One Last Paddle on a Northwoods Lake

Winter has come to the Great Lakes and for thousands of people thatmeans mothballing the canoe or the kayak and strapping on thecross-country skis. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Brian Manndecided to make one last paddle as the ice was closing in on LakeChamplain. He found a rare stretch of waterfront that’s been protectedfrom development. He sent this audio postcard:


Winter has come to the Great Lakes and for thousands of people that means mothballing the canoe or the kayak and strapping on the cross-country skis. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Brian Mann decided to make one last paddle as the ice was closing in on Lake Champlain. He found a rare stretch of waterfront that’s been protected from development. He sent this audio postcard.

It’s mid-morning, wintry cold and overcast, and a first, fragile sheet of ice hovers around the edge of Lake Champlain. Mike Karr – my partner for the day — steadies the two-seater kayak as I climb aboard.

(ambient sound of splashing and getting in kayak)

We take a moment to button down our splash skirts. The wind is blowing sharply, but once we’re tucked in the boat, we’re surprisingly sheltered.

“We’re in South Bay, the headwaters of Lake Champlain, which runs north from here, all the way to the Canadian border.”

Mike heads the Adirondack chapter of the Nature Conservancy. Last year, his outfit bought a big chunk of land here, an effort to protect the lake’s shoreline. Today, we’re heading up-stream, exploring, cutting through the crust of ice to open water:

(ambient sound of paddling through crunching ice)

Much of Lake Champlain is busy with power boats and ferries. Houses lie thick along the shore. But here, the only noise is the distant cry of gulls and the swish of our paddles through the dark water.

“We typically see bald eagles here. Turkey vultures circling in the thermals above the cliffs. Although, on warmer days than today.”

To the west, coming slowly into view, are the Diameters, a pair of amazing 800-foot high cliffs.

“Just up from the black streak that runs down the face of the cliff, there’s a perch where the peregrines roost. You can see their droppings on the cliff. We’ve actually seen them take ducks from the wetlands on the other side of the lake. They dive in and strike the duck
in the air.”

(ambient sound of paddling)

Soon the bay starts to narrow. It’s a strange landscape this time of year. Wild rice stalks stubble the water. Dotted here and there are muskrat lodges, like hayricks – each with its halo of ice. Soon, we come to our first dam.

(ambient sound of beaver dam waterfall)

The work of beavers or muskrats, it’s hard to say which. The wall of twigs and grass has made a small waterfall. We scramble gingerly out of our narrow kayak seats and tug the boat over the top.

(ambient sound of boat scraping over dam)

As we set off again, the black face of the Diameters catches a sudden
weight of sunshine. As the clouds shift, the muskrat lodges are illuminated on
the water, bright yellow against the blues and grays of a winter day.

(ambient sound of paddling)

Upstream we come to marsh island – a few trees and a bit of solid ground
– where we can have lunch. And there, next to his skiff, we find a man named
Tim Kingsley. He lives a few miles north and he’s been trapping here
for twenty years.

“There’s a lot of wildlife up here. Anybody who likes the outdoors, this is the place to be.”

In Kingsley’s boat lies the skinned carcass of a muskrat. He’ll use it as bait in one of his mink traps. He’s a middle-aged man, dressed in heavy fatigues against the cold. When I ask to see how his traps work, Kingsley nods for me to follow and heads off through the swampy grass.

(ambient sound of walking through marsh)

“That’s an old abandoned muskrat house. The mink’ll hunt
there a lot.”

In summer, this part of the bay is thick with life. Now, it’s dormant and still, the grasses and trees shrunk down against the cold months that lie ahead. Kneeling, Kingsley shows me the gap under a stump where his metal snare is laid.

“Those are called conobar traps. How do they work? — They would catch ’em right around the neck and dispatch them right there. They would kill them instantly. They hit those triggers right there and it would collapse over their neck and boom.”

This is wonderful trapping country, Kingsley says. Mink, otter, bobcat, even coyotes. What you don’t see much of is people. A few fishermen in the spring, he says, but then it quiets down again. In buying a parcel of land here – and developing partnerships with local landowners – the Nature Conservancy hopes to protect this area’s wildness.

“It does represent a real shift in the Nature Conservancy’s thinking. Moving away from small, isolated sites out to a larger landscape scale. We need to employ tools to protect this watershed, the headwaters of the lake.”

We paddle on a bit, but soon South Bay contracts around us and the great weight of Lake Champlain is reduced to a winding bijou. A fallen log blocks our passage and we turn reluctantly for home. It’s colder now and long shadows have already fallen across the cliffs. As we cut again through the barrier of ice, it’s good to know that this is one place on the lake that will remain quiet and undisturbed.

(Paddling ambience, ice breaking)

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Brian Mann on Lake Champlain.