Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Along the Muddy but Fair Otter Creek

If it weren’t for Otter Creek, you wouldn’t be reading this.

In fact, Middlebury wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for Otter Creek.

Those of us who live here might well have found our way to another beautiful part of Vermont. But likely not Addison County, given how so much of the region’s human history and habitation are tied to the misnamed river – it’s not a creek -- that runs through it.

The First People, or Native Americans, called it Wanakake-Took (Otter Creek) or Pecouktook (Crooked River).

Fortunately for chambers of commerce to come, the original European invaders didn’t translate that as the less-poetic Crooked Creek.

Crooked it was. But it was also, in the absence of roads, for many years the only way into the interior from Lake Champlain. And for settlers coming up from Connecticut, it was the only way to the lake.

Where the Otter ends its 70-some-mile northward journey, draining more than 1,000 square miles and flowing into Lake Champlain, the British and American naval forces fought a crucial battle in 1814 that focused on Fort Cassin at the rivermouth.

It was a much quieter aftermath the followed the wars that had crossed Otter land until then. The violence faded as American dominance supplanted the natives, the English and the French.

Today, casual visitors and many longtime residents alike think of the creek primarily because of its picturesque waterfalls in Middlebury and Vergennes.

For most of the 19th century, the two towns and their water-driven mills vied for local pre-eminence.

Vergennes had water access to Lake Champlain, making it a key trading town supplemented by mills. Four of the first five steamboats to ply the lake were built in Vergennes, according to James E. Petersen’s 1990 book, Otter Creek: The Indian Road, from which I have drawn most of the historical notes here.

When the mountainous fields and grazing lands were played out in the 1830s and later, many a young Addison County man left his home territory on a packet boat out of Vergennes, headed five days west on the canals to Buffalo and even farther west from there, seeking a new life unbounded by green mountains.

Those young men left behind them a county whose signature waterway remained the one that had carried them away. The Otter proved to be enough, along with the farms and timberland around it, to sustain a good-enough life here.

Not so good that the place got overrun, though,

“Its waters are muddy. Its bottom is muddier and in places it is no more than 10 feet deep,” Petersen writes. “It’s sluggish and ready to spring its banks at the slightest provocation. And this is what has saved it from civilization.”

The irony is that for nearly all of the last century, civilization itself turned away from the Otter.

Because of the growth of the railroads, the decline of the mills and the growing availability of coal and oil, the Otter was no longer needed for travel or power.

In Vergennes, the center of town moved up the hill along what is now Route 22A. In Middlebury, Joseph Battell built a downtown block that seems, even today, to almost deliberately turn its back to the river, shunning the watercourse as if it weren’t worth a second thought.

This neglect continued through most of the 20th century. The mill buildings of Vergennes and Middlebury, once the very reason these places existed, fell into ruin.

Except for hydropower facilities – four of them in four miles below Middlebury’s downtown falls – the river had essentially lost all its once-vigorous utility.

It wasn’t until 1989, with the construction of the pedestrian bridge over Otter Creek connecting downtown with the Marbleworks, that the shire town began to reclaim its riverfront.

That reclamation continues. The park area of the Marbleworks hosts the twice-weekly farmers market that overlooks the creek, its view now enhanced by recent brushclearing.

Plans call for further development of that area to take better advantage of the view – which on a good day might include a fly fisherman casting for browns below the falls, or even a kayaker plunging over the falls themselves.

Most noticeably today, the creek is finally being bridged by a second span in downtown Middlebury. The booming of bridge construction resounds through town. It must make for some pretty interesting lunchtime conversations at the nearby Mr. Ups.

But I’d say that the real pleasures of Otter Creek, beyond its every-mesmerizing waterfalls, are quiet ones.

I’ve come to see this thanks to my recent move to the upstairs of a converted shop building in Middlebury right on the banks of Otter Creek.

To the north I can see the restored span of Pulp Mill Bridge, completed by the Waltham Turnpike Company in 1820 and restored in 1980. Beyond the covered bridge, the falls simmer in the breeze from the north.

Beavers and otters, Canada geese and Mallards ply the banks. Occasionally from across the way in the wonderful new Otter View Park, a wary deer will come down to the bank to drink.

In 1881, Henry Ripley Doerr read his poem at a celebration commemorating what was billed as a centennial celebration of Otter Creek. Most of the 28 stanzas have been lost, but this description remains:

O, valley of the Otter, fair
As eyes have ever seen
With clustered hamlets, mighty peaks
And hills of emerald green

In that valley, from the deck where I’m writing this overlooking the fair Otter, I can see upstream to the new viewing deck on the riverbank. Beyond there lies the top of the spire of Mead Chapel, at Middlebury College.

I first came to that campus in 1969. Looking upstream from my new home, I can measure how far I’ve come during the past four decades.

I calculate it in river terms, as the First People did: about a half-mile downstream along the Wanakake-took.

- 30 -

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

In This Rain, Even Herons Are Rusty

I’m not saying it’s been raining a lot this summer.

But five Addison County farmers just announced they’re selling their cows and going into rice farming.

I’m not saying it’s been raining a lot this summer, but local realtors have announced they’re now selling newly created waterfront property on the shores of Lake Champlain.

In Lincoln.

I’m not saying it’s been raining a lot this summer, but Kevin Costner just announced he’s chosen Vermont as the shooting location for Waterworld II.

I’m not saying it’s been raining a lot this summer, but:

* FEMA is preparing to evacuate Addison County residents to the ice hockey arena at Middelbury College.

* Climate activists have switched their focus from global warming to global wetting.

* As confirmed by countless sitings along the Lemon Fair, cows can in fact swim.

* I’ve been getting sympathy cards from my friends in Seattle.

* They’ve renamed the White River and are now calling it the Brown River.

* J.K. Rowling has announced that she’s writing another Harry Potter book. This one will feature a Vermont-based form of Quidditch. It’s underwater and requires not broomsticks, but submarines.

* I saw a blue heron yesterday that had rust on it.

* The Mt. Abe high school athletic department has announced it will be creating a surfing team.

* * *

It almost goes without saying that, for those of us who worry about global warming, this soggy summer is a sign of the apocalypse.

The computer models, after all, have long predicted that sudden, drenching cloudbursts would be one mark of climate change in New England. The kind of downpours we had last Sunday when it rained an inch an hour and the kind we had last summer, which turned Ripton roads into 10-foot-deep ditches.

As my friend Barbara, a college professor and Midwestern transplant, pointed out to me, you know things are changing when Vermont is being pelted with rain and it’s dry and 105 degrees in Seattle.

But maybe things aren’t changing as much as some of us relative latecomers might think.

As my other friend Barbara, who has lived here for 80 years, told me, “There’s nothing the weather in Vermont can throw at us that we haven’t already seen here before.”

* * *

So what’s a Vermonter to do in the face of all this rain?

Even as wet as things have been, it’s still worth getting out in the Vermont summer.
One bonus to all this rain, for example, is that the tubing is still terrific on the White River.

Several friends and I recently went tubing down the White and found it to be flowing quite nicely. We twirled our way down several miles of the river, stopping for a swim and a swing on ropes suspended from a riverside birch tree.

Last weekend, we trekked into far northern Vermont to camp at the state park along Maidstone Lake. It’s one of those places that make you glad your tax dollars are being put to a good use, to preserve a remote shoreline for lean-tos and tent sites.

The rain held off as we pitched our tents, and at dusk and again the next morning, we swam in the silky Maidstone waters.

As we made our way Sunday morning across the top of the state and past the blustery shores of Lake Willoughby, we dropped down into Glover.

There, of course, we had to make the requisite stop at the general store, to see the stuffed moose that occupies a place of honor inside the store.

“Second largest moose ever shot in Vermont,” a plaque informed us. Around the moose was a moldy menagerie of stuffed bears, foxes, raccoons, and minks. The kind of thing you’d see only in the Northeast Kingdom.

The real point of the trek, though, was to see Bread and Puppet.

Some four decades after its founding, this hearty theatrical troupe offers free performances at its Glover headquarters every Sunday. They’ve scaled way back from the annual circus that brought out 20,000 people, seemingly half of them stoned-out Phish heads.

But the pageantry goes on, combining broad humor with populist political messages that are again frightennly relevant, as the banks are bailed out and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rage on.

Bread and Puppet’s performances take place in a spacious outdoor amphitheater, weather permitting.

But it was little surprise last Sunday that the weather did not permit. The show was moved to a large indoor barn.

The band played “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey.” We booed the banker puppets and cheered when The Mountain puppet triumphed over the money men.
Outside, it poured.

And I’m not saying it’s been raining a lot lately, but instead of driving home from Bread and Puppet, we had to swim.

And when the electricity went out this week, instead of emailing this column in to the paper, I had to get in the kayak, paddle upriver, and deliver it by hand

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