Illustration by Mark Wilson

Weird, watery adventures on Lake Champlain

Throughout 2019, in celebration of 
Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. In 2013 Leath Tonino, author of The Animal One Thousand Miles Long, gave a gonzo account of a long-distance swim in Lake Champlain.

I was swimming north,
tracing that line where the cliffs plunge into the green-black depths, imagining mermen. No, not mermen—lakemen, murkmen, rough, gruff freshwater dudes with bits of old rope dangling from their clackety zebra-mussel beards. This was no place for Disney’s pearl necklaces, gold tridents and sparkly tails.

For nearly five miles, from Barn Rock all the way to the Split Rock lighthouse, the eastern slope of Split Rock Mountain tumbles steeply into 200- and 300-foot-deep water; it’s a dizzying maze of rock faces, brush-choked gullies, mossy alcoves and clinging forest. Should a lakeman haunt this wild coast, I was sure he’d be some kind of gargantuan catfish with a human’s flabby gut and a pirate’s grizzled face. I craned my neck, half-expecting to see him up there on a secret ledge, reclining against a bouquet of ferns, dragging on a cigarette.

“I just came up for a smoke,” he’d say, his voice the sound of grinding shells, and it would hit me that—duh—you can’t light a match underwater. Then he’d shift his fishy bulk, roll out into space and disappear with a tremendous cannonball splash.

I’d been in the water for a couple of hours and the fantasy was growing disconcertingly vivid, almost hallucinatory; maybe it was time to haul out and dry out, bake the moisture from my soggy brain before continuing up the coast. A couple coves north of Snake Den Harbor I spotted a talus slide spilling down from the thick unknowns of the higher mountain. That’ll do. I swam to the beach of boulders at the base of the slide and pulled myself, none too gracefully, out of the water. It was only then, catching a glimpse of my own flailing flippered feet and sleek neoprene body, that the obvious dawned on me: if anybody is a lakeman, it’s me.

Granted, I was not the crusty creature of my own imagination. Wearing a wet suit, neon salmon-colored T-shirt, sunhat and sporty sunglasses, I cut a decidedly futuristic figure—an expedition man-fish touring the vast open waters and intricate edges of our nation’s sixth-largest lake. I dragged my foam boogie board up onto the beach, dismantled its matching salmon-colored flag (which I carried so boaters wouldn’t run me over) and unlashed my two rubber dry bags, the green one full of camping gear, the yellow one stuffed with food.

This was the fifth day of what turned out to be a 10-day through-swim of 120-mile-long Lake Champlain (I started a bit north of Whitehall and quit just shy of the Canadian border). What might motivate such a weird adventure? Let’s just say that I’ve lived most of my life near the lake and have always been impressed by its beauty, power, storms, birds, fish, moods, moments, nooks, crannies, mysteries and possibilities. In particular, I’ve been fascinated by the rugged, isolated Split Rock coast ever since I was six years old and my father and I canoed there and found a timber rattlesnake coiled on a warm dark rock.

Now, swimming alone for days on end, an adult with only a boogie for company, I suppose I was trying to gain some fresh perspective on this lake I’ve known and loved for years. On Day Five, a day I’d been looking forward to since the beginning of the voyage, that meant feeling small beneath the looming, shaggy wall of Split Rock Mountain.

It was a bright Saturday in August, the kind where you count the white boat sails and wonder if you’ll hit a hundred. But not here. The small cove, like a button of water pressed into the shore, framed my view in such a way that I could see nothing but wide lake and, beyond it, Vermont’s fuzzy hills. Stripping my wet suit off, I stood naked, drying in cool wind and hot sun, feeling a tad bit shipwrecked. My gear was strewn about like colorful flotsam heaved up by storm waves. And where was my boat? How could I have gotten to this secluded spot without a boat? It must have sunk.

As if one weren’t enough, six turkey vultures circled overhead. The droning buzz of insects—a million, 10 million, 10 trillion of them—pressed up against me with the weight of a physical thing. The terrain at my back was next to im­penetrable, a fine place to fall and break some important bones. I felt more like Robinson Crusoe than a local adventurer out for a vacation swim. I felt vulnerable, and that felt awesome.

Castaway Cove (my name) really is a fine place for shipwrecks; the Champlain II, a large passenger steamer, ran aground and sank nearby back in 1875. It’s also a fine place for solitude. Split Rock Mountain Wild Forest, managed by the New York Department of Conservation, boasts the longest stretch of undeveloped Lake Champlain shoreline in the state. I knew I had the place to myself. I found a long driftwood spar—a wizardy staff—and began hiking, still nude, up the talus slope in search of snakes and views and possible escape routes (should that day ever come). My fins or legs or whatever you want to call them were desperate for some terra firma, and though the rocks, some as large as refrigerator boxes, were actually quite shifty and loose, they were nothing shy of a revelation to my pruny feet.

A thousand or so steps up the slope I heard a noise and turned. A sleek, fat pod of a motorboat had pulled into the cove and was dropping anchor, a wo­man in bikini on the bow, a man in baseball hat at the wheel, two golden retrievers in flashy canine life jackets in the stern. Taking the boat’s presence as a cue to get moving again, I worked my way back down to the beach, gathered my gear, loaded the boogie and inspected the sleeves and legs of my wet suit for rattlesnakes. I’m not sure if the couple—or for that matter, the panting, smiling dogs—saw my pale white backside as I struggled into my lakeman outfit, but I’m positive they heard the groan and slap as I shoved off. With the boogie out in front of me like a kickboard, I started north. The mountain fell away below, down into those green-black depths, and soon the water was a hundred feet deep.

During my brief landing, the morning’s soft, northerly breeze had developed into a full-on gale, though the day remained perfectly bright and clear. The swimming was hard, like jogging on an aquatic treadmill. I stayed close to the shore, not that it would have helped much in an emergency. For stretches of a hundred yards or more, slabs of rock rose sheer from the chop: sweeping murals of orange lichen; pure vertical pitches stained black with water; bent and folded and broken panels patterned by weather and age. Waves bit at the cliffs and deflected off to intersect other waves at strange angles, the crossings and collisions building into a chaotic mishmash that lifted me, threw me down, knocked me side to side. Again, here was the vulnerability, the feeling of being a small body in a body so much larger—call it Champlain, call it the world. And again: here was that awesomeness, though this time it was genuinely scary too. When the lake sucked back from the cliffs it exposed a dirty, milky-white girdle of zebra mussels, a skirt of whetted (and wetted) knives threatening to filet me straight through the neoprene.

Of course, this was only a swimmer’s reality, a swimmer’s intensity. Battling northward for an hour or two, as the copper sun sank behind the bulk of Split Rock Mountain and the coast streamed slowly by in variations of fractured stone and knobby pine, I passed—or maybe I should say I was passed by—an array of boats and people unaware of the thrills, fears and exhaustions particular to my mode of travel. A father and son in scuba outfits told me they’d seen schools of sheeps­head just 30 feet down, the father stretching his arms wide to indicate the fishes’ massive size. A sailboat—I couldn’t make out its name, either Elegance or Endurance—swung my way and a man who looked like he’d been snipped from a Ralph Lauren ad raised a beer aloft, toasting me. “What kind of motor you got on that thing?” some old lady asked from her bobbing party barge, referring to the boogie board. I raised a flipper: “Leg motor.” Her jaw dropped and I kicked away.

Best of all, though, was the bizarre young guy wearing the pith helmet, red gloves and rock-star sunglasses (wo­men’s sunglasses, I think). I’d nearly reached the lighthouse at the tip of Split Rock Point; soon I’d have to choose between braving the evening broad lake and steering back to land in search of a campsite. The wind was still going, but less so. I was counting sailboats. Mr. Pith Helmet made 48.

He was sitting in the stern of a canoe, down in the hull rather than up on a seat. It was an odd canoe, perhaps homemade, at the very least modified to some specific purpose all his own. It had a mast, but no boom, and a single sail made of green tarp that only sort of caught the wind. He was heading south and was clearly out for the night, maybe even on his way to the locks at Whitehall, then the Champlain Canal, Hudson River, then New York City. There was an air of adventure about him. He was committed.

I looked at the guy. He looked at me. Neither of us said a word or nodded or acknowledged the other’s presence other than by looking. He stared and I stared and that was enough. It might have been my own soggy brain getting the best of me again, but for a moment it really did feel like we were of a single mind. I am a lakeman, a questing youth, a weirdo with no aim but to absorb the beauty of the day, the passing height of summer, this water, this wind, these shadows reaching out from the steeps of the Split Rock coast. We thought this together, or so it seemed, and then—splash, splash—I kicked myself away, my neon salmon-colored flag flying proud overhead. There was much lake ahead of me still to swim.

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