by Dawn Saunders
September 3, 2011
My experiences with Otter Creek have, up to now, been limited to kayaking and canoeing the placid and lightly traveled waterway between Cornwall and Middlebury, far above the falls. Those paddles have always recharged me, providing in certain bends away from fields and roads a sense of near-instant transportation in time or place to an almost tropically lush place of the spirit. Thus, I was delighted last week when I learned I would be able to join the crew of the Lois McClure in her passage from Vergennes to Shoreham, passing through the meeting of my two favorite Vermont waterways.
But on arrival below the falls at Vergennes, I was taken aback: where was the Lois? Falls Park was seriously flooded, and no boat in site. Had she gone without me? Had the high water been too much for her, had she been swept downstream in the aftermath of Irene? Sure she was around somewhere, I trudged through the mucky paths downstream, and there she was, along the southern shore with no dock in site, appearing to be attached only to trees. Closer inspection found there was a dock, sort of, obscured by river foam. In fact, Lois was surrounded by foam as if sitting in a rather muddy and bubbly jaccuzi, as were her companions, the C. L. Churchill and the inflatable dinghy, the Oocher.
Once the passage crew was assembled, skippers Erick (Lois) and Art (Churchill) discussed the predicament: Lois was held primarily by a massive 95-pound Danforth at the bow, dug in by now against the pressure of record flooding, facing upstream. The stern anchor was also a challenge, placed well out into the creek’s churning channel. Across on the other shore a large pleasure craft was tied up at a dock. We were facing the seriously daunting task of coordinating the work of the three vessels’ crews in turning the Lois while maintaining control against the current, and being at the ready to continue her turn at the first sharp bend downstream, and many more thereafter along the creek. After checking and repositioning the dock lines to the trees and the flooded dock, the Oocher, manned by Erick, Tom, and Kerry, tackled the stern anchor first: heaving, hauling, back and forth against the current, and with great effort pulling the anchor up enough to drag it to the Lois bow to haul up with her burton tackle (a block run to the top of the foremast, used as a hoist). That was exhausting enough, but without a break the Oocher headed upstream to drag up the Danforth. The three took turns tugging at the 95-pound anchor: to those of us on deck of the Lois, it looked painful. Once they had the anchor in the water, again it was brought up to the boat to haul up 200 feet of chain by the hand-cranked (make that every-muscle-in-one’s-body-cranked) windlass by the crew in turns on deck.
Once the anchor was onboard, the Lois was dependent on the quick-turn plan to bring her about, tug and dinghy working in tandem on the port side to position her as she swiveled in the current out into the channel and around, neatly missing our neighbor across the river, and an upstream dock, smoothly, quickly, beautifully. The yacht’s crew had come out with cameras to watch along their dock: “WooHOO!” exclaimed their skipper as the tricky turn was mastered. Lois continued in the same circular motion into the first river bend, and we were under way.
Concern for the downstream run focused on keeping ahead of the current to manage those continuing sharp curves, while watching for the huge logs that had been washing over the falls for days within the foamy creek – one which we watched float by us as we were preparing to shove off. Fortunately, all went well, and while Len and I on bow watch continued to watch for logs and other obstructions, eventually the foam cleared away and all went smoothly, as we sped along at 7 knots on the swollen creek, flushing out the occasional heron and kingfisher. The weather was beautiful. Finally, the Otter’s brown water mixed with the blue of the lake, and we turned to pass by our museum home and on to the south. There would be no sailing on this passage, as the wind was from the south and we were taking short hops: to Crown Point the first night, then on to Shoreham for our public viewing on Saturday.
The lake is always beautiful, but never more than on the water. While still keeping watch for storm-tossed debris, we could now take in some scenery as we churned through some choppy waters: farms, forests, mountains, and finally, as we came near Crown Point, the beautiful new Champlain Bridge, arching at last on the southern horizon. Officials and work crews on the bridge had kindly coordinated their schedule to allow us to pass safely below, and we spent the afternoon and evening as the guests of Crown Point State Park, rewarded with hot showers after the morning’s strenuous start. I spent the afternoon touring the ruins, which I had never really explored before. Of course, I wondered what took me so long? How amazing, to see this history so open and so tactile: the old French Fort St. Frederic and its successor, the British Fort Crown Point, mostly destroyed by accidental fire just before the Revolution, but leaving standing today the haunting twin two-story barracks, monuments to a world at war in the 18th century. The soldier’s barracks are particularly striking, with their first and second floor fireplaces stacked on top of one another: I could picture the tired and often sickly English soldiers seeking some comfort on a cold night there, or even the men that served with Benedict Arnold in 1776 prior to setting out to meet the British, maybe lighting up a fire in that fireplace.
The next day we were on our way under changing skies: clouds piling up and melting away and forming all sorts of patterns and shapes along the way. To those of us who live inland between mountains and surrounded by forest, as I do in East Middlebury, the skies on the lake seem very big. Towards Shoreham, the skies opened up even more as the land became more rounded and open, revealing the area’s prime agricultural real estate. This, I thought, was how most of Vermont was in the 18th century when boats like the Lois crowded the lake with commerce. Even the woods that surround me in East Middlebury were mostly pasture back then, and are still dotted with stone fences and at least one cellar hole for a surprisingly large barn, as farmers pushed productive land to its limit up our slopes to meet the demand for butter, cheese, and wool down south.
The afternoon in Shoreham was spent readying the boat to receive visitors for Shoreham Day the next morning. We were now the guests of Captain Paul Saenger and his wife Renee, proprietors of the tour boat Carillon, and the beautiful early-19th century stone house that once served commercial customers at the site in the canal-boom days, right next door to the Ticonderoga cable ferry. After the Lois was ship-shape, I took my camera for a long walk up Route 74, enjoying the late-summer golden hues of the rolling landscape, and making good friends of a herd of cows along the way.
We shared the Carillon’s dock and grounds, along with the good people of Champlain Orchards and Sunnyside Farms to meet the public on Saturday. We had a good mix of people who came specially to see our schooner, and many others who were surprised and delighted to find us at the ready as they came to meet or disembark the ferry. One lady from the Midwest, touring with her family in New England, was also named Lois McClure! She had known about the boat from its visits up the Erie Canal, and was delighted to have her picture taken next to her “namesake.” Everyone I spoke to, young and old, were fascinated by the boat as a lesson in history and place. And place is important to our voyage’s theme, of the relationship between the waterways and lives and communities on shore, our past, our present, our future. All were very present in Shoreham that day.
Dawn teaches Economic History at Castleton College and has volunteered as an interpreter aboard the Philadelphia II. She is going to be teaching at Killington Mountain School this fall.