Dive into Lake Champlain’s history.
- Northern Archives
- May 21, 2018
- by Teresa Acierno
Bubbles escape from his scuba mask as Chris DeAngelo, owner of Lake City Scuba, expels a deep breath as he floats along the bottom of Lake Champlain. DeAngelo observes schools of northern pike, clusters of zebra mussels and a Revolutionary War shipwreck stuck in the mud. For avid scuba divers such as DeAngelo, the lakebed is a personal playground. The Plattsburgh City firefighter describes scuba diving in Lake Champlain as “different.” It’s not the popular sport of the tropics, of course, but no less fascinating even so.
Lake City Scuba opened as a division of Lake City Fire Equipment in 2017. The store had long offered tank refills but gradually expanded to add random scuba equipment like regulators, fins and masks. Initially, DeAngelo chose not to compete with another scuba supply store in town. But when that store closed and local demand rose, DeAngelo decided to break Lake City Scuba out as a side business in the same shop. Fire equipment greets visitors as they walk through the door, but turn left and a doorway opens into a room full of underwater gear.
Lake Champlain runs in a jagged, watery span stretching 120 miles north from WhiteHall, New York, to the Richelieu River in Quebec. The lake has played a key role in American history since its discovery by white settlers more than 400 years ago. In that time, the lakebed has become home to everything from cannonballs, eighteenth-century muskets and anchors to sunken horse-powered ferries full of personal effects from another era. But the most popular dive spots are always historic war wrecks. Among the 300 known shipwrecks that litter the bottom of the lake, many date from famous battles. In some places, Revolutionary War artifacts rest near the skeletons of downed ships from the Battle of Plattsburgh, which raged during the War of 1812.
One of the most famous wrecks is Benedict Arnold’s gunboat, Spitfire. Spitfire sank in 1776 after the Battle of Valcour Island. The 54-foot ship was found in 1997 sitting perfectly upright in near immaculate condition. The wreck sits at a depth inaccessible to recreational scuba divers.
“I was a diver, but I wasn’t doing much of it,” DeAngelo says. Instead he decided to expand his shop and help other divers. “So, it just made for a really easy transition to the business.”
Lake City Scuba sells, rents and services scuba equipment such as masks, snorkeling accessories, tanks, weights and boots. The company doesn’t offer charters that let customers reserve a boat specifically for diving; instead, they coordinate “shop dives,” that allows groups to meet at the store and travel to the lake together.
A diver’s must-have equipment to view the shipwrecks of Lake Champlain includes a buoyancy compensator ー a backpack-like device that helps the diver stay afloat ー a mask, fins, weights, an oxygen tank and a regulator, a device a diver puts in his or her mouth to allow them to breathe.
DeAngelo says Lake Champlain’s chilly freshwater preserves shipwrecks better than corrosive saltwater but requires divers to wear extra thermal protection. Many divers choose to wear “dry suits,” which preserve body heat by preventing water from making contact with skin.
Lake City Scuba had its “unofficial” opening last year, but DeAngelo has plans for an official grand opening this summer.
The shop offers Scuba Diving International (SDI) introductory certification courses, similar to the better-known Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI.)
“We take new people, introduce them to the sport and get them certified as a diver,” DeAngelo says. They also offer advanced courses and rescue training for upper level divers.
The divers at Lake City Scuba are mostly from the Plattsburgh area, but DeAngelo encourages beginners from throughout the region to take their courses and try diving in Lake Champlain.
“Some people freak out at first,” DeAngelo says. “They think ‘I can’t do this,’ but then they get in the water, and you just see the fear melt off their face.”
The diving season begins in mid-June and stretches into the fall. DeAngelo says his favorite time to dive is in the early fall because he has more time for the sport he loves once his children go back to school.
Large bodies of water retain heat longer than the surrounding air, so on a warm, fall day, the lake can reach temperatures in the upper 60s.
DeAngelo, a certified diver, loves to explore the history of Lake Champlain.
“The history is what diving in Lake Champlain is all about, the Revolutionary War history is just really neat.” DeAngelo says.
The depth at which the shipwrecks lie vary. Recreational divers can go down as far as 70 feet, whereas divers with advanced certifications can go to 100 feet below the surface.
DeAngelo said that on sunny days, the lake’s visibility can be up to 20 feet, allowing divers a clear view of the shipwrecks they visit. Unlike saltwater diving, the conditions on the bottom of the lake are mostly dependent on wind direction rather than tides.
One of the most popular dive spots is The Phoenix, a passenger ferry that sank in 1819. During a voyage from Burlington to Plattsburgh, a fire broke out in the pantry, killing six people and sinking the ship. Today, half of The Phoenix is in Vermont waters and half in New York.
Champlain II is another notable dive location Lake City visits. Champlain II is one of the most popular dive locations for Lake City Scuba and other divers in Lake Champlain due to its size. The 244-foot steamship sank in 1875 after running aground. All the passengers managed to escape safely, but the ship couldn’t be saved. Today, the remains of the Champlain II span roughly the length of a football field, including the partly in-tact engine.
Lake City Scuba also visits General Butler, a schooner that sank in 1876; OJ Walker, a ship that was lost in a storm in 1895 and the Horse Ferry, a ship that was powered by the momentum of horses on a treadmill that sank in the mid-1800s.
While underwater, divers often discover new artifacts hiding in the mud. Cannon balls and parts of ships are just a few examples of what’s been uncovered in the lake, many around Valcour Island where the Battle of Plattsburgh raged. Divers can’t remove anything from the lake due to state property laws, but they often share their new discoveries with other divers.
Scuba diving in Lake Champlain is one of the lesser-known outdoor activities Clinton County has to offer. Diving not only introduces a new sport to the area but reveals an underwater world teaming with relics of the past.
“The weightlessness, doing something you’re not supposed to be able to do —breathing underwater— it’s just great,” DeAngelo says.
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