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Seven Lengths of Vermont

Lake Champlain: Voyage of the Man-Boat


Published October 3, 2012 at 8:06 a.m.

Leath Tonino
  • Leath Tonino

Searching the crawl space beneath a friend’s New Jersey beach house, I find two foam boogie boards. One is powder blue with the name “Wave Princess” printed on it in a curly font. The other is yellow, a bit thicker, labeled “Mach 7-7.” I’m drawn to Wave Princess — she seems a more appealing traveling companion for what’s sure to be a long and intimate journey. But I have some doubts about her buoyancy. I try to imagine her as a floating island, a slab of portable terra foama bobbing in the vastness of our nation’s sixth-largest lake. I try to imagine towing her with parachute cord, or kicking behind her, or clinging desperately beneath a purple sky ripped with lightning. The images won’t come, and instead I see only bubbles — the bubbles that rise to the surface when a young adventurer sinks like a living, breathing stone into the black abyss.

The goal is simple and admittedly weird: to swim the 120-mile length of Lake Champlain. Has anybody ever tried this? Has the thought crossed anybody else’s mind? It’s been crossing mine for years, ever since I heard about a book called Waterlog in which the author, Roger Deakin, links seas, rivers, lakes, canals and pools into a swimming tour of the British Isles. Deakin was after a fresh perspective, what he called a “frog’s eye view.” He was looking to re-wild his familiar home. This made sense to me. It still does. Lake Champlain, with its crowded marinas and rows of shoreline camps, seems the perfect place to engage my inner frog.

Back in Vermont, people tell me I’m crazy, that I’ll surely get run over by a drunk boater or bopped on the head by a water-skier, and that, best-case scenario, I’ll end up a freaky, prune-y mess. When not waxing dermatologic, they emphasize the energetic demands the expedition will put on my already skinny body. They ask me how I’ll handle all this. I don’t know what to say; some questions can’t be answered, only explored.

I secure a Dakin Farm sausage sponsorship, thinking: Should the expedition fail, at least this one accomplishment will float me to glory! A friend recently organized a mountain-bike race sponsored by Clif Bar, so I swing by his house, and he loads me up with 70 sample-size leftovers. I remove the little brown protein-turds from their wrappers and transfer them to a single Ziploc bag. Another Ziploc gets couscous, powdered milk, red pepper flakes and oregano. Three meals a day, three items on the menu.

I stuff the food into a rubber dry bag, then stuff another with sleeping bag, hammock tent, light change of clothes, jackknife, lighter and a pocket-size New Testament given to me years ago by a kindly, white-haired evangelist lady during a hitching trip in Colorado. Space is at a premium in the dry bags, and the New T. is the smallest book I own. Anyway, a little salvation might not be the worst thing to have on board.

By early August, the lake is up to 74 degrees, a delightful temperature, though I do worry that 10 hours immersed, day after day, will take me for all the calories I’m worth. I spend a couple days rounding up gear: a wet suit, neoprene socks, a sun hat, flippers, a snorkel and mask. A concerned mother — not my own — donates a neon-pink flag on a thin, fiberglass pole. The flag recalls a polyester T-shirt of the exact same shade that’s buried like a dirty secret in my dresser drawer. Good luck running me over now, you drunk-ass boaters! In my new outfit, I feel more than practical; I feel aqua-chic.

I’m planning to leave on Monday, but before then I need to test my ride. I broke the news to Wave Princess as gently as I could: You’re just too dainty. I promise, baby, I’ll think of you every day. Mach 7-7 is a brute, and that’s reassuring. I stab the flagpole into his “bow” and lash my dry bags down with some old clothesline, then head to Whiskey Bay at Thompson’s Point in Charlotte.

It’s sunset time. A hefty woman is thrashing in the shallows, wrestling herself onto an inflatable pool toy while simultaneously extolling its virtues. “They’re the best,” she tells me. “They’re from a company in Florida. They’re not like other floats. Anybody can get on them.”

The float resembles a limp, plastic quilt. “You should really consider using one of these on your journey,” she says, still thrashing. I tell her I’m confident my boogie will do the trick.

It does; in no time I’m tracking steadily toward the middle of the lake. Cormorants pass at eye level. The reflections of blush clouds break and reform around me. I’ve been told that the Abenaki people native to this part of the lake believed Rock Dunder, a barren islet off Shelburne Point, to be the site of Creation. I see no reason to doubt this. I have a sense of swimming through the sky, out into the cosmos.

A gull lands nearby, its ripples spreading to touch me. I discover that I can beach my upper body on the boogie and propel myself with kicking alone. I can even rest my head on the dry bags as if they were pillows. This kickboard style is relaxing and fast. It leaves a wake. I leave a wake! There is no denying it: I’m a frog-man, a man-boat, some strange new thing this ancient lake has never seen.

Setting sail (sort of)

“Do you think I should pee in my wet suit now or wait until I get in the water?” My sister’s dog, Percy, looks at me as if it doesn’t much matter. My sister, who’s driven me down to this boat ramp at Benson Landing, at the south end of the lake, pretends to vomit. I waddle down the ramp in my flippers, and Percy follows. The water is warm, weedy, as clear as milky coffee. And so my trip begins.

My sister walks the mud shore encouraging me with words I can’t hear over my own slaps and splashes. An immature bald eagle soars overhead, drawing my attention just long enough for some monster, some Champ or sturgeon or nightmare snake, to brush against my elbow. Adrenaline sets me flapping like a duck, though of course there’s nowhere to fly. I’m not a duck; I’m a man-boat. Furthermore, I may or may not have just released something a little more significant than pee into the wet suit. “It’s fine,” I yell to my sister. “It was only a floating stick.” She laughs, and Percy, who is most certainly not man-boat’s best friend, turns and swims away.

In an hour the novelty, the nerves and the “honeymoon” all wash off. The shore is at least a quarter-mile from me, the nearest house even farther. A single monarch butterfly skitters through the massive sky … then it’s gone. I’m without distraction: from myself, from my task, from the great length of lake extending before me. I feel that length, and what it feels like is work. My legs have clocked in. My outfit is no longer amusing, my boogie no longer an oddity. Already, I’m shrinking down, becoming small, regaining a sense of scale proper to a human being. No, not regaining, but reclaiming, proudly choosing this smallness.

A wind builds up. Waves rise around my head. My world is the sound of water.

Long, wet days

I thought this would be a social trip — slugging beer with fishermen, eating hamburgers at family picnics, fielding friendly inquiries into what the hell I’m up to. It turns out that the bulk of my social interactions, including those I have with loons and northern leopard frogs, are slow-motion stare-downs unaccompanied by the faintest nod of recognition. A fancy couple in a yacht stares at me through binoculars, passing them back and forth. A woman in a kayak stares with a hand shading her face. I stare back, just as incredulous. I’ve successfully re-wilded myself, and now what once looked normal appears strange. A fast, noisy, expensive cigarette boat is as startling and disconcerting to me as I am to the man — it’s always a man — behind its wheel. Jet Skiers ripping doughnuts at dusk are like aliens from a distant planet.

For the most part, though, I don’t see many people. Nothing much happens, at least not in the usual way we think of something “happening.” An Adirondack cloud becomes a Green Mountain cloud over the course of an hour. A tern catches a fish on its first plunge; another tern needs three tries. I let go of the boogie, swim free, dive deep with open eyes; it’s green down there. Kicking again, I think about that greenness. Maybe I think about it for 20 minutes. Often I sing nonsense songs and whimsical shanties. Sometimes, my head on a dry-bag pillow, I forget that I’m singing and startle myself.

During my swim, there’s generally a moment in the early afternoon when I recognize that 1) I’ve been in the water for five straight hours; 2) I’m absolutely exhausted; 3) the duct tape protecting my blistered, infected toes has come loose; and 4) not only am I still singing, I’m also hearing grand beautiful symphonies in the splishing rhythm of my flippers. In other words, I’m hallucinating.

I haul out on an island or a mudflat or just down the way from some mansion’s mansion-like version of a dock, and promptly undress. This is not exhibitionism. Without a towel, and fearing that if I don’t regularly dry off I will literally rot, my only resort is to bake in the sun, totally nude, while rolling around on hot, blue stones. If I think I’m getting burned, I spread the map over my whiter regions as a sunshade. When I feel deserving, I eat an entire stick of pepperoni, casing and all, in two minutes flat. The Clif Bars have melted into a gnarly bowling ball of chocolaty sustenance. For dessert, I pry loose a chunk.

As I swim until sundown, the lake’s intense flatness works over me like a rolling pin, gently but forcefully smoothing my mind until there is little left to smooth. Then comes night. I camp on shingle beaches backed with cliffs, my hammock slung from the sculpted, serpentine arms and branches of half-dead cedars. I eat couscous mush, pile pebbles, read scripture until I fall asleep. The mutter of distant thunder awakens me. When the storm is loud and bright and all around, I slip out of my hammock and raise my empty bottle to the water streaming off the corner of the rain fly. It’s a spiritual cliché, but in this instance it’s literally true: I drink from the source.

Reclaiming smallness

Around 5:00 on the 10th day, after I’ve spent much of the previous 48 hours riding the swells and troughs of a burly south wind, that wind finally shifts, swings around and starts bashing me in the face. I’m approaching the causeway that connects the Alburgh Tongue with Isle La Motte, beyond which, out of sight, the lake’s final bay reaches for the border. I can feel the wind rushing across the unseen bay, driving its surface water toward a single opening in the causeway. The opening is a tunnel, its mouth the size of a garage door. I kick hard, fight for it, pass through, emerge into sun and silver chop. The Rouses Point Bridge is a couple miles off, and, beneath it, sprinting straight toward me, nine billion waves. Close enough, I think.

As I’m dragging myself up onto the causeway’s green-slimed rocks and zebra mussels, stripping off my wet suit one last time, something happens in my mind — an involuntary twitch — and I’m sent dashing through history, back past the Ticonderoga, back past Burlington when it was the third-largest port in the world, a mill town for Canadian timbers en route to Boston. I pick out faces from the crazy blur: Benedict Arnold in a gunboat, Sam Champlain in a canoe. I see a mile-thick ice sheet creeping down from the polar cap, depressing the land with its massive weight.

Pause. Now I’m moving forward in time. The ice recedes and the Atlantic pours in — whales, walruses and the like — via the channel we call St. Lawrence. Caribou and mammoth roam the tundra coast. Hunters take them down. The land rebounds and the sea flows back out. Sky falls into the basin as rain and snow and, liking the feeling of earth against its back, stays on as a lake. At the heart of it all is a rocky islet whitewashed in bird feces — the center of Creation.

And then it’s over, just like that. The vision is over and so is my voyage. I sit atop my boogie: naked, glutted on sausage, prunier than a baby left too long in the bath. I am a man-boat and a shipwreck of a man, humble and happy and properly in place. My flag snaps in the wind, a pinpoint of neon pink in the great sweep of time and space called home. I’m as small as a frog, dazzled by the view of those nine billion waves.

This is the sixth in Vermonter Leath Tonino’s “Seven Lengths of Vermont” series, each a different outdoor adventure in which he experiences the natural sights, sounds, smells, seasons and people over a year in his beloved state. His first essay was published in Seven Days on November 30, 2011. See the sidebar for other essays.