A Lake's Carol (with apologies to Charles Dickens)

By Lake Champlain Committee Staff Scientist Mike Winslow

Click to hear 'A Lake's Carol' read by the author

Detail from Marley's Ghost by John Leach 1843.
Detail from Marley's Ghost by John Leach 1843.

“Merry Christmas Uncle Eben! How was your summer?”

“Meh, it was miserable.  I rarely even made it out to my lake house.  Who would want to with all the pollution in the water these days?  The politicians should really do something about it.”

“Surely you’re joking Uncle Eben.  Your lake house is stunning.  Gorgeous views, wonderful fishing and a great swimming area.   It’s a crime to not use it.”

“Meh”

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That evening, Uncle Eben was visited by a specter, covered in slimy weeds, a visage he knew, his old neighbor from the lake house, dead now these seven years.

“Jake,” cried Eben, “What do you want with me?  What’s with the salad around your neck?”

“I wear the weeds I grew in life and wish to protect you from those you are growing” uttered the spirit.  “You will be visited this evening by three spirits.  Only their tales can save you from the fate I have suffered.”

With that the spirit was gone.  Eben rose from his chair and secured the locks on the doors and windows, wondering at the vision he had seen.

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As the church bell rang twelve, Eben once again found that he was not alone.  Standing at the foot of his bed was a tall man dressed as a voyageur.

“Who are you?” Eben demanded.

“I am zee Ghost of zee Lake Now Past.  I ‘ave come to remind you of that which you once enjoyed.”

The spirit took Eben by the hand and together they were transported to an earlier time upon the waters of Lake Champlain.

“I remember this place,” cried Eben, “That little cabin over there was our first camp building.  We used to huddle around a wood stove for warmth, and sleep all in one big room.  It doesn’t look much like the five bedroom 1800 square foot lake house with cable TV and broadband access we replaced it with. Why, now I hardly even step outside when I’m there,” he noted wistfully.

 They walked on and the scene shifted so that now they were along the lake at the city.

“But, what is that putrid smell,” exclaimed Eben.

“Ah, you forget,” cried the ghost, “zis by-gone lake of which you reminisce was in a time before zee sewage was treated.  Waste came raw; right from zee houses.  Even your own leetle cabin had a pipe sticking straight into zee lake.  Zee children of zee city learned to do zee crawl stroke to push the floaters away as they swam.  Your beloved little cove escaped zee mess only because it waz so far from zee city.”

“Yes, I remember now.  It wasn’t just the sewage, the paper mills used to release toxics that poisoned fish for decades but all we thought about were the jobs they provided.  It was a happy time, but largely because we just didn’t know any better.  Perhaps my memory of the past has been selective.” 

With that a bright light began to glow around them.  Eben felt the world tilt and whirl and then found himself back in his bed.  The church bell rang; a single chime indicated the hour.

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From the adjoining room came a hearty laugh and Eben tentatively made his way there.  He found a most curious individual, garbed in a flower print shirt and a bathing suit.  Inflatable “water wings” encircled his arms and he wore flippers upon his feet.  A dive mask with attached snorkel hid his face and an inner tube encircled his prodigious waist. On his head he wore a Panama hat while one hand held a fishing pole and the other a Frisbee.

“Come in,” exclaimed the ghost.  “Come and know better the Ghost of the Lake’s Present.  You seem to have forgotten me in these recent years.  Come touch my paddle and see again the lake you think you know.”

They were first transported to a sunny beach.  The waters were filled with happy revelers.  Children built sand castles on shore.  Teens, thigh deep, tossed a football back and forth, diving into the water to make catches.  Offshore on the horizon sailboats and fishing boats skimmed the water.  With every beach blanket they passed the spirit dipped his snorkel, sprinkling a little water, and smiles brightened each person’s face.

From the sunlit beach they travelled around the basin.  They saw agronomists meeting with farmers to discuss ways to minimize fertilizer usage.  Volunteers planted trees along a stream.  A lawyer sat down with his clients to discuss the potential of a conservation easement on property the client owned. A lady walking her dog bent to clean up after her pet.  A construction worker covered the pile of dirt beside the site and checked that the silt fence was still standing and intact before leaving for the night.  A homeowner dipped his shovel into his yard, preparing for a new rain garden.

“But spirit, how can this be?” queried Eben.  “Do people really spend their time in these waters?  Are there really so many people working so hard to help the lake?  All the reports I read are about the decline of the lake.  How polluted it is.  There was even a book which proclaimed Lake Champlain to be a top vacation destination to avoid?”

“There are some,” responded the spirit, “who claim to know this lake. Who pretend to have made a study of it. Who limit their understanding of the lake to the most cursory of reports. They would shape the public opinion to their own devices regardless of actual conditions.  Individuals must take responsibility for their own actions toward the resource.”

Eben’s attention was diverted.  “Spirit, what are those tails protruding from the pockets of your swimming trunks?”

The spirit drew forth two shiny fish gasping for breath.

“These are named Ignorance and Apathy; they have the power to bring about the lake that your books and articles have carelessly insisted is already here.  Beware them both, but most of all beware Apathy.  You have seen many a good deed done on this bright day, but there are many more that would avoid their responsibilities to the environment with the thought that only the politicians can do something about it.”

Again the world swirled and Eben found himself abed as the clock tower struck two.

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As Eben cleared his eyes he saw standing before him the third specter, garbed in a knee length black raincoat and rain pants.  The ghost’s face was hidden in the shadows of the hood pulled over its head.  It spoke not a word.

“Spirit, the lessons your kin have shared with me this night have been invaluable.  I worry what you may show, but lead the way.”

Eben and the spirit returned to the beach he had visited with the Ghost of the Lake’s Present.  Though the day was once again sunny and warm, the breeze blew across an empty stretch of sand. A gate closed across the road accessing the beach and a sign hung from it reading “Closed due to budget cuts.”  The waters that lapped against the shore were stained electric blue from algae blooms.  The engine of the one boat slowly creeping through the water suddenly stopped and Eben looked up to see the driver tilt his engine out of the water and curse when he saw the extent of weeds hanging from the prop.  Eben began to notice dead fish spaced here and there at regular intervals along the beach.  Another sign posted to a tree noted, “Waters quarantined due to infection with VHS (viral hemorrhagic septicemia).  To prevent the spread, anyone removing fish from this lake is subject to prosecution.”

“I never realized how truly bad the lake could get,” exclaimed Eben.  “Spirit, please tell me, is this the future that must be or can I change it?  What can I do to avoid this catastrophe?”  Eben fell to his knees and his chin sunk to his chest in sorrow.

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He awoke in his own bed.  No spirits about him, and just a single strand of seaweed on his bedroom floor to ensure the lessons of the night were not lost.  From that day forward Eben was a changed man.  He spent most of his summer and a meaningful part of his winters at his house on the lake.  He took to swimming every day he was there between May and October. 

More importantly, he began to actively help protect the lake; telling its tales and sharing ideas about how to improve it.  He organized lake clean-ups and spoke of the simple things, outlined in the Lake Protection Pledge, neighbors and friends could do to protect the lake.  He read all he could about the lake, but never let his reading trump his own experiences as to the lake’s condition. 

After his evening with the ghosts Eben became a true ambassador for the lake.

Lake Look is a monthly natural history column produced by the Lake Champlain Committee (LCC). Formed in 1963, LCC is the only bi-state organization solely dedicated to protecting Lake Champlain’s health and accessibility. LCC uses science-based advocacy, education, and collaborative action to protect and restore water quality, safeguard natural habitats, foster stewardship, and ensure recreational access.

Get involved by joining LCC using our website secure form (at www.lakechamplaincommittee.org), or mail your contribution (Lake Champlain Committee, 208 Flynn Avenue - BLDG 3 - STUDIO 3-F, Burlington, VT 05401), or contact us at (802) 658-1414, or lcc@ lakechamplaincommittee.org for more information.