A Paddler's View of "Water Quality"
I reluctantly walked down the boat ramp to water’s edge and tiptoed into the thick green water, hoping that my toes would not turn permanently green or become contaminated with some evil substance toxic to the touch. The deeper the water got, the further I stretched my feet upward, hoping I could get into my kayak without getting the rest of my feet wet. What I really wanted to do was leap into the kayak without touching the water at all.
But it is almost impossible to get in a kayak without at least getting your feet wet, and if you’re not careful you can easily make a total submersion bath out of it. We were launching from the boat access at the east end of the Missisquoi Bridge. As we paddled southwest toward the east Alburg shore, we passed big blobs of what can only be described as moldy, large curd cottage cheese. From our water level perspective, sitting in our protective cocoons separated from the green curdish water by less than half an inch of plastic, the water quality of Lake Champlain looked terrible that hot July day in 2004.
A paddler’s view of water quality tends to be somewhat simplistic and different than a biologist’s view, or even our own more reasoned view if we are thinking about the water we drink, or are concerned about maintaining a healthy balance of organisms that have traditionally made Lake Champlain and its shores their home. When we are paddling, clear water is good, murky water is questionable, Eurasian Milfoil and water-chestnut-filled water is a real nuisance, and algae-filled water such as we experienced near the Missisquoi Bridge two years ago is terrible.
From a simplistic perspective, it is easy but risky to generalize about different sections of the lake. It would be easy to say that the shallow ends of Lake Champlain, south of Crown Point and north of the Missisquoi Bridge are usually filled with thick underwater growth, water chestnut in the south part of the lake, and Eurasian milfoil at both ends. The channels are clear for the most part, but the water along the shore and in little bays is filled with this paddle grabbing growth that makes paddling difficult. Additionally, the water itself is often murky brown or in the case of Missisquoi Bay, murky green. But little is constant on Lake Champlain. The Missisquoi Bay water was repulsive in July of 2004, but by early September of that year when we returned to paddle around the wildlife refuge, the water was almost clear. It certainly was devoid of green stuff. The truth is that water conditions change depending on the weather and the season and other factors not totally understood.
Again risking over simplification, in general we have found the water in the section of the lake called the “broad lake” to be clear except after heavy rain storms (or spring run off) when there are huge swaths of murky brown water flowing out of the river mouths into the lake and heading north or south, depending on which way the wind is blowing. On a calm clear day however, you can almost feel the depth of the water in this part of the lake. Perhaps that is because you can peer into its depths so easily. On the west shore of Willsboro Bay you can see the steep rock cliffs pierce the water surface and continue deep down into a black abyss. Along the east shore of Valcour Island and the west shore of Allen Point in South Hero the calcite drizzled black rocks are as clearly visible underwater as above, only a slight distortion caused by the movement of the water suggesting that the rocks are submerged. Some days the reflection of the sky on the still water mixes with the clear view of rocks beneath the surface to create a bizarre collage of images where rocks appear to be in the sky and clouds below the waters surface. Whatever the illusion, it takes a blink or two of the eye to reestablish one’s equilibrium.
Yet while clear water brings pleasure to our paddling eyes, we know that what is harmful is not always visible. Giardia, a serious intestinal illness caused by contaminated water is present in the crystal clear running streams of the Green and Adirondack Mountains. The coliform content of the waters at Burlington, South Burlington and Colchester beaches can rise to dangerous levels without a discernibly visible change in the water clarity. Ironically, much of Lake Champlain’s water is clearer now than it was 10 years ago because of zebra mussels, an invasive species which feeds on plankton in the water. The resultant decrease in plankton makes the water clearer and at the same time decreases the food available for some native fish species. So clear water is not always good. Nor is murky water bad.
The richest wildlife areas we have experienced on the lake are shallow bays with lots of underwater growth and water made murky by nutrients and microorganisms. When we paddled the very inner part of Keeler Bay, north of the sharp curve on Route 2 just past the center of town, the bottoms of our kayaks were thumped by large bowfin while above the water we say a black crowned night heron, innumerable ducks, and many great blue heron fishing the rich waters. Bulwagga Bay, just west of the Crown Point Bridge and immediately south of Port Henry, presents a similar environment.
I suppose one’s definition of a desirable water quality for Lake Champlain depends on who you are: bowfin, heron or human, paddler, fishermen or farmer ------ and where on the Lake and why you interactive with that water.