There is an old saying: to be wise means to have good judgment; good judgment comes from experience; and experience comes from having bad judgment. Rapid changes in conditions that can occur on a large lake like Champlain enhance the many opportunities for bad judgment to generate stories and adventures.
“If you don’t watch out, the lake can turn and bite you”, relates Irving Mehady, an avid outdoorsman I met recently. He tells a tale of duck hunting at Rock Dunder near Shelburne Bay. He and a companion had taken out their flat-bottomed skiff and hunkered down on the east side of the Rock to await the birds. After an unproductive morning Irving decided to climb up over the rock to see if the ducks might be on the other side. His eyes bulged as he saw the line of black clouds working its way swiftly over the lake pushing heaving white capped waves in front. He hurried back to his companion and they quickly set off for the mainland. Skiffs aren’t designed to handle rough weather.The storm caught up with them and rocked the boat too and fro. It was only with great fortune that they managed to reach shore.
Larry Clarfeld’s experience was even more dramatic. He and his girlfriend set out for his first ever kayak trip on Lake Champlain one gorgeous 4th of July. They too were headed for Rock Dunder, but upon arrival found, “brittle rock, stinking of fish guts and cormorant crap, and covered in thousands of midges.” They quickly began the return trip but a storm soon rolled in with intense winds and swells several feet high. The kayak swamped, filling with water. By waving their arms and blowing their emergency whistle they were able to flag down a nearby sailboat, soon accompanied by a game warden who gave them a ride back to shore.
One fine August day, my wife and daughter and I set out on a canoe trip. Our goal was to paddle from the mouth of the Otter Creek to a cobble beach I know between Porter Bay and Kingsland Bay. A slight breeze tickled the lake’s surface creating rolling swells like the rippling muscles in a horse’s neck as it tries to shake off a fly. Seasoned lake travelers would have been unperturbed by the gentle waves. My wife is not a seasoned lake paddler. About two thirds of the way to our destination, her nerves thoroughly frayed, she insisted the canoe was too unstable and we should turn back. I calmly talked her out of that notion pointing out that the area we were heading to was a short walk across land from Kingsland Bay State Park should we need to head out by another means. We continued on to the beach where we enjoyed a fine picnic and some swimming. Coincidentally, friends of ours, Bill and his daughter Kaitlyn, walked by on a stroll from Kingsland Bay so our daughter had a playmate for the afternoon.
While we all relaxed, even my wife failed to notice that the wind had picked up. The gentle swells of the morning became substantial whitecaps by afternoon. My wife was pleased that her prediction of a dangerous outing had come to fruition, and steadfast in her insistence that she would not set forth in the boat. She would take the two girls by foot back to Bill’s car while Bill and I, seeking adventure, attempted to round the point in the canoe.
Our adventure was short lived. While Bill was getting into the boat a wave crashed into the gunnels. Bill and I both pretended to ignore the loud crrrack that issued forth. I sat in the stern and watched the bottom of the boat ripple with each passing wave. My mind wandered to the cliffs that we would be paddling by, their imposing faces offering no chances to beach if we encountered difficulty. I meekly suggested to Bill that discretion was the better part of valor and perhaps we should abandon our adventure for another day. We returned to shore and toted the boat over land through the woods back to his vehicle.
Gary Kjelleran recalls windsurfing off of Charlotte during Hurricane Bob when he took a nasty fall. A large wave knocked him off his board and he broke his leg. There were no other people on the rough water. He managed to use his sail to drag the two miles to shore despite the injury. Luckily a stranger saw him struggling toward shore and was kind enough to give him a ride to the hospital.
Great stories of misadventure on the lake grow over time as the waves get bigger with each telling. However, some tales of misadventure never get told. Only survivors get to share their stories. While Irving, Larry, Mike, and Gary turned around in time to avoid catastrophe or outraced the storm or were rescued, some people aren’t as lucky. Boats capsize, ice cracks, people drown. It is important to remember the lake can turn around and bite ya.
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@ for more information. lakechamplaincommittee.org