Low Lake Levels + Crib Dock Reflections

Crib Dock more and more exposed in front of Rosslyn boathouse. (September 12, 2016)
Crib Dock more and more exposed in front of Rosslyn boathouse. (September 12, 2016)

Whether you call it climate change, “nature’s sense of humor”, or something else, Lake Champlain’s water level is raising eyebrows. Back in 2011 we experienced the highest lake levels in recorded history. Five years later lake levels are flirting with the lowest record.

The highest recorded level at the gage in Burlington was 103.27 feet above mean sea level on May 6, 2011.The minimum lake level observed in Burlington was 92.61 feet above mean sea level on December 4, 1908. (Source: USGS Lake Gage at ECHO)

As of today (September 14, 2016) Lake Champlain is 94.07 feet above see level. Lake Champlain has dropped just over four feet since this spring’s not-so-high high, and an annual drop of about five feet (from spring to late autumn) is normal.

In other words, we’re unlikely to break the all time record for Lake Champlain’s lowest recorded water level, but it’s not impossible. And yet, record-busting aside, this is by far the lowest lake levels we’ve witnessed since purchasing Rosslyn, and by far our best chance to study the old crib dock extending out into the lake from Rosslyn’s boathouse.

Crib Dock Brainstorms

When we first imagined ourselves living at Rosslyn, we mostly daydreamed about the waterfront. And while the boathouse was the most enticing component of the waterfront, the former docks/piers interested us as well. We’re avid boaters, and we hoped that one or the other of the old crib docks would be recoverable so that we could enjoy convenient access to our boats.

Although neither of us can quite believe it, a decade has already snuck past since we first took ownership of Rosslyn. Ten years of gradual renovation, revitalization, rehabilitation,… And yet, many of the projects on our original punch list continue to be deferred.

For a variety of reasons restoring one of Rosslyn’s historic docks has eluded us so far. But this summer’s incredibly low water level has resuscitated our hopes that one day we’ll be able to transition from the aluminum docks we’ve been using to a refurbished crib dock pier. In recent weeks my imagination has been running wild, scheming up simple, practical solutions to the challenge of repairing a failing/failed crib dock.

I’ll post again with more detailed photographs of the crib dock in front of boathouse since it’s the most recently extant of the historic piers, and I will also find older photographs of the dock to better show what it used to look like. Until then I’d like to share some intriguing excerpts from a story produced by Brian Mann for NCPR back in December 1, 2014, How a North Country family harnessed an Adirondack river. Mann took an insightful look at a dam on the St. Regis River that was rebuilt by Wadhams resident and hydropower guru, Matt Foley, along with his brother-in-law, and nephew.

While the St. Regis crib dam is an altogether different beast than the crib dock in front of our boathouse, both are simple but sound timber and stone structures that post similar reconstruction challenges. I’ll share my current idea anon, but first I offer you several relevant riffs from Mann’s story.

Historic, Hyperlocal Crib Dam Rebuild

With the temporary coffer dam (on the left) diverting the St. Regis River, a local crew laid in a crib of tamarack logs stuffed and weighted with rock and boulders. (Source: NCPR)
With the temporary coffer dam (on the left) diverting the St. Regis River, a local crew laid in a crib of tamarack logs stuffed and weighted with rock and boulders. (Source: NCPR)

This summer [2014], a family that owns hydro-dams in Essex and Franklin counties rebuilt the historic log dam [in St. Regis Falls] using local labor and materials. Using 19th century techniques, the Smiths and the Foleys preserved a dam that generates power and creates an important impoundment on the St. Regis River…

“We went to old books [Emmett Smith said]. We went to books from the turn of the century about how you build wooden timber crib dams.”

The last couple of years it was clear this structure needed to be replaced entirely after decades of floods and ice, partial repairs just weren’t cutting it any more. The family tried to find financing for a concrete dam, but that would have cost three or four times as much and the money just wasn’t there. So they went back to tradition, using native wood and stone…

Building the dam this way meant they could use local materials. But they could also use local guys. Crews from the North Country built the big stone coffer dam to divert the river while the log dam was rebuilt. They milled the big tamarack logs and hauled the rock…

Emmett says building this way was necessity. “Us doing it together and building this log structure in a traditional way is pastoral, but we didn’t do it this way for the poetry of it. It was a question of cost. This is the only way we could do it. This was the cheapest way we could do it. It had to happen now and the price of power is so low that this was the only way it was going to get done.”


There was a time when they did consider letting this dam go. There were so many hurdles, so many risks, and so little certainty of reward. But Matt Foley says rebuilding was important for the family and for the community of St. Regis Falls.

“This dam has a pond that’s six miles long with twelve dozen houses on it and big wetlands,” he says. “So in addition to our generating plant, the town people here have a vested interest in having a dam here.” (Source: How a North Country family harnessed an Adirondack river | NCPR News)


I’ve promised to share my current thinking (as well as some past/present photos) soon, but for now I’d like to close by highlighting a few points that resonated with me.

  • a traditional (i.e. “old school”) repair/rebuild would be preferable to a new dock;
  • even a quasi-traditional hybrid would preferable to replacing historic crib dock with a modern alternative;
  • local lumber, stone, and labor would be more historic, more aesthetically pleasing, more affordable, more positively impactful to the community, etc.;
  • pastoral and practical are not mutually exclusive; and
  • we’ve almost been convinced to give up hope of rehabilitating Rosslyn’s crib dock because there are “so many hurdles, so many risks, and so little certainty of reward”, but we’re not ready to abandon the dream.

I’m still brainstorming, and each time I settle on a possible solution, I’m beset with further challenges. If clever ideas are swimming in your heard, chime in! I’d love to learn from you.

About virtualDavis

A writer, storyteller and unabashed flâneur, George Davis (aka virtualDavis or G.G. Davis, Jr.) is the author of Rosslyn Redux: Reawakening a home, a dream and ourselves, a transmedia chronicle about rehabilitating an historic property in the Adirondacks with his bride. He blogs about storytelling, poetry, doodling, marginalia, flânerie, publishing, and other creativity-inspired esoterica at virtualDavis.com; posts sometimes exhilarating, often unnerving, occasionally euphoric, and always pollyanna "midlife mashups" at 40x41.com; chronicles his sailing adventures (and misadventures) at Sailing Errant; and delves into matters of parenting, babylandia, and childfreedom at Why No Kids? George formerly taught and coached at Santa Fe Preparatory School and The American School of Paris, and he co-founded and launched Maison Margaux: "Paris à la parisienne" in Faubourg Saint-Germain. He currently owns and operates Adobe Oasis in Santa Fe, New Mexico with his bride. George meanders on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, YouTube and Flickr.
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