Champlain’s Dream

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2009 will mark the 400th anniversary of French explorer  Samuel de Champlain’s travels to the beautiful lake he named for himself.   The state of Vermont has a whole host of events planned  to commerate the anniversary  next summer.

Growing up, I spent summers in Vermont, and we often  visited and swam in Lake Champlain. I tried to imagine how Champlain felt when he first saw it: a huge wilderness full of unknowns–danger and beauty.

Little did I know that I would find out less than  20 years later, when I lived in Alaska and had plenty of opportunities to canoe in areas a day’s journey from the nearest fishing camp or village. I felt  a tremendous sense of  freedom and awe, but also a little fear.

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Champlain’s Dream  by David Hackett Fischer was released this week. This 834-page book  covers Champlain’s life and travels in detail, including the speculation that he was the natural son of King Henry IV of France.

Mr. Fischer depicts Champlain as a wise gleaner of facts who listened to everyone: Basque and Breton fishermen and whalers, Algonquin and Iroquois tribespeople, African slaves–anyone who could impart information. He was a meticulous cartographer as well as a visionary who imagined “a new world where people of different cultures could live together in amity and concord.”

He was also an imaginative nomenclator, and many of his names, French and Algonquin, still grace the lands he traveled. They include Lake Rossignol and Port Mouton, both in Nova Scotia–the later named for a luckless sheep that fell overboard his ship.

But it was at beautiful Lake Champlain, the explorer made a crucial mistake. He got into a skirmish with a band of Iroquis, the mighty confederacy of fierce warriors whose lands held control of  the trade routes running through the northeast.

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Champlain won the battle (he illustrated  this self-portrait) but lost the war: he made an enemy of the Iroquis. They halted his expansion southwards, and harried his settlements in New France (Quebec) for the next 150 years.

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