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New England's West Coast: Lake Champlain

FromSea Kayaker Magazine Feb., 2002

By Rick Strimbeck and Nancy Bazilchuk

A warm October southerly charged up the 40-mile fetch from Whitehall, N.Y, squeezed through the narrows, then fanned out onto Lake Champlain’s broad middle reach. Our bows slapped the steel-gray water as we rocked over the crests of the steep waves. We paddled hard with the wind on our port quarter, aiming to cross the lake and make some upwind distance before turning tail for the ride home. The bold gold and red of the fall foliage in the Green and Adirondack Mountain foothills stood in warm contrast to the whitecap-laced cold gray of the lake, and the higher mountain peaks formed distant blue mounds against the sky.

Seen from the troughs, the waves sometimes rose high enough to hide our partners’ boats and backs, leaving only a disembodied head and the flash of a wet paddle blade. From atop a wave, we saw whitecaps extending all the way to the narrow horizon, a taut string stretched between the granite slopes of Split Rock Mountain on the New York side and the low cedar and shale bluffs of the Vermont shore.

Below the dark cedars south of Kingsland Bay, we puzzled momentarily over the sight a line of whitecaps that seemed to detach from the surface and skitter away on its own course, low over the water. Then we realized we were seeing southbound snow geese in tight formation, maybe headed for the shelter of the marshes and fields around Dead Creek in Addison.

Snow geese were flying along Lake Champlain's 120-mile length when it was the meeting ground between two great nations, the Iroquois and Algonquin. The lake’s first paddlers traveled in dugouts. Later the people of the lake paddled birch bark canoes, the same craft that carried Samuel de Champlain into the lake in 1609. Since then the lake has had a long history as both battleground and commercial waterway. Its lumber ports were once among the busiest in the United States, supplying wood to a growing America. Much of that history is preserved in the lakeshore towns where old stone customs houses or trade halls still guard the waterfront.

These days, the lake is the province of recreational boaters. Kayakers come to the lake to explore its 70-plus islands, surf the steep wind-driven waves in its broad reaches, watch for wildlife in the acres of river mouth wetlands, and gaze up at ruined and restored forts that still stand sentry on both Vermont and New York shores.

"A pretty good lake"

A proposal in 1998 to formally dub Lake Champlain ‘the Sixth Great Lake’, tied to much-needed federal research funding, was met with howls of derisive laughter by some residents of the original and much bigger five Great Lakes. They argued that, by comparison, Champlain is not great, just pretty good. In spite of its lack of greatness, Lake Champlain does have much in common with the big five. Like the Great Lakes, the Champlain basin was scooped out by Pleistocene glaciers that quarried away a broad expanse of relatively soft rock between the tougher rocks of the Adirondack and Green Mountain foothills. Near Split Rock Mountain the lake reaches a maximum depth of more than 400 feet, putting the bottom of the lake well below sea level, while its surface level fluctuates around an average of 95 feet above sea level.

For about 2,500 years following glacial retreat, seawater covered more than 18,000 square miles around present-day Lake Champlain and eastern Ontario, forming the Champlain Sea. The sea retreated, leaving the evidence of its presence in the sediments that it left behind. In 1849, workers excavating the grade for a railroad line serving the lakeshore town of Charlotte unearthed the bones of a beluga whale in Champlain Sea sediments. The skeleton is now on display at the University of Vermont Geology Museum in Burlington.

In summer, prevailing winds blow either from the south or northwest, and may reach speeds of 20 knots or more. Paddlers planning longer trips along the length of the lake generally travel south to north, as the southerlies are a little more likely and the west shore of the main lake and the larger islands offer some shelter from the northwesterlies. Wherever a stiff wind finds enough fetch, especially in the lake’s 12-mile-wide midriff, it can kick up a mean, whitecapped chop that may rapidly coalesce into short, steep swells, sometimes reaching heights of four feet. Although these waves may seem small by open ocean standards, the steepness of even two-foot waves can make for some exhilarating surfing—and also broach and dump unwary paddlers.

Fortunately, the lake’s complex shoreline and many bays allow paddlers to find reasonably protected water somewhere on the lake, even on the wildest days. A good strategy for skilled paddlers on these windblown days is to run upwind between points of land along a protected shore, then dodge out into the open lake for a thrilling ride home.

Trip planning is easier here than on the ocean because there are no tides or currents to contend with. The lake’s level does change with the seasons, however. Unlike the Great Lakes, where the water levels are maintained by dams or locks, Lake Champlain fluctuates irregularly over a range of eight feet, with high water usually occurring in April or May and low in the autumn.

In the 19th century the lake would freeze from shore to shore by midwinter just about every year, but nowadays the broad lake usually remains open year-round. The Lake Champlain Kayak Club's Frostbite Paddlers group takes full advantage of the open water, and may venture out in their Gore-Tex and rubber pajamas even when the air temperature falls below zero. The water temperature usually reaches 40 deg. F by the end of April, 50 deg. F by the end of May, and 60 deg. F sometime in June, so dry and/or wet suits are essential for early season paddling. By midsummer, the water temperature at the lake's surface can approach 75 deg. F, and on hot days rolling and rescue practice sessions, or at least an after-lunch dip, may be essential.

One piece of bad news is the arrival in 1993 of zebra mussels (See "Marine Invaders" SK December 2001), which are spreading rapidly throughout the lake. Their sharp-edged shells can slice up an unwary paddler's bare feet. No sharks, though -- the lake's biggest fish is the lake sturgeon, endangered here and threatened throughout much of its range. They formerly reached lengths of 6 feet or more in Lake Champlain, but were fished to near extinction and have never really made a comeback.

Lake Champlain's 587 miles of shoreline are dotted with small towns and the larger cities of Burlington, VT and Plattsburgh, N.Y., but in between are miles of undeveloped shoreline. Where the major rivers flow out of the mountains and meet the lake, they dump sediment to form deltas and beaches. The deltas support rich marsh and swamp environments that are vital ecosystems for creatures of water, land and air. Map turtles and northern pike, moose and beaver, bittern and osprey all frequent these lakeside wetlands. In between the deltas there are wave-battered bluffs of shale, dolomite, quartzite, and granite capped with cedar, oak, and pine. These bluffs offer nesting sites for peregrine falcons, ravens and cliff swallows. Nestled among the rocky headlands, gravel and cobble pocket beaches invite paddlers to take a break and admire the variety of wildflowers that can survive the grinding winter waves and ice.

The lake’s proximity to major towns and small villages affords paddlers the option to explore the lake by day, and spend the night in comfort in a lakeshore inn. For paddlers who prefer to rough it, the Lake Champlain Paddlers’ Trail, established five years ago, gives paddlers a choice of roughly two dozen primitive campsites from end to end, most on public land. Here, running south to north, is a sampling of some of our favorite tours and destinations.

Poultney River to Benson Landing

Lake Champlain begins where the Poultney River flows southward out of the Taconic Mountains and hooks westward, opening up into the lake’s south bay. Substantial chunks of wet and wild real estate along the river and the southernmost stretch of the lake are in preserves owned by the Vermont, Adirondack, and New York chapters of the Nature Conservancy. There’s good reason for the Conservancy’s interest in the land: The Poultney is home to some of the most diverse riverine, wetland and upland habitat in the region. The Vermont Conservancy’s preserve rises from the old Gaelick Farmstead fields by the river up to the summit of Bald Mountain, a loaf of limestone that fills the final bend of the Poultney River. The mountain’s steep slopes, cliffs, and talus slopes are home to peregrine falcons, rattlesnakes, and dozens of rare plant species, while the muddy river bottom below hides 14 species of endemic freshwater mussels, many of them rare or endangered in the region.

For the next 12 miles north, all the way to Benson Landing, the lake is a narrow drowned river channel, bordered by acres of lush wetlands that provide habitat for American bittern, Virginia rails, snipe, and marsh wren, all more often heard than seen. Five miles south of Benson Landing, a pair of cedar-draped shale bluffs guard the Narrows of Dresden, a treacherous pinch for the lake’s 19th century paddlewheel steamboats.

Whitehall, New York, the northern terminus of the New York State Barge Canal link to the Hudson River, is one logical starting point for a journey on the south lake. But when lake and river levels are up, adventurous paddlers can shorten the car shuttle and lengthen the paddle by starting at the bridge over the Poultney River just south of the village of West Haven, Vermont, increasing the paddling distance to Benson Landing to over 16 miles. This is best done in spring and early summer, as the south lake’s high nutrient levels spur an overabundant growth of aquatic weeds, including invasive species like water chestnut and water milfoil. The weeds make passage difficult in some areas -- particularly when leaving the main channel to find a place to land and stretch. There are no campsites on this section of the lake.

Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence

"Take it by storm!" we yelled, laughing, as a Champlain Kayak Club group paddled up to Mount Independence’s shaley shores. Our landing party had a basis in fact: Mount Independence played an important role in Revolutionary War. Landing at this historic site can be tricky, and the view of the mount from the water makes it evident why it was a key location in the war’s early history. Lake Champlain narrows to only a quarter-mile across here, pinched by Fort Ticonderoga on the west, and the peninsula of Mount Independence to the east. Ticonderoga was already well-established at the beginning of the American Revolution, but while its ramparts were in a commanding position high above the lake, they faced south—the wrong way to repel a British invasion from Canada. Fortunately, the north-facing ramparts on Mount Independence, built by American forces over the peninsula’s rocky cliffs in the summer of 1776, were imposing and effective enough to stall the British for a year, a critical delay of that attack.

On Mount Independence’s hilltop, most of the hastily constructed fortifications are now gone, either burned or plundered. Paddlers will find easy access to the historic site from the one unguarded flank patriots didn’t worry about—the southern shore. There a marina now allows for boat access. It’s a short walk from the marina to the historic site’s new visitor’s center, built in 1996. One of the trails on Mount Independence offers vistas across the lake to Fort Ticonderoga.

The Fort is well worth visiting. The quarter-mile traverse from Mount Independence isn’t long, but it can be slow because this narrow, shallower part of Lake Champlain can be clogged with weeds in midsummer. We like to paddle this part of the lake in mid- to late June, in that narrow window of time when the lake has warmed up enough so we don’t have to paddle in a wet suit and before the weeds take over the waterways. Fort Ticonderoga’s restored stone ramparts and garrison to more to inspire your imagination than the wooded site of its companion across the lake. It’s also tougher to reach, from the paddler’s point of view, mostly because the landing below the fort is mucky.

The fort first came to life in 1755 as Fort Carillon, a French garrison and southern frontier during the French and Indians Wars. The British and Americans traded ownership of the fort several times before and during the American Revolution. These days, visitors get to view the fort’s remains -- storage rooms, barracks, officers quarters, even an old cistern -- as well as people dressed in period costumes, historic gardens and performances on the parade grounds. Several of the buildings house historical documents and artifacts, along with Revolutionary War era art.

Paddlers’ Trail members can use two campsites on private land on this section of the lake.

Split Rock Mountain

Split Rock Mountain is a piece of Adirondack anorthosite (a rock of crystallized magma, like granite) set right up against the mid-lake narrows of Lake Champlain. With solid bedrock holding its own against the lake’s waves for some six miles, this is perhaps the lake’s wildest stretch of coastline. The thin soils over hard granite support mainly dry forests of oak and pine, a real contrast to the cedar-and-shale coast across the way in Vermont. There is precious little shelter for kayakers, particularly along the 3-mile stretch from Snake Den Harbor to Split Rock Point, so trip planning should give due consideration to weather forecasts and paddlers’ skills. Bail-out options involve a 1.5-mile open lake crossing to the Vermont shore or long runs to Westport or Essex, NY.

The Palisades, a dominant feature of Split Rock Mountain, are 75-foot high cliffs that rise straight out of the water. Peregrine falcons nest on the cliff, and in the spring or after a rain, a small waterfall spatters down over the water, inviting paddlers in for a shower or a deck-drumming session. There are primitive campsites at either end of the Palisades, at Barn Rock Harbor and Snake Den Harbor, both of which offer a respite from wind and waves.

In the late 1800s, the anorthosite rock above the west shore of Barn Rock harbor was quarried and loaded on barges at a stone wharf in the harbor for shipment to points south. The mining company built a short tramway to speed transport of blocks of stone to the water’s edge, but the steam-powered brake drum failed on its trial run in 1891, killing four men, and it was abandoned.

The sun-warmed rocks and boulder hideaways along the Split Rock coast are perfect habitat for timber rattlesnakes - witness the name Snake Den Harbor. Above Louis Clearing Bay, just north of Snake Den, an old iron mine lies tucked up against the cliff, its tailings mixed with naturally formed talus. The ore was once barged across the lake to a smelter at Basin Harbor. These days, the harbor features an opulent resort hotel and the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, where visitors can watch wooden boat builders at work and catch a ride on a replica of a Revolutionary War gunboat.

The Boquet River

Near the New York town of Willsboro, the Boquet River dumps its modest load of ground-up Adirondack rock -- sand and gravel -- into Lake Champlain, forming a small delta. Here the lake is about 3.5 miles wide, and on more days than not the wind will work up waves that winnow the river’s sediment, tossing the sand up against the shore and building a fine sweep of beach along the south side of the delta. Small silver maples, patches of poison ivy, and scattered pitch pine occupy the high ground of the beach. The pines, which usually reproduce in in soil opened up by forest fires, suggest that occasional fires are a part of the area’s natural history. Another curious feature of the beach is the presence of red sand grains along with the black magnetite and whitish quartz and feldspar crystals typical of other sand beaches on the lake. These speckles are likely the widely scattered traces of a brickwork that once operated in the area.

Determined paddlers can test their mettle by paddling upstream towards Willsboro. Old bricks and other industrial debris line the riverbanks just below the village, the remains of an old paper mill. Today the last two miles of the river run swift and clear between forested banks that open out into sedge wetlands in the sheltered shallows behind the beach. It’s a good place to spot snowy egrets, which have only recently arrived in the lake.

Noblewood, a Willsboro town park with a swimming beach located just south of the river mouth, is presently open for day use only but the town plans to open campsites in the future.

The Four Brothers

The Four Brothers, a cluster of islands just off to the New York side of a broad area of the lake are a must-visit for birdwatching paddlers. For the last several years, the islands have been home to the northernmost nesting site of the glossy ibis. Eight other species of waterbirds have also established colonies on the island. Paddlers should look for black-crowned night and great blue herons; ring-billed, herring and greater black-backed gulls; cattle and great egrets, and double-crested cormorants. The islands are owned by the Adirondack Nature Conservancy and managed by High Peaks Audubon. Paddlers shouldn’t land on the island to protect the nesting birds, but there’s plenty of action to see, hear, and smell from the water. The estimated 35,000 adult birds that nest on the four islands make quite a lot of guano!

Vermonters can make the 6-mile crossing form Burlington harbor, where there is public access to the water at the Coast Guard Station and various city parks. Depending on prevailing winds, westerners may approach from the Boquet River area to the south or Port Kent to the north. As this is the broadest part of the lake, paddlers making the crossing should be prepared for wind, waves, and changes in weather. The islands lie about five miles south of the Burlington-Port Kent ferry crossing, and kayaks are welcome as carry-on luggage on the ferry, a good option for Vermont paddlers who don’t have the time or energy to make two full lake crossings. Schuyler Island, a few miles south of Port Kent, is open to camping, but watch out for poison ivy!

Winooski River - Burlington Loop

If you paddle the eight-mile-long meander of the Winooski River and another four miles along the lakeshore to the Burlington waterfront, you’ll wind up just two street miles from your starting point. To return to your car at the riverside launch site, you can take the free College Street Shuttle bus to the medical center near the University of Vermont and walk the last half-mile back to the put-in.

The river winds past the last of Burlington’s riverfront residences, then through swamp forests, wetlands, and the farmland of the Burlington intervale. At the delta front the river and the lake surf have formed a 1.5-mile long sand spit that curls north then east around a rich patch of sedge marsh. Although the driftwood-littered beach is a good lunch stop, summer visitors should stay off the loose dry sand above the beach, as it is an important breeding area for painted and snapping turtles.

Lone Rock point, the last headland before entering Burlington Harbor, is a world-renowned exposure of the contact zone along a thrust fault, visible evidence of the plate tectonic forces that built the Green Mountains some 450 million years ago. Lateral movement of miles-wide sheets of rock along the thrust fault has slid older, relatively hard, beige dolostone over younger, soft, dark-gray shale. During spring high water, the lake’s waves scoop out the shale, undercutting the dolostone. Some big blocks of dolostone that have fallen off the cliff form a small rock garden on the southeast side of the point.

There is no camping along the river but North Beach, a Burlington city park just south of Lone Rock point, has a state park-style campground and a beachside fast food concession -- maybe just the thing for distance paddlers.

Burton, Woods, and Knight Islands

A trio of state-owned islands near the northern end of the lake offers a range of camping options for paddlers. With any of these islands as a base, paddlers can look for nesting common terns on tiny Popasquash Island and explore the cedar cliffs and quiet bays of nearby (and much larger) islands of Grand Isle, North Hero, and Isle LaMotte.

Burton Island offers the most comfort of the three, with full Vermont state park facilities: lean-tos, flush toilets, hot showers, a playground, a marina, and even a telephone and snack bar. The comfortable setting makes Burton Island a popular spot for motor boaters and other vacationers who want to experience a little bit of island living. It’s a great place to take kids, but it’s not the best choice for those paddlers seeking quiet and solitude.

You can find solitude on tiny Woods Island, two miles north of Burton Island. Woods Island has five primitive campsites for paddlers and trails through the island’s forests and meadows. Woods Island is everything that Burton Island is not -- no toilets, no picnic tables, no potable water, and consequently, no people. Its varied landscape reflects its past -- a developer bulldozed an airstrip on the island in the 1970s for a resort that never came to be. A mature northern hardwood forest encircles half of the mile-long island.

If Woods Island is primitive and Burton Island is developed, then Knight Island, four miles west of Burton Island and three miles west of Woods Island, is rustic. Knight Island has seven campsites, most with roomy lean-tos and picnic tables, but that’s it. The state is gradually adding composting privies to the campsites, but at some sites the caretaker will welcome you with a shovel so you can dig your own little pit privy. A 2.5-mile hiking trail along the island’s edge connects campsites with wetlands and meadows in the island’s center. Of the three islands, Knight offers the most interesting and accessible habitat diversity -- steep cliffs topped by oak forests, wetlands packed with pickerel, leopard and green frogs, and cobbled black shale beaches edged by giant cottonwoods.

Valcour Island

The Lake Champlain Paddlers’ Trail guidebook describes Valcour Island as "the jewel of the lake." It’s hard to argue with that description. Revolutionary War buffs can imagine the battle that took place here in mid-October, 1776, between America’s fledgling navy and well-armed British battleships. Benedict Arnold -- not yet a traitor -- was defeated, but the battle played a pivotal role in the Revolution by delaying the advance of British troops. The winter-long delay gave rebels a chance to organize and arm themselves. The rest, of course, is history.

Valcour Island’s charms extend beyond the ghosts of battles fought long ago. The 969-acre island is home to a variety of habitats, including one of the largest heron rookeries on the lake, pink and yellow lady’s slippers lurking in forest on the southern end of the island, and an outcropping of Chazy limestone with 450 million-year-old fossils. There’s even the Bluff Point Lighthouse, dating from 1871 and built out of blue limestone and wood. A 7.5-mile long network of hiking trails links most of these features.

Valcour’s only downfall is its popularity. Its crenellated shores offer shelter to many sailboats and powerboats, and since the camping on the island is first come, first serve, the boats with big motors often get there first. The 25 campsites on the island’s perimeter are simple, with pit privies, fire rings and picnic tables.

The Missisquoi Delta

Not far from the Vermont-Quebec border, the Missisquoi River empties into the shallow water of the lake’s northeastern-most bay. Here the river has built a many-fingered delta that supports a patchwork quilt of marsh, swamp, and bog, teeming with wildlife. Most of these lowlands lie in the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge, which has its headquarters on Vt. Route 78 about 3 miles northwest of the town of Swanton. The refuge maintains a boat ramp on the river, two miles past the headquarters.

From the boat ramp, the river’s last four miles run between low levees lined with silver maples that lean out over the water and shade dense stands of shoulder-high ostrich ferns. Quiet paddlers may see eastern spiny softshell turtles, some the size of dinner plates, basking on logs and mud banks. These olive green, tube-snouted turtles are more abundant in the Great Lakes and midwestern rivers, but the Champlain population is the only one in New England and in Quebec.

As it runs north to Missisquoi Bay, the river divides twice to cut off two triangular islands. The middle channel runs west of Shad Island, the site of one of the lake’s main great blue heron rookeries, with more than 300 nests. The birds temporarily abandoned in 2001; biologists think the arrival of bald eagles in the area may have scattered the herons.

Paddlers can float in high water to the edge of the rookery, but should avoid going directly under the nests lest they disturb the birds. At the rookery you’ll hear the croaks and rattles of the herons, and breathe their pungent odors. Stick nests form tufts in the stark silvered boughs of long-dead maples. As the young birds grow tall and prepare to fledge, they stand back-to-back in the messy nests, gazing out over the swamps, like the outlandish creatures in outrageous trees in the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. Adults shuttle in, nuptial plumes streaming, to deliver crops full of frogs, minnows, and fish fry to the youngsters in the nests.

Where the river channels open out into Missisquoi Bay lake, the trees give way to marshes dominated by bur-reeds, wild rice, or, out at the wave-washed delta front, the dark green, tough, wiry stems of the great bulrush. Fragrant water lilies, water shield, and other floating and submerged plants fill in quiet bays that are too deep for the emergents. Black terns, rare on the lake, nest in the river mouth marshes, and you may catch a glimpse of them flying low over the water, head down in search of small fish, or perched on the signs that mark the refuge boundaries. This is also good territory for osprey and northern harriers.

Paddlers reaching the river’s mouth have two options. The first, a 12-mile loop, travels west then south across Gander and Goose Bays and then back to the main channel of the river via Dead Creek. Side channels lead to a series of dikes maintained by refuge managers to favor the growth of wild rice, a staple food for southbound flocks of ducks and geese. The dikes are high enough to provide views of the marshes and a welcome bit of dry ground for a snack and a stretch. The second, 10-mile option, goes east then south via Charcoal Creek. It passes through a broad expanse of wetlands with numerous byways in bays and old channels that can take shallow draft boats deep into the marsh. In a stiff southerly, it may make sense to run either loop in reverse. The wind offers a free ride across the broad bays, and the riverbanks offer a little more shelter on the return leg.


As we rafted up in the little bay just under the Split Rock light, we heard the plaintive honking of more snow geese, directly overhead. A ragged, shifting V of white wings with black tips was etched against the blue October sky. Our two-person flotilla rocked in the tiny protected bay, not far from the spot where, on a calm July night in 1875, the passenger steamer Champlain II ran aground on a small, rocky spur of Split Rock Mountain. The wreck remains to this day in just 15 to 35 feet of water, a massive structure 163 feet long with massive engine mounts on either side of the vessel.

We sat in the bay, resting, watching the birds above and thinking of the wreck below. The juxtaposition seemed to capture the essence of paddling the lake, with its hints of early New England’s maritime past and glimpses of the wildlife that call the lake home. The birds flew out of sight. We poked our kayaks out into the chop and rode the waves north to finish our day.

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