Swim the Length of Champlain

If you really want to know Vermont, try swimming the length of Lake Champlain and camping along the way.

By Leath Tonino

I’m by no means a phenomenal swimmer. Sure, I can keep myself afloat by breaststroking and sidestroking and backstroking and half-assing the crawl (read: flailing), but when it comes to basslike grace, to loonlike buoyancy—forget about it. Not an unselfconscious denizen of the wet, that’s what I’m saying. Not effortlessly at home in the water.

Nevertheless, since earliest tykehood I have been tossing myself into the drink—that primordial home, that ultimate source of biological creation— and remaining there until my toes become white prunes, my brain a sodden sponge. The reason, I suppose, is a desire for elemental intimacy, a passion for the strange, exciting, unpredictable adventure of fluid togetherness.

Intimacy with a chlorinated pool in Vergennes? Togetherness with a muckbottomed pond in Bolton? No and no. For me, inspiration has from the start been associated with a specific place: Lake Champlain. Some folks climb mountains to touch nature’s primal energy, its unadulterated power, while others rappel into caves, leap from airplanes, bicycle off booters, etc. Dip a toe into Champlain, though, and you’ve made instantaneous contact with 6.8 trillion sloshing silvery gallons. In my opinion, these gallons are Vermont’s wildest wilderness.

Exploration of the wilderness began with bright summer mornings, me and my sister rigging together random toys (inner tubes, inflatable plastic chairs) and shoving off on grand voyages of discovery. Inevitably, what we discovered was that our poor knots loosened, our lashings unlashed, and instead of riding a scrappy raft along the cedar-draped cliffs of the Charlotte shore, we were forced to swim beside tangled wreckage, nudging it forward, aiming for the safe haven of a stony beach or concrete dock.

Such formative journeys— unsupervised, gleeful, certainly way less epic in actuality than in memory— signaled to us the potential of fullon immersion. Connect the prongs of Thompson’s Point: can do! Link Thompson’s Point to Garden Island: indeed! With our mother close by in a kayak, we pushed farther and farther, learning (by the seat of our suits) to be wary of sneaky waves, to regulate our breathing, to relax, to keep going.

caption: “A perfectly calm dawn, I track steadily, making good progress, unbroken planes of glassy smoothness extending from fingertips.” Sunrise at Split Rock. Photo by Lisa Lynn

Kids grow bigger, of course, and goals do the same. By high school, my sights were set on the Split Rock Lighthouse in Essex, New York: one mile as the snappy winged merganser flies, probably two miles by my crooked, inefficient stroke. Rather than assign the safety boat to Mom, I enlisted a pair of friends, both of whom were (pun alert) highly interested in smoking copious amounts of marijuana midlake, then chauffeuring me back in their dented metal ashtray of a canoe. We left Charlotte under clear skies, tagged the Empire State under gloomy charcoal clouds, and almost got struck by 33 lightning bolts on the return—a terrifying, exhausting success.

Chastened by the near misses of that electrical storm, I eased off long crossings and spent subsequent summers hugging the coast, practicing the art of the solo swim, dragging behind me a foam noodle (tied to my waist by a piece of clothesline) should emergency strike. There weren’t any emergencies, thank the Lord, just rhythmic splashing, a profound sense of liberation, and a burgeoning plan: Hmm, if I can crank five miles in a single evening, I could maybe do Champlain’s entire 120-mile length in a week or two, eh?

I could and I did. South to north. Over the course of 10 days in August. Wearing a sleeveless wetsuit. Kicking behind a yellow boogie board to which was attached a neon pink flag and a green drybag bulging with minimalist camping gear: hammock, thermal undies, stove, couscous, headlamp, iodine, knife. A very long swim, that swim, and a very long story—too long to recount in ink (better a bonfire, beers, no hurry).

Okay, but here’s the odd thing, the weird surprise I will quickly mention: that project, for all its arduous zany commitment, for all its hours and hours and hours of forward “march,” for all its weather and ache and beauty, failed to bring about the elemental intimacy, the fluid togetherness, that was, and remains, my fundamental desire. The boogie and the gear had me feeling encumbered, somewhat divorced from my surroundings. I was in the lake as opposed to with the lake. At night, naked, I occasionally slipped into the starry water, searching for a kind of immanence.

Unlike growing kids, adults often tend to shrink, their dreams contracting, the world’s juicy wonder draining away, leaving behind a parched, withered terrain. I’m trying to avoid that fate, trying hard, and part of my trying involves a new fantasy—or perhaps it’s an old fantasy, the original fantasy that’s been tossing me into the drink and keeping me there since tykehood (only tweaked, revised, re-visioned).

In this fantasy, I see myself between Thompson’s Point and Split Rock, totally alone: no sister, no Mom, no stoned friends, no foam noodle, no boogie. No safety net. No protection whatsoever. A perfectly calm dawn, I track steadily, making good progress, unbroken planes of glassy smoothness extending from fingertips. Lake Champlain’s 6.8 trillion gallons hold me up and, simultaneously, threaten to pull me down.

The fear, the danger, the inner voice insisting risk is dumb and adventure is mere recklessness disguised as legitimate behavior—oh, you know how it is. And so I may not do it, may not accept this invitation, may not take this particular plunge. But at least the fantasy exists, the image of pure exposure, pristine trust: my body of water balanced against another body of water, Vermont’s wildest wilderness, suspended.

Ferrisburgh native Leath Tonino is the author of two essay collections, most recently The West Will Swallow You (Trinity University Press, 2019).

Read more about swimming VT in our article: A Week Swimming Vermont’s Wildest Lakes

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