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Signposts along the way. Photo: Sarah Harris
Signposts along the way. Photo: Sarah Harris

Defining the Champlain Valley

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During the holidays we're listening back to some of our favorite stories from 2013. Some are newsy, others are just fun. A taste of summer in this story.

Lake Champlain means different thing to different people. It's a border between Vermont, Quebec, and New York. It's where people go to fish, swim, and boat. People cross it to get to work or see their families. It's even a drinking water supply. Reporter Sarah Harris spent a week driving around the lake and asking people what it means to live in the Champlain Valley. Here's what she learned.

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Sarah Harris
Reporter and Producer

Ethan, standing on the DUKW. Photo: Sarah Harris
Ethan, standing on the DUKW. Photo: Sarah Harris
I'm standing in a junkyard in Willsboro, New York. My guide is 15-year-old Ethan. He's a big kid in red shirt and camo hat. We're standing in front of a huge, green behemoth of a vehicle.

"It's a DUKW, amphibious," Ethan explains, used for carrying troops and supplies during World War II.

The duck doesn't work anymore. It's overgrown with weeds and thorns. For a while Ethan's family used it to salvage boats out of Lake Champlain.

"We had a big winch on it with a boom and we'd back up over it, somebody would dive in the water, they'd hook the winch up to it and munch it up."

This kind of sounds like what I'm doing all week – diving in and getting hooked on Lake Champlain. I'm driving around the entire late — well, most of it — trying to learn what exactly the Champlain Valley is all about.

For my friend Sue Kavanaugh, Vermont and New York feel different. She's a fundraiser at Middlebury College and lives in Bristol, Vermont. But she and her husband lived in the Adirondacks for a long time. So she's seen both sides.

"[Vermont] feels, I guess, sort of colonial, you know?" Sue says. "Upstate New York and the Adirondacks feel, you, know, woodsier? Obviously Vermont is more agricultural and those differences make it feel like very different places as well."

This is a dynamic I've been trying to figure out ever since I moved to Burlington in 2011.

I didn't realize was that I'd be part of a tension: two states, and one province, all sharing a big, long lake.

"We always looked at Burlington as Berkeley East and Plattsburgh was the poorer stepsister," says Andy Sajor, a retired high school science teacher in Plattsburgh. "I never really saw that. I just look at it as one great place to live."

Sailing on Lake Champlain. Photo: Sarah Harris
Sailing on Lake Champlain. Photo: Sarah Harris
Andy's an avid outdoorsman and sailor. I interview him sitting on his sailboat at the Plattsburgh Boat Basin. It's a beautiful, busy night. There are a lot of people out. And Andy says that Plattsburgh is a city on a cusp.

"There was a physician who died a number of years ago Dr. David McDowell and he always looked at Plattsburgh as the untouched oyster. And the pearls were just sitting there waiting for somebody to discover. And I think it's going to be discovered very shortly."

This is one of the narratives on the lake – the constant comparison between Burlington and Plattsburgh. But for Lorraine and Dick Rolo, Lake Champlain isn't about the cities or states on either side. It's a place to enjoy.

I meet them at the boat launch in Swanton, Vermont.

"We've been fishing," Dick says. "Not much luck. But we had a good time."

"We enjoyed the day," Lorraine adds. "It's just peaceful and quiet."

Lorraine and Dick tell me they haven't been out on the lake in three years. Dick's been sick.

"Dick had hip surgery," Lorraine says. "he had 3 replacements and back surgery. So that's the reason we haven't been out here."

"Throw in a little heart attack on the side," Dick adds with a chuckle.

They're glad just to be back out here, enjoying a beautiful summer afternoon.

I ask if they think there's a big difference between the Vermont and New York sides of the lake.

"No," says "Dick, "just Lake Champlain. It's a great place."

And Lake Champlain isn't just some big lake separating two states. It also spans the U.S. Canadian border – creating another dynamic.

At the Plattsburgh municipal beach, almost everyone is from Quebec. I hear French in St. Albans and Burlington, French in the Champlain Islands and at the Essex ferry dock. And a small northern part of the lake extends in Canada – Missisquoi Bay.

Norman and Diane Gagnon are sitting in lawn chairs on the beach in Venise-au-Quebec.

Norman says that Quebecois feel connected to the lake too.

"Mostly because it's Champlain area, it's the whole lake. Even ourselves sometimes we like to go to Burlington. We got at the marina and we like to take a beer and walk to restaurant after. But over here or over there, it's nice."

These are the people who share the lake year-round. But there are also people just passing through and seeing this part of the world for the first time.

I meet musicians Tim Barry and Cory Branan on the Plattsburgh-Grand Isle ferry. They're on tour, headed to Montreal and just had the day off in Burlington.

"It was nice. It was chill," Cory says. "Expensive hotels. Apparently y'all have a season up here. I'm from Memphis, we don't have a season."

"We're pretty excited about this reroute," Barry explains. "We got a little confused too and are excited to be on the ferry and this is the first time in over 20 years of touring for me that I ever remember being taken from one side to another via ferry within the United States."

No matter where I am on the lake – in Ticonderoga or St Albans or Rouses Point –I see vistas that totally takes my breath away. Fort Ticonerdoga up on the bluff, the new bridge arcing over the lake, sprawling farms and rolling hills, and moutains rising up on both sides.

So, Is the Champlain Valley one place? I don't know. I have no idea. I think it's a valley full of vibrant communities. I met John Grant at the Port Henry post office and I think he put it best:

"When you speak of the Champlain Valley, the Champlain Valley encompasses everyone. I always said God visits in your towns but he lives right here."

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