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The lake can deceive you. Looking out over the water on a breathless midsummer evening as the last flares of sunset dim to bronze, you might watch a few late gulls winging home to roost and think it the quintessence of tranquillity. I disagree.
To me, and to most other fishermen, the lake on such an evening is filled not with cold, gentle water but rather with a substance more closely resembling the purest nitroglycerine: clear, gleaming and highly explosive.
We're anchored in six feet of it over a rocky bottom. The dusk is windless. The few lights on shore half a mile away look haloed, like fixed blobs of Saint Elmo's fire. A slow surge sucks and gurgles around nearby boulders; now and then the stillness is broken by a flitter of bait-fish chased to the surface by some predator. My partner casts and drops his deer-hair bass bug beside the submerged crown of a truck-sized rock. He twitches the bug. We wait and watch, watch and wait, floating there on the still lake of nitro. We can feel the explosion building.
Ker-wham! Something cold and wild strikes the bug, carrying it upward, out in a great swirl and burst of water. The dark arc of the fish rolls through the last light, and the fly line goes taut. It's a smallmouth, the most acrobatic of the basses, and by the time it lies alongside the boat, one electric brown eye glaring up at us, we can see it goes a good three pounds. I back the hook from the bass's lip and send the fish swimming home to the nitro. The bass, after all, is the essence of the lake, the living evidence of its explosive nature.
Those who know it well claim that Lake Champlain, a crystalline sliver of cold, deep water that thrusts like a dagger between the mountains of Vermont and New York, from Whitehall, N.Y. to southern Quebec, is the sixth Great Lake of North America. Certainly it qualifies on limnological grounds: It is 110 miles long, with a maximum width of 12 miles; it is 64 feet deep on average, with a maximum depth of 400 feet; and it is the sixth-largest freshwater lake in the U.S. Like its chill, larger cousins to the west—Superior, Michigan, Ontario, Huron and Erie—it drains through the St. Lawrence River Basin to the sea. And, like them, it supports a great variety of fish—more than 60 distinct species ranging from cold-water varieties like landlocked salmon, steel-head trout and lake sturgeon as long as rowboats, to such warm-water dwellers as the largemouth bass and freshwater drum.
But Champlain's true greatness may lie in the qualities that make it different. Unlike the bigger lakes to the west, it has no major pollution problems. Its outflow, through the Richelieu River of Quebec, is still unregulated; no dams interfere with its natural circulation. No great, sprawling cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland or Buffalo scar its shores or cloud its waters.
But the subtlest, and at the same time most striking, difference is found in Lake Champlain's geologic history. Like the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain was gouged out by the Wisconsin Glacier 50,000 years ago. But Lake Champlain is only one of a series of bodies of water that have occupied the area, which has undergone many incarnations since its limestone rocks first appeared nearly half a billion years ago. The trough that it fills is part of the Great Valley of the Appalachians, a deep seam in the earth's surface that reaches from the St. Lawrence Valley in Canada clear on down to Alabama. Some 500 to 600 million years ago the Adirondack Mountains loomed over the Champlain trough, and seawater rushed in to lap at their bases. In the mid-Ordovician period, some 450 million years ago, corals thrived in the shallow seas, building reefs like those of the Bahamas, over which flitted the primitive ancestors of today's fishes. The Chazyan Coral Reef, which rears seven feet above a farmer's meadow on Isle La Motte, is perhaps the oldest coral reef in the world.
Millions of years of rain washed torrents of black mud into the trough, which later, under pressure and heat, became shale and slate. Mountains rose to the east of the shallow sea in counterpoint to the western side's Adirondacks, and in the deepening trough, shale was deposited. Evidence of a tumultuous tectonic past lies all around Lake Champlain's shoreline in folded and tilted rock layers.
About 50,000 years ago the area began its most recent mutation. The great Wisconsin ice sheet moved down from the north, covering all of New England with ice as much as two miles thick. The weight of the ice sank the land some 700 feet, and when the ice began to melt, about 13,000 years ago, the depression was filled with fresh water—the huge Lake Vermont. That lake extended from the foot of the Green Mountains to the Adirondacks. When the ice melted north to the St. Lawrence lowlands, Lake Vermont drained into the ocean, leaving a body of water much smaller than today's lake. The ice continued to melt, and water flooded into the basin as the sea level rose around the world. The Champlain Sea of 10,000 years ago was home to whales, seals and walruses. The land slowly rebounded, raising the lip of the basin so that the body of water was cut off from sea level. Rainwater flushed the salt water away, and the basin was filled again with fresh water. Not until 2,500 years ago did Lake Champlain take on its current contours.
Whatever formed the mountains, the forces involved were mighty indeed. Heat and pressure turned much of the limestone into marble. One of Vermont's few boom periods occurred after the Civil War, when the demand for battle monuments and tombstones soared. Quarry workers soon learned caution in handling the huge blocks of gleaming white stone they cut. Often the big blocks would explode like bombs because of the torsion frozen within them by the folding and settling of the Green Mountains millions of years earlier.