Champlain: The Other Great Lake
Every time I paddle Lake Champlain, it’s a new experience. This morning it is just after sunrise when I put in. Shelburne Bay is quiet, and the sky suggests a bluebird paddle from here to the Kingsland Bay campsite. As I glide around the peninsula that protects the harbor from the lake’s open waters, the golden morning light is warm on the layered shadows of the Adirondacks. Mist is rising off the lake–it is late September and the hobblebush has hints of yellow. In just a few weeks, the lakeshore will be ablaze with the fiery colors that make Vermont famous.
It might be the sheer size of “the other great lake” that makes every paddle unique. One hundred and twenty miles long as the crow flies, Lake Champlain forms the aquatic border between Vermont and New York before it continues into Canada and empties first into the Richelieu River and ultimately into the St. Lawrence River.
Lucky for me it’s a spectacularly calm day. The prevailing winds blow from the south, so if there were wind, I’d be paddling into it. Still, I stick close to shore. Changeable weather makes every trip on Lake Champlain unique. The lake can be a chameleon, and I’ve sometimes had to race back to shore as the water changed from looking-glass calm to black and churning.
In midsummer, when the weather is most predictable, I love to cross the lake through open water. In places, 12 miles and 6.8 trillion gallons of water separate Vermont from New York. At the center of the lake, both shorelines are just out of sight, and I am sandwiched between the Green Mountains to the east and the Adirondacks to the west. Here, it is easy to imagine myself as Samuel de Champlain, the first European visitor to the lake, beholding these waters for the first time.
The lake is calm as I pull around another point and paddle past Shelburne Farms. Here, rocky beaches intermingle with bouldery shores. The Shelburne Farms Mansion, once part of a 3,800-acre model agricultural farm, is now an exclusive inn and nonprofit educational center. In the summer, stately rose gardens cascade from the inn’s grounds toward the lake, and on select afternoons, paddlers can hear the melodious bowing and fluting of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra performing Mozart on the inn’s lawn.
When the glaciers retreated after the last Ice Age, they left Lake Champlain with 587 miles of diverse shoreline. High granite cliffs that are home to nesting peregrines, rich agricultural fields that earned the Champlain Valley its nickname the “land of milk and honey,” mature forests, and marshy moose habitat can all be found along the lake’s shores. It is not clear if the retreating glaciers also left the lake with its own version of the Loch Ness Monster, Champ. There have been hundreds of sightings of Lake Champlain’s slithering water beast. I hope that if I run into him, he’ll be friendly and pose for a photo.
Getting There: Most out-of-state paddlers use Burlington, Vermont, as their starting point. Several airlines fly into nearby Burlington International Airport. From the Northeast, driving or taking a bus is equally convenient. Vermont Pack and Paddle offers pickups and drop-offs.
Logistics: The water can be chilly and the weather unpredictable. Memorial Day through September is the typical paddling season. For weather, log on to www.vpr.net and click on VPR’s Eye on the Sky Forecast.
Lodging: The Radisson Hotel and Willard Street Inn are within walking distance of the lake. If you prefer to start your paddling adventure in the Champlain Islands, the North Hero House runs B&B-based paddle tours. Find more accommodations on the Burlington Chamber of Commerce Web site: http://www.vermont.org. For camping, try North Beach Campground ( www.bpr.ci.burlington.vt.us/).
While You’re There: Ride a bike around the lake’s perimeter, hike the Green Mountains or the Adirondacks, or pick apples at one of Vermont’s many orchards.
Outfitters/Resources: Vermont Pack and Paddle in Waitsfield runs regular tours, rents boats and gear, and provides logistical support. Call (888) 916-7225 (PACK). Other Outfitters: Adirondack Lakes & Trails, (800) 491-0414; Umiak Outfitters, (802) 253-2317; Ski Rack, (802) 658-3313; True North Kayak Tours, (802) 860-1910. Call (802) 658-1414 to receive the Lake Champlain Paddlers’ Trail Guidebook and Stewardship Manual. In addition to the guidebook, you’ll also want either the Lake Champlain Atlas of Navigational Charts or the individual NOAA charts.
The shoreline slips past me, and the sun works its way toward New York. I cross the wake of the Charlotte-Essex ferry, which gives paddlers, pedestrians, and motorists an alternate route across the lake. I reach Kingsland Bay late in the afternoon and quickly find the Lake Champlain Paddlers’ Trail (LCPT) campsite.
Calling the LCPT a trail is a bit of a misnomer. More accurately, it is a collection of 250 campsites in 28 locations, some on the mainland, some on the more than 70 lake islands, some private and some public, and all accessible to paddlers.
The Lake Champlain Committee (LCC) created the LCPT in 1996 as a permanent wilderness corridor for human-powered craft. In the 1960s, the LCC was an advocacy group working to keep commercial shipping off the lake, which had historically been used as the main trade route between the St. Lawrence and Hudson Rivers. That battle won, now the LCC works to deal with polluting runoff and to raise awareness about Lake Champlain water quality.
And, of course, LCC continues to grow and improve the LCPT each year. New campsites are added annually, as the LCC works toward its goal of a campsite every 8 to 10 miles along the lake’s shores. Heavily used sights are upgraded as funding allows, with additions like composting toilets.
The Kingsland Bay site is perched above the lake in a shady grove of tall pine and cedar. Across the bay is the day-use-only state park of the same name. I pull my boat onto a rocky ledge and string my Hennessey Hammock between two towering trees. A heron glides low over the bay and stands on one leg near the shore. Pleasantly pooped, with dinner on the way, I breathe in the crisp air, watch the sun sink into the mountains, and wonder what new adventure another day on Lake Champlain will bring.
Berne Broudy is an outdoors writer and photographer in Richmond, Vermont.