High water hangs on: Winter melt and spring rains leave shore underwater

Photo by Stephen Mease
Two Canada geese enjoy the watery landscape at Shelburne Farms. Stephen Mease took this photo of the shoreline below the Shelburne Inn where a big “pond” forms almost every spring when the lake level gets high.


Weeks into spring, winter snowmelt and recent rains have Lake Champlain still hovering at flood stage and anyone venturing along the shoreline might find some of their favorite spots still submerged.

Shelburne Farms including the inn open this weekend and folks there are keeping an eye on the lake as they prepare for guests. So far, the seawall hasn’t been breached and the water level in the elm swamp is quite high with many birds enjoying the expanded lake, said Robin Turneau in the farm’s head office.

“If you’re looking to find stones on the beach, that’s not happening right now,” she said.

The high water is not impeding any of the farm roads nearest the lake, she said. Trillium are blooming in the forest and the grass is “greening up by the minute,” Turneau said.

Many who work along the lakeshore are hoping the worst of the winter melt and spring rains are over as they look ahead to summertime activities on the water that is slowly receding. Gaze east on a clear day, however, and see that the spine of the Green Mountains is still wearing a white blanket. Snow at the stake atop Mount Mansfield measured 124 inches this winter. This week it still had 63 inches left, according to the National Weather Service in Burlington.

Flood stage for Lake Champlain is 100 feet. On Monday, the water topped out at 100.65 feet. It dropped to 100.5 feet by Tuesday afternoon, according to the weather service.   

“It’s a few inches below what we need to worry about,” said Karen Chickering, office manager at Shelburne Shipyard where recreational boaters have been launching since the last week of April. “So far, so good.”

The record high for Lake Champlain in Burlington was 103.27 feet measured on May 6, 2011. This year, the high-water day was April 29 at 100.99 feet, based on weather service statistics.

“101 – that’s right up there,” said Todd Smith, general manager at Point Bay Marina in Charlotte. “The spring weather has delayed some people from getting their prep work done.”

Still, Smith said docks are in and he estimated about 60 boats were moored already.

“We’re up and running,” he said.

Heather Stewart is operations manager for Lake Champlain Transportation, which runs the ferries that cross to New York State from Charlotte and Grand Isle year-round; the Burlington ferry begins operations June 13.

“We haven’t had any break in service,” Stewart said, noting that the dock in Charlotte was refurbished several years ago making it higher to accommodate a spring swell like this year’s. “It’s higher up than in the old days,” she said.

Those venturing out onto the lake will find conditions include many floating obstacles warned Charles Northcott, officer in charge at the U.S. Coast Guard station on the Burlington waterfront on Tuesday. Rivers have contributed many tree branches and logs into the lake and high water has lifted beach driftwood into the water as well.

“There’s a lot of debris in the lake – at or just below the surface,” Northcott said.

Colliding with floating hazards can damage an outboard motor and leave boaters stranded. Jetties such as the breakwater in Burlington harbor are also still submerged making it important for boaters to consult their charts, he added.

And while sunshine might hint at summertime on land, Northcott said it’s deceiving when you get on the water.

“We need to remind people this time of year to dress for the water temperature not the air temperature.”

The lake temperature is in the low 40s, Northcutt said. “It takes a while for this lake to warm up.”

He said he spotted people wearing shorts in kayaks and on paddleboards in the water in Burlington last weekend.

“That’s fine until you fall off your paddleboard,” he said, noting that hypothermia can set in quickly.

And one final reminder from the Coast Guard: “Always wear your life jackets,” Northcutt said.

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