Great Lakes now spell SCHMOE Geography: The five Great Lakes used to be remembered by the mnemonic device HOMES. JTC But the addition of Lake Champlain has changed that -- and much more.

Sun Journal

March 18, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BURLINGTON, Vt. -- As Lake Champlain completes its first week as the newest member of the Great Lakes, people who live alongside America's sixth-largest body of fresh water are dealing with a mild winter and a higher profile.

Vigorously, but politely, they defend the 14-mile wide, 125-mile-long lake -- that extends from Whitehall, N.Y., to Winooski, Vt. -- from critics who see its new-found Greatness as undeserved.

Happily and humorously, lake dwellers contemplate new road signs, new T-shirts ("I went to the Great Lakes but ended up in Vermont with this lousy T-shirt") -- and a new mnemonic device.

H-O-M-E-S was the way geography students used to remember the five Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior. Add Champlain and scramble. Yes, kids and teachers: S-C-H-M-O-E.

Champlain is as important here as moose sightings and maple walnut ice cream.

"We were always told in school that Champlain should be the sixth Great Lake," says Andrew Robinson, 22, a Vermont Teddy Bear factory worker whom everyone calls Rooster on account of what he resembled after a grade-school snowball fight. "I don't ,, know if we're truly Great, but I love living on the lake. It's wicked good."

Nevertheless, polls show that a majority of Americans can't place Champlain on a map. Its current celebrity stems from a nifty congressional move by Democrat Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont's senior senator, to make marine-biology researchers here eligible for $56 million in federal Sea Grant funds. The money is restricted to 29 colleges in states bordering the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico or the oceans. So Leahy stuck some words into a bill: "The term 'Great Lakes' includes Lake %o Champlain."

President Clinton signed it. Presto, a Great Lake.

The "real" Great Lakes became eligible for Sea Grant funds in 1970 through similar legislative sleight-of-hand -- a federal law that declared the five lakes "America's fourth seacoast."

Midwesterners nevertheless bitterly denounce Champlain's new designation. They say the lake is just one-fifteenth the size of Lake Ontario, the smallest Great Lake, and that it resembles nothing so much as a river as it flows north to the St. Lawrence Seaway.

"We have some 1,000-foot-long iron carriers out here in dock," says Davis Helberg, port director for Duluth, Minn., on Lake Superior. "Maybe if we donated one of them to those nice people in Vermont, they could take it and make a bridge across the little lake they have there."

Adds Republican Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan: Champlain is a mere "pencil line on the map."

Lost in this uproar were some important facts. Despite the size difference, Champlain has long been considered a first cousin, if not a full-blooded brother, of the five lakes to the west.

Like the other Greats, Champlain is a cold, deep, freshwater lake, formed by glaciers at the end of the Pleistocene ice age. It also suffers from surprisingly fierce storms and high waves, and borders multiple U.S. states and Canada.

And in American history, the lake, which was named for Samuel de Champlain, the French explorer who discovered it in 1609, is without peer. Known in colonial times as "the key to the continent," Lake Champlain saw major sea battles during the French and Indian War; the capture of Fort Ticonderoga by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold during the Revolution, and the Battle of Plattsburg during the War of 1812, when Capt. Thomas Macdonough trounced the British in one of the decisive naval battles of the conflict.

During the 19th century, Burlington, the largest city along the lake (40,000 as of 1995), was America's third-busiest lumber port. Situated between the Adirondacks of New York and the Green Mountains of Vermont, the 400-foot-deep lake was filled at first by seawater from the Atlantic. It still contains a 500-million-year-old coral reef, the world's oldest.

"It's not as big as the other Great Lakes," says Jason Bushey, who is studying the lake's geology and ecology in his fifth-grade class at Edmunds Elementary in Burlington. "But look at me. Smaller can be better."

Informal links between researchers in Vermont and the Great Lakes states are numerous. University of Wisconsin scientists have studied Champlain's fish population. A Vermont researcher works with the University of Michigan in his studies of mercury contamination. Professors in both areas take a ribbing from ocean researchers, who get the bulk of the research money and prestige.

"I love the Great Lakes, so this dispute is a little uncomfortable to me," says Al McIntosh, a University of Vermont professor who spent summers on Lake Michigan as a teen-ager and now studies chemical pollutants in Lake Champlain. "We are already a Great Lake in a research sense, because the lakes are so similar in their environments."

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