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A tourist in my own hometown

When we lived here, I tried not to look at Lake Champlain this time of year, because the sight of the churning gray water contributed to my cabin fever. I never liked the winters, and certain gloomy sights made me anxious. As I post this in the mid-afternoon, the sun is setting and it will be set entirely by 4:14 pm, leaving the lake only a dark mystery outside the window.

But since we are here for only a week — leaving tomorrow — I am trying to embrace this season, and look more closely at the familiar things. As a tourist in my own hometown, I can afford to take chances with my experiences and responses. If I don’t like what I feel, it’s no problem. In a day, everything will be different.

Lake Champlain has changed character since the summer. The lake surface this time of year is forbidding. It seems exclusively composed of gray-green waves topped with icy whitecaps, each wave having a solidity to it that transcends mere water. When I look at them I get a sense of the deepness of this lake (300-400 feet), the darkness at the bottom, the cold embodied in each wave that can suck the life out of a person in 30 minutes. The lake, which seemed so friendly and inviting when the waves were blue, now lies there like a giant alligator waiting for someone to stumble into its path.

Lake Champlain Christmas.jpg

This time of year everyone treats the lake with respect. There are no boats on the water, other than the year-round ferries and the occasional Coast Guard ship. Fall storms can sink boats at their moorings, so most of the summer boaters have long since stored their craft. Even a full drysuit is not enough to dive the lake for more than a few minutes this time of year.

Last week when I rode the ferry coming back across the lake from Plattsburgh I was struck by the intensity of the lake, especially at night. With clouds in the sky and a light wind, it is absolutely pitch-black and no aids to navigation can be seen until the red and green lights on ferry dock appear. The ferry is very safe, yet sitting there in the dark and listening to the thrum of the diesel engines, I had the sense that I was riding only inches from disaster in the cold cold depths.

If temperatures are cold enough, the lake will freeze in February, at least in the inlets and harbors. The broad lake (3-5 miles across) only freezes in very cold years, but when it does the lake becomes transformed — usually overnight — into an amazing world of thick dark ice interspersed with snow patches and ice heaves that can reach 10 feet tall. Ironically, although the frozen lake can be extremely treacherous, it seems so miraculous and enticing that it’s hard to resist walking out for an exploration.

As kids, we would bring a narrow brass pole to tap holes in the ice (to check thickness), and long sticks held horizontally like tightrope walkers. If the ice broke, the stick was there to keep us from going all the way in, and give a tool for getting back out. I took a few icy plunges …

Springtime, however, is when most people get into trouble. In December the lake is so grim that only fools and rescue personnel venture out in small craft. But in the spring, everyone has the fever to get outside, and there are always those who want to extend the ice-fishing season a bit further than they should.

On some sunny Saturday next spring there will be news of the folks whose truck vanished through the ice, or the truly unfortunate who ended up on a drifting and disintegrating ice floe that seemed well-attached to the rest of the ice when they walked onto it. The latter folks have one of two fates: They end up humiliated on local TV after their rescue, or they end up in the “missing presumed dead” category.

With all this, it is little wonder that Vermonters (and New Yorkers, and Quebecers) flock to the lake in the brief months of summer. We know we have hardly any time to enjoy it, and once the season ends, it will be at least several gray cold months before a few weeks of solid ice. I never had the ability to endure that. Long before the season ended, I would be enveloped in a gray of my own, and it would become impossible for me to see anything other than my desire to flee to a sunny climate.

Yet there is a sort of rugged beauty in the lake this time of year. I can see it this week. It is like looking at an erupting volcano, deadly if you get too close, and fascinating with the proper distance and perspective. Having had some time to think about it, I believe my proper distance is still at least a couple hundred miles, but I wish I did have the internal perspective others seem to have, which allows them to see things like this up-close without risk of being consumed by them.

4 Responses to “A tourist in my own hometown”

  1. Barry Says:

    Zoloft! Zoloft! The answer to your stays in VT! It hit 80 here in Tampa today. See ya tomorrow!

  2. Terry Says:

    Hey, Rich, it was 83 and sunny here today. Having a great time, wish you were here! :)

  3. TomW Says:

    Man! That Florida crowd is rough!

    I’m on YOUR side – It was so cold here in Alabama that I had to wear gloves while touring the countryside on my motorcycle. :)

  4. Jack Palmer Says:

    Rich, I understand completly. Living in upstate NewYork (Keene)through 5 years of winters I also felt that darkness coming on in late fall and it seemed to get deeper and darker as the winter progressed. Beautiful country but you really have to love winter to survive there. I grew up in Florida and I guess I’ll always lean toward warmer and sunnier climates.

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