont requires safety education (and a safe-boating certificate) for boat operators born after 1974, but a license is not required to operate a boat.

• Water skiing is prohibited from one-half hour after sunset to one-half hour before sunrise.

• Skiers must wear a personal flotation device.

• Vermont does not permit self-propelled skis.

• The noise of your boat’s engine may not exceed 82 decibels at 50 feet.

• Both Vermont and New have laws prohibiting boating under the influence. The blood alcohol concentration level for intoxication in Vermont is 0.08 percent; in New York, 0.10 percent.

Fishing

• According to the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife, Lake Champlain provides some of the best fishing and the greatest variety of freshwater fish in the Northeast.

• A survey by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service conducted every five years reports that anglers spent more than $111 million in Vermont during 2001.

• Ice fishing, a popular winter pursuit, begins with the onset of safe ice, usually in December. Popular species include landlocked salmon, lake trout, walleye, northern pike, smelt and yellow perch.

• Lake Champlain International Inc. organizes several fishing tournaments each year, including the LCI Father’s Day Derby; an all-season tournament that runs from May 1 through Sept. 30; a Little Anglers Derby in June; and the Lake Champlain Bass Open in September.

Diving

• The Lake Champlain Underwater Historic Preserve, established by the states of Vermont and New York, provides public access for divers to some of the lake’s historic shipwrecks. These shipwreck sites are: canal schooner General Butler; canal schooner O.J. Walker; Burlington Bay horse ferry; canal boat A.R. Hayes; steamer Phoenix; steamer Champlain II; schooner Water Witch; and Diamond Island Canal Boat.

• Registration is required for every dive, due to the fragile nature and archaeological sensitivity of the sites. Contact the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, 475-2022, for more information. 

Facts About Lake Champlain

• The lake’s basin (or watershed or drainage area) covers 8,234 square miles, 56 percent of which lies in Vermont, with 37 percent in New York and 7 percent in Canada.

• The basin’s population density is 61 persons per square mile.

• About one-third of the basin’s residents use the lake as a source of drinking water.

• There are more than 40 marinas around the lake.

• Humans first occupied the basin after the glaciers melted about 10,000 years ago; Samuel de Champlain’s exploration in 1609 opened the basin to European settlement.

• Tributaries that drain the basin contribute over 90 percent of the water that enters the lake. Major tributaries in Vermont are: the Missisquoi, Lamoille, Winooski and LaPlatte rivers and Otter Creek; in New York: the Great Chazy, Saranac, Ausable and Boquet rivers.

• The lake is 120 miles long and 12 miles across at its widest point. It flows north to the St. Lawrence River.

• It has 435 square miles of water surface.

• Length of shoreline is 587 miles.

• Depth averages 65 feet; the greatest depth is over 400 feet.

• More than 70 islands dot the lake.

• The mean annual water level is 95.5 feet above sea level.

• Average lake temperatures at the surface: May 45º Fahrenheit; June 58º; July 68; August 72; September 65º; and October 55º. Bottom temperatures from 40º to 50º are common.

Environmental Issues

Water quality and invasive species are the environmental concerns most often cited by people whose lives and livelihoods depend on the lake. 

Water quality has improved in the last 20 years as a result of required industrial waste treatment and a large investment of state, federal, municipal and private funds for sewage treatment facilities. There remain, however, concerns over pollution from urban and agricultural areas, particularly phosphorus from farm fertilizer runoff and mercury poisoning via acid rain. 

High phosphorus levels have produced algal blooms in parts of the lake, and toxic substances such as PCBs and mercury have resulted in fish-consumption advisories for some fish. Other issues include the impact to fish and wildlife from nuisance non-native aquatic species such as sea lamprey, cormorants, zebra mussels and Eurasian milfoil; and wetland loss. Groups around the lake are working to address these issues.