Diver at shipwreck site.

Leave Only Bubbles, Take Only Pictures

Chris Sabick Underwater Archaeology

Even before the arrival of Samuel de Champlain in 1609, indigenous people used Lake Champlain as a trade corridor, for fishing and as a meeting place for gatherings and festivities. This region also holds deep roots that go back to the colonial wars, the first ship in the US Navy and the early foundations of our Country. The lake has been an important military asset and an exchange hub
for centuries. It has been the roadway north to the St. Lawrence and south to the Hudson through a series of canals. In our contemporary era, is serves as a hot bed of summer recreation with the beauty of its shores filled with joyous activity.

But, while the surface of the lake sees change and life, the bottom cradles history. The cold, dark freshwater and mud at the bottom of Lake Champlain are incredibly good at preserving materials, which would normally be lost to time. If you have been deep in the lake you know that as you descend into its waters you get hit by layer after layer of cold water. These thermoclines are almost like the waves of time passing, winding the clock back. It is not uncommon to find a shipwreck, cannonball or remnants of the lake’s military past resting at the bottom. You may also stumble upon a canal boat sunken as if it was purposely docked in the mud at the floor of the lake. Lake Champlain is home to over 300 shipwrecks. The unbelievable preservation and presentation of the past the lake provides is a treasure for its small community of divers.

However, these well-preserved pieces of our nation’s history are non-renewable resources that need protection and stewardship if they are to be ours for generations to come. This history of Lake Champlain is littered with the well-intentioned recovery of sunken vessels and artifacts. Sadly, once removed from the stable environment of the lake bottom, few of these artifacts survive on the surface. When vessels are disturbed or artifacts removed from the lake bottom the context of those items is also lost, and therefore the story that the site has to tell is also diminished in the process. Like ripping random pages from a storybook, the book may remain, but it may no longer make sense. The more “pages” that are altered or removed, the less valuable the whole book becomes.

So, what do you do if you find something interesting on the lake bottom or washed up on shore? First and foremost, leave it there. Second, contact local experts and state authorities about your find. For the Vermont State Archaeologist contact Jess Robinson at jess.robinson@vermont.gov. For the New York State Historic Preservation Office contact their public line at 518-474-0456. Third, if you’d like to get more involved in becoming a steward of the historic wrecks located at the bottom of Lake Champlain, contact your local dive shop or the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum at lcmm.org to learn about opportunities to become a part of the process.

While we can easily take apart the past it is incumbent upon us to be the ones to pass it along to our next generations. Leave only bubbles and take only pictures — unless you can take GPS points as well. Justin Lowry is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at SUNY Plattsburgh. Chris Sabick is the Archaeology Director at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. For more information or to report a possible site, please contact the listed agencies above or our guest authors at
justin.lowry@plattsburgh.edu or chriss@lcmm.org.

This guest editorial originally ran in the May 23, 2018 edition of the Lake Champlain Weekly and was edited by Christina Elliott. The Lake Champlain Weekly is a free, community-based, weekly newspaper produced by Studley Printing in Plattsburgh, NY. For more information or for a PDF of the entire issue, please visit www.lakechamplainweekly.com or email editor@studleyprinting.com.