SI Vault
Robert F. Jones
June 10, 1985
Champlain's formidable history includes geologic twists and turns, revolutionary battles and tales of a mysterious monster that may—or may not—be hiding in its unspoiled depths
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June 10, 1985

The Sixth Great Lake

Champlain's formidable history includes geologic twists and turns, revolutionary battles and tales of a mysterious monster that may—or may not—be hiding in its unspoiled depths

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The lake itself has been an avenue for human violence from its earliest history. Lying as it does in a narrow north-south alleyway between two mountain ranges, it provided a straight-shot raiding route for warriors of many nations. The pugnacious Mohawks of the Iroquois nation called it Caniadari Guarunte, or Door of the Country, while their hated Abnaki enemies, Algonkian tribesmen across the lake, named it Petonbowk, which means Waters That Lie Between. The hit-and-run warfare of the tribes escalated sharply in the early 17th century when Europeans entered the picture, led by the man who would give his name to the lake.

In early July 1609 the French explorer Samuel de Champlain pushed southward up the Richelieu River on a raiding foray with some 60 Huron, Algonkian and Montagnais Indians. On July 29 "The Father of New France" and his Indians came upon a camp of some 200 Mohawks near the site of what would later become Fort Ticonderoga. After an exchange of threats, boasts and scatological insults, Champlain—clad in armor—walked to within 30 yards of the Mohawks and fired with his harquebus. He had loaded four balls in the matchlock weapon, and his shot killed two chiefs and mortally wounded a third warrior. The Mohawks turned and fled. End of battle. In most of his fights with Indians Champlain was less bothered by enemy arrows than by the swarms of wicked North Country mosquitoes, which proved particularly vexatious when they worked their way inside his armor.

During the French and Indian War, a British assault force under General James Abercromby was beaten back bloodily when it tried to take Fort Carillon, which was later renamed Fort Ticonderoga. Ethan Allen, the sly Vermont guerrilla, and his Green Mountain Boys captured Fort Ti with a stealthy night assault early in the American Revolution. Later in the war Benedict Arnold—still a loyal Yankee Doodler—delayed a British invasion from Canada by slapping together a fleet of gunboats at Skenesborough (now Whitehall) and fighting a gritty naval battle off Valcour Island. Though most of Arnold's fleet was shot to pieces, the diversion of British forces ruined any chances the redcoats had of cutting off New York and New England from the rest of the colonies. During the War of 1812, Navy Commodore Thomas Macdonough whipped a superior British fleet in a smoky, splinter-filled close-range battle at Plattsburgh, N.Y. The "butcher's bill" for that fight was 500 casualties before the British struck their colors.

If the early human history of the lake is bloody, the natural history is not only fascinating but downright mysterious. When Samuel de Champlain first traveled the lake, the Indians told him of a monster they called the Chaousarou, which measured eight to 10 feet in length and was as thick as a man's thigh. Its silvery-gray scales could not be pierced with the sharpest poniard, and its jaws—nearly a yard long—were studded with razor-sharp fangs. Champlain himself wrote of seeing a Chaousarou that was five feet long.

Later writers have latched on to the Chaousarou as the prototypical Lake Champlain Monster. Champ, as he has affectionately come to be known, supposedly dwells in the lake's 400-foot trough off Essex, N.Y., near Split Rock, N.Y. and Thompson's Point, Vt.—Champlain's deepest spot. But the Chaousarou isn't the only strange fish in Champlain's depths. Perhaps because of the lake's great antiquity and its on-and-off saltwater past, it is home to a number of ancient and unusual fishes. The burbot (also called cusk, ling or lawyer—for its slipperiness) is the only freshwater member of the great codfish family. Long, olive-brown and mottled with black-and-yellow chain markings, the lawyer dwells in the cold, murky bottoms of lakes and grows as long as 30 inches and as heavy as 10 pounds.

The bowfin (also grindle, cypress trout or dogfish) is another odd customer—flat-headed, fanged, with a long dorsal fin and rounded tail, it has a unique air bladder which enables it to live in water that would kill most other fishes. Olive-brown and spotted, it is the sole survivor of a once-widespread family, the amia, now found only as fossils in North America and Europe.

In the United States the freshwater drum, or sheepshead, is the only member of the drum family not found in salt water (there are more than 30 seagoing species of drum). Also known as the crocus, jewelhead or grunter, for the peculiar oinking noise it makes when feeding near the surface at dusk, the freshwater drum usually weighs between one and five pounds, although fish up to 60 pounds have been taken. The Indians used the drum's strange earbones, hard and glossy as pearls, as wampum.

If these fish—holdovers and adaptations from the primitive past—can endure in Champlain, why not Champ? The monster has been seen at least 240 times, very often in the waters adjacent to Bulwagga Bay near Port Henry, N.Y. Those who claim to have seen him say Champ is from 20 to 40 feet long, with a long, snaky neck and a small, reptilian head. The creature is extremely shy. Champ-watching took a decided upturn in 1977 after one Sandra Mansi, an out-of-state vacationer, snapped a picture of a humped and sinuous something surfacing in an otherwise calm stretch of water possibly near St. Albans, Vt. At a Champ conference on monsters in 1981 in Burlington, Vt., biologist Roy P. Mackal of the University of Chicago—a man who has tried to prove that the Loch Ness Monster exists—suggested that both Champ and Nessie might be relics of the pre-glacial past, descendants of a long-necked primitive whale known taxonomically as a zeuglodon, which disappeared from the waters of the world centuries ago. An interesting idea, but it is passing strange that in all the years men have lived on Champlain's shore, not a single zeuglodon corpse or skeleton has washed up.

Whether Champ exists or not, the Vermont House of Representatives is taking no chances. Three years ago, after Mansi's photograph had been authenticated, the legislators passed a resolution protecting the creature.

Vergennes (pop. 2,242) proclaims itself The Smallest City in the World. Settled in 1766 and incorporated in 1788, it measures only one square mile in area, its center dominated by a statue of Thomas Macdonough. Macdonough built his fleet of lake warships in Vergennes, which sits at the outflow of Otter Creek. Just to the north, in the town of Ferrisburg, is Rokeby, a ramshackle house dating from 1784 that was the home of Rowland Robinson (1833-1900), Vermont's beloved 19th-century writer. In 14 folksy books Robinson chronicled the lives of the settlers, loggers, lake sailors and French-Canadian immigrants who shaped the culture of the Champlain Basin. His descriptions of duck hunting and bass fishing in the streams off Little Otter Creek, memorialized in such books as Uncle Lisha's Outing and Sam Lovel's Camps: Uncle Lisha's Friends Under Bark and Canvas, rank with the best outdoor writing of that day.

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