Lake Champlain's heritage is front and center in 'Meet the Scientist'
For 18 seasons, Made Here has brought local and regional documentaries to Vermont Public’s main television channel — you can also now stream them on our website. This season, we’re providing more context on each film by bringing you interviews with the directors or subjects.
This week’s film is actually a series of shorts called Meet the Scientist. Each one introduces a local researcher who studies the past, present, and future of lakes in our region. So, meet a scientist is exactly what we did… actually, he’s an aquatic archaeologist.
Vermont Public's Jenn Jarecki spoke to Chris Sabick, interim co-director and director of archeology and research at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, about his role in one of the shorts. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Jenn began by asking how many shipwrecks are at the bottom of Lake Champlain.
Chris Sabick: There's between 250 and 300 shipwrecks in Lake Champlain that we know of at this point. Some boats sink every year, frankly.
Jenn Jarecki: Well, let's head back then. It's Oct. 13, 1776, we're at Arnold's Bay in Lake Champlain. Can you set the rest of the scene for us?
At this time, the area would have been known as Ferris' Bay, and it was named after the local homesteading family that lived and farmed on the shores of the small bay, which is located right at the southern end of Button Bay, which more people might be more familiar with. And it was to this location that Benedict Arnold fled with the five remaining vessels of the American fleet that had just fought two days earlier on Oct. 11, at the Battle of Valcour Bay, just south of Plattsburgh. After escaping — having a daring escape through the British lines in the middle of the night on Oct.11, into the 12th — the two fleets chased each other up Lake Champlain. Finally, the British caught up with the American fleet on the morning of Oct. 13, and it was very clear that Arnold was going to lose all of his vessels if he didn't do something dramatic. And so he chose to drive them into Ferris' Bay, run the vessels up on the shore, and light them on fire, to deny them being captured by the British and used in their fleet. And afterward, he and his troops — along with the Ferris family who are still in their homestead — fled south down to Crown Point, and ultimately to Fort Ticonderoga to avoid being captured themselves.
I'm curious, Chris, what unique challenges come up when you're diving for artifacts that were set on fire before being buried underwater?
The logistics of working in a place like Arnold's Bay are comparatively easy, you know, in comparison to many of the shipwrecks that we work on that are in much deeper water. So, let's take that into consideration. First, Arnold's Bay is quite shallow and it's really close to the museum, which is also pretty handy from a logistics point of view. Now, what we find as far as artifacts and the vessel remains themselves, there's certainly evidence of charring on many of the vessel timbers that we encounter, and some of the artifacts that we found, demonstrate the fact that the vessels were burned — in that we find melted hunks of lead, and things of that nature that definitely show that those artifacts had been exposed to a tremendous heat before they were deposited on the bottom of the lake. Now, the other complicating factor is, as you mentioned, all of these artifacts and the vessel remains themselves are buried under several feet of you know, silt at the bottom of Lake Champlain. So, the difficulty is in finding them in the first place, and then excavating them in a careful, controlled manner that's going to allow their recovery for future study and comparison with other archaeological collections.
So, given your distinction among the researchers that are featured in Meet the Scientist, Chris, what was it like to be approached for this short film and then to work alongside a film crew?
It was really great, you know, the film crew that that did the recording for this were really professional and spectacular and willing to be flexible with our challenge in the schedule. You know, when you work on the water, you have to be adaptable to ever-changing weather conditions, and this year has been a great example of the variability of weather in the Champlain Valley. So they were as unobtrusive as a camera crew could be, and also very flexible to work with. So, it was quite an enjoyable experience to have them follow us around for a couple of days.
You know, I can't help but ask an archaeologist. What's the most impressive thing you've discovered diving in Lake Champlain?
Well, I'm gonna go right back to the work we've been doing in Arnold's Bay. This is a military action, you know, this brief encounter that took place in Arnold's Bay in 1776, is something that we've had a number of historical accounts from both from the American point of view and from the British point of view, and they're often contradictory. Or at least in the details, they they differ quite a bit in doing archaeology on a site like Arnold's Bay really helps you to both clarify, contradict, or verify the historic documentation that we have about this event. And so, finding tangible clues on the bottom of the bay, you know, really gives you a third perspective on many of these events. And I think that's probably the most important thing that we've discovered. We've certainly found a lot of really interesting artifacts, and the vessel remains themselves are, to me, extremely fascinating. I'm not sure that they would be to the average Joe, but it's really the fact that we're clarifying the historical accounts that we have, and actually, you know, determining which one — or helping to verify which one — is actually the most accurate, so that we have the fullest picture of the history that happened at this area at this time.
One more question for you, Chris. And this one looks a bit more forward than back. In Meet the Scientist, you mentioned that, like so many kids, you wanted to be a paleontologist when you were younger. So, what might you say to the next generation of researchers about studying lake history instead of dinosaurs?
I would encourage young, energetic history and paleontology-minded folks to be open to the possibilities of exploring history in different avenues than maybe they're interested in at the moment. I think that also, you have to be realistic about what you're going to study as you move forward and look at what the actual job possibilities are for these fairly niche professions that you might look towards either in nautical archaeology or in paleontology, for that matter, you have to be realistic about being able to have a job at the end of the day and at the end of your academic career, so that you can continue to do the work you love, but also, you know, make a living for your family.
'Meet the Scientist' premieres on Vermont Public's main TV channel at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 12.