BURLINGTON, Vt. -- As Lake Champlain completes its first week as the newest member of the Great Lakes, people who live alongside America's sixth-largest body of fresh water are dealing with a mild winter and a higher profile.
Vigorously, but politely, they defend the 14-mile wide, 125-mile-long lake -- that extends from Whitehall, N.Y., to Winooski, Vt. -- from critics who see its new-found Greatness as undeserved.
Happily and humorously, lake dwellers contemplate new road signs, new T-shirts ("I went to the Great Lakes but ended up in Vermont with this lousy T-shirt") -- and a new mnemonic device.
H-O-M-E-S was the way geography students used to remember the five Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior. Add Champlain and scramble. Yes, kids and teachers: S-C-H-M-O-E.
Champlain is as important here as moose sightings and maple walnut ice cream.
"We were always told in school that Champlain should be the sixth Great Lake," says Andrew Robinson, 22, a Vermont Teddy Bear factory worker whom everyone calls Rooster on account of what he resembled after a grade-school snowball fight. "I don't ,, know if we're truly Great, but I love living on the lake. It's wicked good."
Nevertheless, polls show that a majority of Americans can't place Champlain on a map. Its current celebrity stems from a nifty congressional move by Democrat Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont's senior senator, to make marine-biology researchers here eligible for $56 million in federal Sea Grant funds. The money is restricted to 29 colleges in states bordering the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico or the oceans. So Leahy stuck some words into a bill: "The term 'Great Lakes' includes Lake %o Champlain."
President Clinton signed it. Presto, a Great Lake.
The "real" Great Lakes became eligible for Sea Grant funds in 1970 through similar legislative sleight-of-hand -- a federal law that declared the five lakes "America's fourth seacoast."
Midwesterners nevertheless bitterly denounce Champlain's new designation. They say the lake is just one-fifteenth the size of Lake Ontario, the smallest Great Lake, and that it resembles nothing so much as a river as it flows north to the St. Lawrence Seaway.
"We have some 1,000-foot-long iron carriers out here in dock," says Davis Helberg, port director for Duluth, Minn., on Lake Superior. "Maybe if we donated one of them to those nice people in Vermont, they could take it and make a bridge across the little lake they have there."
Adds Republican Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan: Champlain is a mere "pencil line on the map."
Lost in this uproar were some important facts. Despite the size difference, Champlain has long been considered a first cousin, if not a full-blooded brother, of the five lakes to the west.
Like the other Greats, Champlain is a cold, deep, freshwater lake, formed by glaciers at the end of the Pleistocene ice age. It also suffers from surprisingly fierce storms and high waves, and borders multiple U.S. states and Canada.
And in American history, the lake, which was named for Samuel de Champlain, the French explorer who discovered it in 1609, is without peer. Known in colonial times as "the key to the continent," Lake Champlain saw major sea battles during the French and Indian War; the capture of Fort Ticonderoga by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold during the Revolution, and the Battle of Plattsburg during the War of 1812, when Capt. Thomas Macdonough trounced the British in one of the decisive naval battles of the conflict.
During the 19th century, Burlington, the largest city along the lake (40,000 as of 1995), was America's third-busiest lumber port. Situated between the Adirondacks of New York and the Green Mountains of Vermont, the 400-foot-deep lake was filled at first by seawater from the Atlantic. It still contains a 500-million-year-old coral reef, the world's oldest.
"It's not as big as the other Great Lakes," says Jason Bushey, who is studying the lake's geology and ecology in his fifth-grade class at Edmunds Elementary in Burlington. "But look at me. Smaller can be better."
Informal links between researchers in Vermont and the Great Lakes states are numerous. University of Wisconsin scientists have studied Champlain's fish population. A Vermont researcher works with the University of Michigan in his studies of mercury contamination. Professors in both areas take a ribbing from ocean researchers, who get the bulk of the research money and prestige.
"I love the Great Lakes, so this dispute is a little uncomfortable to me," says Al McIntosh, a University of Vermont professor who spent summers on Lake Michigan as a teen-ager and now studies chemical pollutants in Lake Champlain. "We are already a Great Lake in a research sense, because the lakes are so similar in their environments."
Those similarities become apparent during a visit to the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Basin Harbor, Vt. Art Cohn, a professional diver who directs the museum, has searched for shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, participated in an archaeological study of Lake Ontario and worked with a historical society in Wisconsin.
Now that he is conducting a survey of shipwrecks on Champlain's bottom, Cohn says he is finding a growing infestation of zebra mussels, a striped, thumbnail-sized mollusk from Europe that appeared in the Great Lakes in 1988 and spread to Champlain in 1993, clogging pipes and disrupting ecosystems.
Phosphorus from farm runoff, which produces algae blooms, is a major concern in Champlain and the other Great Lakes. Officials at all six lakes worry about pollution's effect on their similar fish stocks, which include trout, bass, walleye and northern pike.
Even Vermont's favorite summer treat, served at roadside stands, has a familiar name: the Michigan -- a hot dog smothered in mustard and meat sauce.
Lake Champlain has one feature the other Greats lack: Champ, the local answer to the Loch Ness monster. While scientists believe Champ is a myth, the old iron mine town of Port Henry, N.Y., calls itself "the home of Champ," and the Vermont Legislature has passed a law protecting the giant, hump-backed serpent from fishermen.
"Champ's a friendly monster," says Donna Holt, a restaurant owner who says she saw the monster swim past her back yard 15 years ago. "I would love to have him come up next to my boat and play."
Champlain's new status has also provided Vermonters, from maple tree tappers to Ben & Jerry's scoopers, an opportunity to show off their sharp, but sweet, wit.
The Burlington Free Press -- noting that Vermont has been called the "West Coast of New England" and that its Quechee Gorge is a really grand canyon -- suggests that tourism officials push for more legislation.
Tom Bove II, assistant manager of Champ Car Wash, says with a wink that his state "has a number of other lakes that are pretty great."
Out on a frozen section of Lake Champlain, ice fisherman Mike Alarie picks up his five-gallon bucket and admires the sunset over the Adirondacks.
"Jesus walked on water," he muses. "But did he ever walk on a Great Lake?"
Pub Date: 3/18/98