June 11, 2009

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Lake Champlain: An Illustrated History, published by Adirondack Life, 2009, 216 pages.
It’s now 400 years since Samuel de Champlain voyaged to the lake that’s named after him, the lake that was a key to the continent during the American Revolution and the War of 1812. In commemoration, the publishers of Adirondack Life magazine offer this lush, glossy coffee-table book about all things Lake Champlain.

In six broad chapters various writers show us how the lake and its communities have fit into the region through time — ecologically, socially, economically, culturally.

After a foreword by Sen. Patrick Leahy, the book starts with “Towns Along the Lake,” a sprightly tour of noteable villages and cities, like Plattsburgh, Whitehall and Ticonderoga on the New York shore, and Burlington, Shelburne and St. Albans in Vermont. Each one gets two pages and a few nice photos.

Next is “The Story of Lake Champlain,” subtitled “How and when it formed, the life it supports.” Here’s where you read about Ausable Chasm and the Charlotte Whale, and how the Grenville Mountains of a billion years ago begat the Iapetus Ocean, which was follwed by the Green Mountains, which begat the modern Adirondacks, which, after an Ice Age, were joined by Lake Vermont and then the Champlain Sea, which begat Lake Champlain. It’s also where you read about the area’s fish and birds and bears.

Chapter Three is “The First People,” starting with the Paleo-Indians of 12,000 to 9,000 years ago. (By the way, among the scanty artifacts from the period, “at the Mazza site in Colchester, Vermont, a majority of the stone tools and stone-working debris is New Hampshire rhyolite, likely quarried from a location near Berlin, New Hampshire….”). This chapter follows the Native populations up to the 1999 opening of the Abenaki Tribal Museum.

Chapter Four, “Highway of Empire,” is when we really delve into Samuel de Champlain and European settlement, and then the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. Champlain, of course, is not the only notable figure to have made his mark on the lake; there’s Montcalm and Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen and many others. This chapter is full of vivid, crisp drawings and paintings of battle scenes, portraits, fort diagrams, and modern-day photos of the ruins left behind. These are the times Christopher Shaw is talking about in the prologue when he writes, “For two centuries the lake and valley were a blood-soaked no-man’s-land — unless you view it as a great theater of adventure, which it also was.”

Its political boundaries established, the lake went from “Hinterland to International Waterway” (Chapter Five) as a bustling trade route facilitated by construction of canals (many photos and postcards to prove it), then ferries — sail-powered, horse-powered, steam-powered. And today, the focus is on “Sports & Play on Lake Champlain” (Chapter Six), as commercial travel has gone elsewhere for economic reasons — though recreation has always been there. There’s a nice story about Thomas Jefferson and James Madison visiting the lake in 1791 and pondering its possibilities. The book closes with some speculations about its future.

Nicely organized, thoughtfully written, and chock full of eye-catching photos and artwork, this substantive but not overly dense book is a treasure.

Lake Champlain: An Illustrated History doesn’t seem to be available at Amazon, though it is at Barnesandnoble.com ($35.96) and is available directly at www.adirondacklife.com ($44.95). A salesperson at Borders in Burlington, Vt., told me her store had ordered it directly from the publisher, that it wasn’t being widely distributed. So seek it out. This is the book for anyone with ties to Lake Champlain. ALisa Parsons