The seventh in an eight-part series in which the author travels the length of Vermont, his home state, via various modes of locomotion.
Searching the crawl space beneath a friend’s New Jersey beach house, I find two foam boogie boards. One is powder blue with the name Wave Princess printed on it in a curly font. The other is yellow, a bit thicker, labeled Mach 7-7. I’m drawn to Wave Princess—she seems a more appealing traveling companion for what’s sure to be a long and intimate journey—but I have some doubts about her buoyancy. I try to imagine her as a floating island, a slab of portable terra foama bobbing in the vastness of our nation’s sixth-largest lake. I try to imagine towing her with parachute cord, or kicking behind her, or clinging desperately beneath a purple sky ripped with lightning. The images won’t come, and instead I see only bubbles—the bubbles that rise to the surface when a young adventurer sinks like a living, breathing stone into the black abyss.
The goal is simple and admittedly weird: swim the 120-mile length of Lake Champlain. Has anybody ever tried this? Has the thought crossed anybody else’s mind? It’s been crossing mine for years, ever since I heard about a book called Waterlog, in which the author, Roger Deakin, links seas, rivers, lakes, canals, and pools into a swimming tour of the British Isles. Deakin was after a fresh perspective, what he called a “frog’s eye view.” He was looking to re-wild his familiar home. This made sense to me, and still does.
Back in Vermont, people tell me I’m crazy, that I’ll surely get run over by a drunk boater or bopped on the head by a water skier, and that, best-case scenario, I’ll end up a freaky, prune-y mess. When not waxing dermatologic, they emphasize the energetic demands the expedition will put on my already-skinny body. They ask me how I’ll handle all this. I don’t know what to say; some questions can’t be answered, only explored. I want to engage my inner frog, that’s all.
I secure a sausage sponsorship from a local purveyor of salted meats in casing, thinking: Should the expedition fail, at least this one accomplishment will float me to glory! A friend recently organized a mountain-bike race sponsored by Clif Bar, so I swing by his house, and he loads me up with seventy sample-size leftovers. I remove the little brown protein-turds from their wrappers and transfer them to a single Ziploc bag. Another Ziploc gets couscous, powdered milk, red pepper flakes, and oregano. Three meals a day, three items on the menu.
I stuff the food into a rubber dry bag, then stuff another with sleeping bag, hammock-tent, light change of clothes, jackknife, lighter, and a pocket-size New Testament given to me years ago by a kindly, white-haired evangelist lady during a hitching trip in Colorado. Space is at a premium in the dry bags, and the New T. is the smallest book I own. Anyway, a little salvation might not be the worst thing to have on board.
By early August, the lake is up to seventy-four degrees, a delightful temperature, though I do worry that ten hours immersed, day after day, will take me for all the sausage calories I’m worth. I spend a couple days rounding up gear: a wetsuit, neoprene socks, a sun hat, flippers, a snorkel and mask. A concerned mother—in this case not my own—donates a neon-pink flag on a thin, fiberglass pole. The flag recalls a polyester T-shirt of the exact same shade that’s buried like a dirty secret in my dresser drawer. Good luck running me over now, you drunk-ass boaters! In my new outfit, I feel more than practical; I feel aqua-chic.
I’m planning to leave on Monday, but before then I need to test my ride. I break the news to Wave Princess as gently as I can: You’re just too dainty. I promise, baby, I’ll think of you every day. Mach 7-7 is a brute, and that’s reassuring. I stab the flagpole into his “bow” and lash my dry bags down with some old clothesline, then head to Whiskey Bay at Thompson’s Point in Charlotte.
It’s sunset time. A hefty woman is thrashing in the shallows, wrestling herself onto an inflatable pool toy while simultaneously extolling its virtues. “They’re the best,” she tells me. “They’re from a company in Florida. They’re not like other floats. Anybody can get on them.” The float resembles a limp, plastic quilt. “You should really consider using one of these on your journey,” she says, still thrashing. I tell her I’m confident my boogie will do the trick.
It does. In no time, I’m tracking steadily toward the middle of the lake. Cormorants pass at eye level. The reflections of blush clouds break and reform around me. A gull lands nearby, its ripples spreading. I discover that I can beach my upper body on the boogie and propel myself with kicking alone. I can even rest my head on the dry bags as if they were pillows. This kickboard style is relaxing and fast. It leaves a wake. I leave a wake! There is no denying it: I’m a frog-man, a man-boat, some strange new thing this ancient lake has never seen.
“Do you think I should pee in my wetsuit now or wait until I get in the water?” My sister, who’s driven me down to this boat ramp at Benson Landing, at the south end of the lake, pretends to vomit. Her dog, Percy, looks at me as if it doesn’t much matter. I waddle down the ramp in my flippers, my canine nephew following. The water is warm, weedy, brown as milky coffee. And so my trip begins.
My sister walks the mud shore, encouraging me with words I can’t hear over my own slaps and splashes. An immature bald eagle soars overhead, drawing my attention just long enough for some monster, some sturgeon or nightmare snake, to brush against my elbow. Adrenaline sets me flapping like a duck, though of course there’s nowhere to fly. Anyway, I’m not a duck; I’m a man-boat. “It’s fine,” I yell to my sister. “It was only a floating stick.” She laughs, and Percy, who is most certainly not man-boat’s best friend, turns and swims away.
Within an hour the novelty and nerves wash off. The shore is at least a quarter-mile from me, the nearest house even farther. A single monarch butterfly skitters through the massive sky—then gone. I’m without distraction: from myself, from my task, from the great length of lake extending before me. I feel that length, and what it feels like is work. My legs have clocked in. My outfit is no longer amusing, my boogie no longer an oddity. Already, I’m shrinking down, becoming small, regaining a sense of scale proper to a human being. No, not regaining, but reclaiming, proudly choosing this smallness.
A wind builds up. Waves rise around my head. My world is the sound of water.
I thought this would be a social trip—slugging beer with fishermen, eating hamburgers at family picnics, fielding friendly inquiries about what the hell I’m up to. It turns out that the bulk of my social interactions, including those I have with loons and northern leopard frogs, are slow-motion stare-downs unaccompanied by the faintest nod of recognition. A fancy couple in a yacht stares at me through binoculars, passing them back and forth. A woman in a kayak stares with a hand shading her face. I stare back, just as incredulous. I’ve successfully re-wilded myself, and now what once looked normal appears strange. A fast, noisy, expensive cigarette boat is as startling and disconcerting to me as I am to the man—it’s always a man—behind the wheel. Jet skiers ripping donuts at dusk are like aliens from a distant planet. Whether they know it or not, these aliens are invading.
For the most part, though, I don’t see many people. Nothing much happens, at least not in the usual way we think of something “happening.” An Adirondack cloud becomes a Green Mountain cloud over the course of an hour. A tern catches a fish on its first plunge; another tern needs three tries. I let go of the boogie, swim free, dive deep with open eyes; it’s green down there. Kicking again, I think about that greenness. Maybe I think about it for twenty minutes, maybe three days. Often I sing nonsense songs and whimsical shanties. Sometimes, my head on a dry-bag pillow, I forget that I’m singing and startle myself.
There’s generally a moment in the early afternoon when I recognize that 1) I’ve been in the water for five straight hours; 2) I’m absolutely exhausted; 3) the duct tape protecting my blistered, infected toes has come loose; and 4) not only am I still singing, I’m also hearing grand beautiful symphonies in the plashing rhythm of my flippers. Which is to say I’m hallucinating.
I haul out on an island or a mudflat or just down the way from some mansion’s mansion-like version of a dock, and promptly undress. This is not exhibitionism. Without a towel, and fearing that if I don’t regularly dry off I will literally rot, my only resort is to bake in the sun, totally nude, while rolling around on hot, blue stones. If I think I’m getting burned, I spread the map over my whiter regions as a sunshade. When I feel deserving, I eat an entire stick of pepperoni, casing and all, in two minutes flat. The Clif Bars have melted into a gnarly bowling ball of chocolaty sustenance. For dessert, I pry loose a chunk.
Swimming until sundown, the lake’s intense flatness works over me like a rolling pin, gently but forcefully smoothing my mind until there is little mind left to smooth. This is the meditation of water, a state of consciousness outside of time, broken only by the night. I camp on shingle beaches backed with cliffs, my hammock slung from the sculpted, serpentine arms and branches of half-dead cedars. I eat couscous mush, pile pebbles, read scripture until I fall asleep. The mutter of distant thunder awakens me. When the storm is loud and bright and all around, I slip out of my hammock and raise my empty bottle to the water streaming off the corner of the rainfly. It’s a spiritual cliché, but in this instance it’s literally true: I drink from the source.
Around five o’clock on the tenth day, having spent much of the previous forty-eight hours riding the swells and troughs of a burly south wind, that wind finally shifts, swings around, and starts slapping me in the face. I’m approaching the causeway that connects the Alburgh Tongue with Isle La Motte, beyond which, out of sight, the lake’s final bay reaches for the border with Canada. I can feel the wind rushing across the unseen bay, driving its surface water toward a single opening in the causeway. The opening is a tunnel, its mouth the size of a garage door. I kick hard, fight for it, pass through, emerge into sun and silver chop. The Rouses Point Bridge is a couple miles off and, beneath it, sprinting straight toward me, nine billion waves. Close enough, I think.
As I’m dragging myself up onto the causeway’s green-slimed rocks and zebra mussels, stripping off my wetsuit one last time, something happens in my mind—an involuntary twitch—and I’m sent dashing through history, back past the steamboat Ticonderoga, back past Burlington when it was the third-largest port in the world, a mill town for boreal forest timbers en route to Boston. I pick out faces from the crazy blur: Benedict Arnold in a gunboat, Sam Champlain in a canoe. I see a mile-thick ice sheet creeping down from the polar cap, depressing the land with its massive weight.
Pause. Now I’m moving forward in time. The ice recedes and the Atlantic pours in—whales, walruses—via the channel we call St. Lawrence. Caribou and mammoth roam the tundra coast. Hunters take them down. The land rebounds and the sea flows back out. Sky falls into the basin as rain and snow; liking the feeling of earth against its back, it stays on as a lake.
Then it’s over, just like that. The vision is over and so is my voyage. I sit atop my boogie: naked, glutted on sausage, more wrinkly than a ninety-year-old left too long in the bath. I am a man-boat and a shipwreck of a man, humble and happy and properly in place. My flag snaps in the wind, a pinpoint of neon pink in the great sweep of time and space called home. I’m as small as a frog, dazzled by the view of those nine billion waves.
Leath Tonino was born and raised in Vermont. In addition to working as a writer, he’s shoveled snow in Antarctica, tracked hawks in Arizona, and planted blueberries in New Jersey. This series first appeared in the Burlington, Vermont, newspaper Seven Days.