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Revolutionary War Historic Tour: Lake Champlain


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This past Thursday I was up in Vermont at my brother's house. We decided on an easy day paddle that offers kayakers a unique perspective on a historically significant portion of Lake Champlain – a view of its role in American history that is seen by relatively few tourists who visit the area. While Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence played important roles in the American Revolution, much of the military history of this strategic narrows at the mouth of the “River to Lake George” pre-dates the War of Independence. But it is for the events unfolding here during the years 1775-1777 that the area is best known. One can paddle back in time and visualize these episodes as they played out on the bluffs and hills above the lake, while traversing the waters below the ancient fortifications and rugged terrain where the course of a young nation’s history was carved.

We began this trip at the Larabees Point State Fish and Wildlife Access Ramp in Shoreham, Vermont. (To reach Fort Ticonderoga by car from the Vermont side, take the ferry from Larabees Point. The ferry runs 8AM-6PM from early May to late October, and until 8PM from late June to Labor Day. The short ride across the lake on the cable ferry takes only 6-7 minutes.)

Larabees Point was once a bustling “mini-port” as agricultural products from the surrounding farmland were brought to the lakeshore to be shipped to towns and villages further north. This was also the jumping off point for Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys on their famous pre-dawn raid of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775. (The fort was captured without a fight.) The tour boat Carillon launches from Larabees Point and is a common sight as it plies the waters up and down the lake through this historic section of Champlain.

Paddling south on the Vermont side, we quickly came opposite Ticonderoga Light, jutting out on a spit of land on the New York shore. The prominence of land southwest of the light hides the beautifully restored Fort Ticonderoga, hidden in the trees above the lake. (The Fort is generally only visible from the south, after you have passed the peninsula of Mount Independence.) This rounded woody summit, named Ticonderoga by the native Mohawk tribes of the area, was the site of the first battle involving Europeans on Lake Champlain. Samuel de Champlain's war party, traveling up the lake in 1609 on the explorer’s first voyage of discovery in the region, met a flotilla of Mohawk in elm-bark canoes at this point and engaged them in a brief battle, presaging what would become a geographic focal point of war, and the scene of numerous battles involving both Europeans and native Americans, for the next two hundred years.

Approximately two miles south of Larabees Point in a large cattail marsh is the mouth of East Creek, just to the east of Mount Independence. This slow, meandering creek can be paddled for several miles upstream through lowland forest, and features good bird-watching and fishing opportunities. Plenty of beaver activity along the lakeshore here, as both lodges and chewed tree trunks are in evidence. The Lake Champlain Paddlers’ Trail maintains a campsite here on private land (for use by Lake Champlain Committee members only).

Paddling out of the East Creek marsh, we rounded the point of Mount Independence before continuing south up the lake. Lake Champlain narrows to only a quarter-mile across here, and at this spot colonial troops constructed a heavy chain barrier and a bridge spanning the lake between Mount Independence and Fort Ticonderoga, as well as north-facing ramparts on the peninsula’s rocky cliffs as part of the elaborate defenses built here in an attempt to thwart the British invasion of the lake from Canada. The cliffs at Mount Independence were also used to lower masts down to the water to be fitted into the boats of the fledgling American navy which was constructed on the lake below. Militia troops that were called up to defend Fort Ticonderoga in 1776 were quartered at this site on the opposite side of the lake due to the ravaging smallpox epidemic that was decimating the garrison of the Fort. Mount Independence was christened on July 18,1776, the day the garrison at Fort Ti heard about the Declaration of Independence.

It is possible to land at the northern end of the peninsula for a quick walking tour of the historic monuments and remnants of the fortifications of Mount Independence, and take in the great views across the lake to Fort Ticonderoga. However, we continued on further south to the Buoy 39 Marina, near Catfish Bay. Directly across the lake from Catfish Bay rises the imposing hulk of Mount Defiance. This mountain’s strategic importance to military control of this portion of the lake was overlooked when the French built Fort Carillon, now Fort Ticonderoga, just to the north. Originally the mountain was thought to be too steep to haul artillery into positions at the top that could menace the fort below. But when in 1777 the British attacking force under Burgoyne succeeded in setting up a battery of guns at the summit, the suddenly vulnerable fort below was quickly abandoned by the Americans who had captured it two years earlier. From the height of Mount Defiance, cannon could reach the fort without the larger guns of the fort being able to return the fire. A hiking trail to the top of Mt. Defiance can be reached from the town of Ticonderoga. The trail is steep, but the effort is rewarded by spectacular views overlooking the fort, Lake Champlain and Lake George.

The first "fort" was built at Ticonderoga in 1691 when a storm forced an English-Dutch war party to beach their canoes there. The French began a real fort, Fort Carillon, in 1755 as a southern frontier of French Canada during the French and Indian Wars. By 1775, when the then-dubbed Fort Ticonderoga was captured from the British by a handful of American patriots under Ethan Allen, the fort was nearly in ruins and not the strong fortress it had been earlier. Further, its south-facing position rendered the fort ineffective in defending the lake passage against an invasion from British-held Canada. As a result, Fort Ticonderoga actually played a relatively minor role in the Revolutionary War. The fort has largely been restored after being nearly destroyed as a result of the ravages of war and the scavenging of cut stone by settlers for use in private homes on both sides of the lake. A large collection of 18th-century artillery has been assembled from all over the world and mounted on the walls, alongside reproductions of barracks, storage rooms, and officers’ quarters. The barracks house an excellent museum covering not only the fort’s history, but also historic documents and artifacts related to the 18th century military history of the Lake Champlain region, and a collection of Revolutionary War era art. There are frequent live artillery demonstrations, and fife and drum corps performances on the parade grounds. Fort Ticonderoga is open from mid-May to mid-October from 9-5. Call 518-585-2821 or visit www.fort-ticonderoga.org for more information.

As we continued paddling south around the wooded bluffs of Mount Independence, the lake bends to the southeast and begins to narrow again. Soon we approached our turnaround point for this trip at the Chipman Point Marina in Orwell, Vermont, at the narrowest point of the Lake north of Benson Landing. The lake here is only about 300 yards wide and is marked by a flashing red navigation light on the New York side at Wright Point. Chipman Point is home to two impressive stone warehouses dating from the early 1800s, the only remains of a larger settlement that existed here before the village center moved inland to modern-day Orwell. For paddlers wishing to take a break or stop for lunch at this mid-way point of the trip, Chipman Point Marina has a boat ramp, restrooms, snack bar and picnic area.

We crossed the lake to the New York side at Chipman Point and then found a shady ledge for a nice lunch break. We watched a group of kids from the Water Chestnut Project paddle small open kayaks into the marsh to pull out the invasive weeds by hand and dump them on the bank. The project is in its eighth year, and is making a dent in the march of this insidious weed into the lake. Lake Champlain is not a healthy lake, plagued by invasions from Zebra Mussels, plant species such as the Water Chestnut and Eurasian Milfoil, and toxic blue-green algae.

The return trip back up the lake offered the best water views of Fort Ticonderoga’s restored stone ramparts as we approached from the south. On the hour, we heard the fife and drum corps and waited for the roar of cannon. At one point we thought we heard thunder to the south, but I later decided it was cannon fire from the fort echoing off Mount Defiance.

As we approached the fort, we paddled into the marshy delta of the La Chute River, the historic route between Lake Champlain and Lake George. Based on maps of Fort Ti from the Revolutionary War era, it is clear that the "River from Lake George" has silted in considerably below the fort in the last 200+ years. The wetlands at the mouth of the river were rich with bird life, including Great Blue Heron, Egrets and Osprey.

We decided to paddle up the La Chute River to the town of Fort Ticonderoga, where the falls of the La Chute River empty the 200 foot higher Lake George into Lake Champlain. The steep, rocky La Chute River prevented direct access to Lake George from Lake Champlain without a portage, but the falls provided power for saw mills and grain mills, the beginning of industry in this still largely industrial town. We walked into town for an ice cream, then meandered our way back down to the Lake.

Directly north of the La Chute River mouth lays the base of the Fort Ticonderoga breastworks. We considered landing here for a visit to the fort. A stairway leads uphill from the western end of the fort wall to the entrance. But, dressed in our paddling gear, we thought we might be the main spectacle once inside the gates!

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