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Kayaking 120 miles along Vermont's largest watershed

A man rows a kayak down a lake.
Jordan Rowell/Courtesy
Vermonter Jordan Rowell kayaked 120 miles along Lake Champlain, exploring its beauty and challenges.

A new documentary follows a Vermonter and his 120-mile journey paddling along Lake Champlain for recreation and research. Jordan Rowell spends his time in and out of his kayak getting to know the state's largest watershed and the challenges it faces.

The film is called No Other Lake and it examines the water’s history, ecology, culture and current environmental struggles. But it's not just a documentary, it's also an adventure.

Vermont Public’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with kayaker Jordan Rowell, who produced and directed No Other Lake. He also spoke with filmmaker, cinematographer and editor Duane Peterson. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jordan Rowell: So I grew up in Essex Junction, Vermont. But despite being that close, I didn't really know much about the lake. And so it wasn't until later in life that when I came back to school at [the University of Vermont], that I really started to learn more about it. The first class I took at UVM, was all about Vermont, all about the ecology. And Lake Champlain really took center stage in that class.

Jordan Rowell kayaks along Lake Champlain.
Jordan Rowell/Courtesy
Jordan Rowell kayaks along Lake Champlain.

And when you talk about Lake Champlain, you learn quickly some of the environmental issues that it faces. And as I was sitting there in this classroom, having these people teach me about their perspective, I thought, "Wouldn't this be cool to create a film like this, where you hear different people's perspectives about the lake and kind of combine them into one experience?"

Mitch Wertlieb: It's a big undertaking, though. Did you realize it was going to take a lot of time, and that you're gonna want to just really do the whole lake and encompass as much as you possibly could?

Jordan Rowell: Yeah, so Lake Champlain is about 120 miles long. And when you try to paddle it, it turns into a little bit longer, because you're following the different bays, and going in and out along the shoreline. And it's a trip that is of a scale that I hadn't really undertaken before. Lake Champlain, as a lot of people know, can be really pristine and calm and great paddling. But it can also turn into a pretty dangerous place, if you don't know what you're doing–when the winds kick up.

I find that that duality, that the kind of balance that's featured in this film is such a central part of it, Duane, how close do you feel that tipping point of balance is between the lake that we see with all its natural beauty and the threats that are facing it that we don't necessarily see on the surface?

Duane Peterson: The lake is a really diverse place, both in terms of the challenges that it faces —you have a lot of invasive species that many of which are unique to the southern portion of the lake — and then the cyanobacteria blooms that are more prevalent in the north. But it's also very diverse in terms of what it offers — other beautiful parts of it from the 200-foot cliffs near Split Rock in New York, to the broad lake where you can see the horizon almost as if you're in the ocean, to the southern lake looks a lot more like a river. You know, very quickly, we realized that we really didn't know the lake very well, but neither in terms of the challenges that it faced or the beautiful potential that it had as a place to recreate.

Jordan Rowell kayaks along Lake Champlain.
Jordan Rowell/Courtesy
Jordan Rowell kayaks along Lake Champlain.

We have heard so much in recent years about cyanobacteria, blue-green algae blooms,  and the effect that it's having on lakes around the state. And of course, the big lake. Several beaches, state parks around the region have been closed periodically due to these blooms, and portions of Lake Champlain are known for high levels of cyanobacteria, especially St. Albans Bay and Missisquoi Bay.

Jordan, I'm wondering how much of what you saw spanning the lake was affected by these blue-green algae blooms? Was it about what you expected? Was it worse?

Jordan Rowell: Yes. So cyanobacteria is probably the biggest issue facing Lake Champlain that everyday people interact with. So I was very aware of that. We were both really aware of that issue going into this trip. But we didn't really know how we would encounter it. And that's one of the most interesting parts, I think, of this journey. I spent nearly two weeks paddling on the lake, and in the beginning, largely, the lake was beautiful. And the water was clean and clear. And I found myself asking, like, "Is there really a big problem here? I mean, I don't see it. The lake looks awesome. What's all the fuss about?"

And, of course, as we got further on the trip I was sort of proven wrong. Because our final day on the lake, in Missisquoi Bay, we encountered what some of the locals told us was the largest cyanobacteria bloom that they'd ever seen. And it spanned from one shore in Quebec, all the way to the shores in Vermont. And we were sort of faced with this decision to carry on and finish the trip and sort of document this experience in a visceral way, or to kind of turn our backs to it. And to us, that sort of meant turning our backs to the lake.

"You know, very quickly, we realized that we really didn't know the lake very well, but neither in terms of the challenges that it faced or the beautiful potential that it had as a place to recreate."
Duane Peterson

Well, Duane Peterson, is it fair to say that this documentary is meant to inspire action? Because we have heard so much about work being done to clean up Vermont's waters. The state allocates more than $20 million each year toward lake cleanup efforts. But what we are hearing more and more is that it may still not be enough or more needs to be done. How do you think Vermonters can take action to protect our waters? And did you set out to make this film hoping that they would take action?

Duane Peterson: We have kind of three goals for this film. One, we hope that it encourages people to listen to their neighbors, to listen to the people that share this space. And because like Jordan said, it is going to require all of us coming together and collaborating to address the challenges that it faces.

And then we also hope that people are inspired to get out there. I mean, this is a really beautiful place and a place that we hope that people are inspired to engage with, because I don't think that you can really begin to protect a place until you have a good healthy relationship with it.

And then finally, we hope that you know, these things combined inspire people to action to engage in some of the stewardship efforts that are ongoing throughout this space. And there's a lot that individuals can do. We showcase some of those things towards the end of the film, but it is going to take all of us and so we hope that this film inspires people to take a hard look at what their relationship is with this basin and how they can be a part of making it a better place to live.

You can catch a screening of the documentary Friday at Essex Cinemas, as part of the Explore Essex Festival.

Have questions, comments, or concerns? Send us a message or tweet your thoughts to @mwertlieb.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Karen is Vermont Public's Director of Radio Programming, serving Vermonters by overseeing the sound of Vermont Public's radio broadcast service. Karen has a long history with public radio, beginning in the early 2000's with the launch of the weekly classical music program, Sunday Bach. Karen's undergraduate degree is in Broadcast Journalism, and she has worked for public radio in Vermont and St. Louis, MO, in areas of production, programming, traffic, operations and news. She has produced many projects for broadcast over the years, including the Vermont Public Choral Hour, with host Linda Radtke, and interviews with local newsmakers with Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb. In 2021 Karen worked with co-producer Betty Smith on a national collaboration with StoryCorps One Small Step, connecting Vermonters one conversation at a time.
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