Headwaters to Lake, Part I

by Matthew Witten, LCMM

HTL student examines burr reed at CGC Sept 2016 LCMM’s Headwaters to Lake program started with a big splash in late September. Eight eager students from Champlain Valley Union High School (CVU) in Hinesburg showed up, ready to get their feet wet, at Common Ground Center in Starksboro, our base camp for studying upper Lewis Creek and some of its associated wetlands.

Headwaters to Lake is a brand-new freshwater science training funded through conservation license plate donations, awarded by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. The program gives students exposure to professional-level water quality assessment methods from higher elevations in the watershed down to the bottom, where Lewis Creek meets Lake Champlain. Participating students undertake an independent study through their CVU Environmental Studies class and will be eligible to receive academic credit for learning and conducting various stream, wetland, and lake studies.

We started by driving up a winding dirt road into the hills of Starksboro. Parking on land owned by a Lewis Creek Association board member, we hiked down a steep bank into a ravine where the narrow tributary is almost entirely shaded by a dense forest of hemlock and mixed hardwoods. LCMM Ecology Programs Director Elizabeth Lee and School Liaison Matt Witten co-taught methods to assess the health of the stream: first, a set of observations about forest cover, streambank stability and the riparian corridor; then, chemical tests including measurements of nitrogen, phosphorus, pH and dissolved oxygen; and, finally, to get an indication of the biological integrity of the stream, collecting macroinvertebrates that were rubbed off rocks and captured in a “kick-net.” The little insect nymphs were plucked and sucked out of the net with tweezers and pipets. The abundance and diversity of taxa was rather low, probably due to siltation caused by a recent violent flash flood. Nevertheless, the students were fascinated with the mayflies as well as a couple of very small newts they caught.

In the afternoon after lunch, we did the same observations and tests back at Common Ground Center. The center is located below some agricultural activity and a greater density of houses, roads, and cleared land. The differences in the water were obvious: a greater abundance of invertebrates, plus the lucky catch of a “slimy sculpin,” a fish that, despite its name, has beautiful feathery pectoral fins and is an indicator of relatively clean water. Temperature was slightly higher, and dissolved oxygen levels were slightly lower. Elizabeth deployed a drift net for about 10 minutes. This rectangular, fine-mesh net passively accepts whatever is floating down the stream. When she dumped out the contents, it was amazing how much filamentous algae was waterborne. The algae, along with the many falling late September leaves are organic “inputs” to the stream that help feed the invertebrates that fish feed on. The inputs can also carry nutrients to the lake, which can contribute to eutrophication.

Chemical, physical, and biological assessment methods now well entrenched in students’ minds, we all took some free time, and dinner all together. In the evening, Matt gave an overview of the federal and Vermont Clean Water Acts so that students gained further insight into how society attempts to protect the eater bodies that the students had just dabbled in. This was followed by “Dam Nation,” an award-winning movie about the ecological and political implications of building and then, in some cases, removing large dams on rivers in the western U.S.

After sleeping in the cabins at Common Ground, some with sleeping bags not quite up to the task of a chilly night, the students were more or less ready to do wetland work on day 2 of their water quality intensive training. The day began with a plant study in a wetland on the property. After learning how various plants have evolved to surviving in water, a guest came on the scene: Matt Montgomery, an environmental compliance consultant and wetland delineator by trade. Matt pulled out his box of tricks that he uses to determine where boundaries of wetlands are: shovel, flagging tape, auger, and soil references, among other things.

It took no time for Matt to have the willing students digging 2 pits: one in an obviously wet, mucky area, and one in a drier upland hayfield nearby. Looking carefully at the “horizons” – or layers – of soil in the pits, Matt explained how the color, texture, and smell of a soil could indicate whether the sample occurs in what is scientifically determined to be a wetland or upland. The students seemed very engaged in Matt’s real-world perspective, and asked him a number of questions about his work.

Finally, the students did a sampling of the macroinvertebrates in the wetland, which proved to be much different from the stream, most notably turning up a leech. Also present were a dragonfly nymph as well as a dragonfly adult caught in an insect net. Diversity of dragonflies in a wetland can be a mark of ecosystem health.

We are confident that the exposure to maps, concepts of water conservation, water quality assessment protocols, and investigating the natural history of plants and animals occurring in wet places made for a rich experience for students. We’ll see soon what study projects result from their training and their passion for clean water!

This project was funded in part by a Vermont Watershed Grant.


Lake Champlain Maritime Museum hosts youth rowing races at Basin Harbor Campus, Saturday October 8

Please Note: Due to wind conditions, the race has been moved to LCMM’s Basin Harbor Campus at 4472 Basin Harbor Rd, Vergennes VT, 05491. The Race will begin at 9 am. 

Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s Champlain Longboats Program will hold its annual youth rowing race, The James Wakefield Rescue Row on Saturday, October 8. The race is named in honor of James Wakefield, who courageously rescued the passengers and crew of canal schooner General Butler on December 9, 1876 when the vessel crashed into the Burlington breakwater during a fierce winter gale.

Over 150 youth in 20 crews will participate in the race, rowing 32- and 25-foot boats in a series of heats along the Burlington Waterfront. Local crews hail from Burlington High School, South Burlington High School, Vergennes Middle and High School, Champlain Valley Union High School, Rice Memorial High School and Mt. Abraham Union Middle and High School, while visiting crews travel from as far as the coast of Maine. Races begin at 9:00.

The colorful boats used in this event were built by Vermont High School and Middle School students at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s boat shop. The sixteen boats in the Museum’s fleet are used by over 600 students each year, including 175 students at nine area schools in After-School rowing programs that meet two or three times a week through mid-November. Setup to build the next Champlain Longboat at LCMM begins in November, ready for a new crew of boat building students to arrive in January.

This past July, the General Butler story came alive for a very special reunion aboard LCMM’s 1862 canal schooner Lois McClure, a replica inspired by the historic shipwreck. About 40 descendants of James Wakefield toured the schooner and 16 of them went rowing in Champlain Longboats all the way around the breakwater.  The weather was perfect and the waters smooth as they experienced rowing a boat in Burlington harbor at the spot where their ancestors so bravely saved five lives. While the Wakefield family was touring the schooner another family was also aboard –  descendants of Captain William Montgomery!  The two families discovered the connection and exchanged contact information.

To see the Champlain Longboats in action, visit Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s web-site www.lcmm.org, Facebook page, and YouTube channel.

For Information Contact: Nick Patch

Phone: 802-475-2022 x113

Email: nickp@lcmm.org

  • If you wish to photograph the race from a boat contact Nick Patch at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.
  • To download images of the James Wakefield Rescue Row, visit LCMM’s web pressroom; see images 6, 8 and 10 (double click thumbnail image to access high-res file):


Background: The General Butler Story

In December 1876, canal schooner General Butler left Isle LaMotte with a load of marble destined for the marble works on South Champlain St. in Burlington. During the trip a major storm kicked up on Lake Champlain.  As the Captain, William Montgomery, attempted to make his way into Burlington Harbor, the steering gear broke. Montgomery dropped anchor and made a quick repair by chaining a tiller bar to the broken gear.  He then chopped his anchor line and made a last ditch attempt to steer around the breakwater into the slightly calmer waters of the harbor, but the ship crashed into the breakwater. With 60 tons of marble on board, the Captain knew his boat was doomed.  He ordered his deckhand to jump to the breakwater, then his daughter, her best friend, and his passenger, an injured quarry worker. Finally the captain himself made the leap onto the rocks as the schooner slipped back into the waves and sank.  While the crew was off the boat, they were by no means safe.  Clinging to ice covered rocks and slammed by freezing waves their chances of survival were fading fast. Thankfully James Wakefield, a local sailmaker and ship chandler, and his son Jack grabbed a 14 foot rowboat and rowed out through the winter gale and rescued all five souls from the ice covered breakwater.


Canal schooners, unique hybrid wooden boats, were constructed to sail on the open lake and then lower their masts and rigging to transit the Champlain canal to ports on the Hudson River. In the decades after the Civil War, they vanished from Lake Champlain and were largely forgotten. The discovery of an unusual shipwreck in Burlington Bay in 1980 brought the story of the General Butler to light, inspiring LCMM’s construction of replica 1862 canal schooner Lois McClure and the commemorative event hosted by Champlain Longboats each fall. General Butler is now one of Lake Champlain’s Underwater Historic Preserves, open for visits by SCUBA divers. Non-divers can view the site by Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) on LCMM’s popular Shipwreck! Tours.