Friday, September 26, 2008

The Lake Champlain Stretch of the NFCT

Sometimes, being the low guy on the Totem Pole at my job works out for the best. I had to wait until all the guys higher on the pole finished using their vacation time before any time opened for me. The third week in September became available and though it sounded a little late in the season to head to the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT), I would have to make the most of it. I guess my 'Indian Summer Dance' worked, because it enabled me to paddle the great Lake Champlain under the most idyllic conditions I could have hoped for! Beautiful weather, no crowds, and almost no bugs!

This past Monday, I drove through New Hampshire and Vermont as the skies cleared from Sunday night's rain. Upon reaching Grand Isle or South Hero Island, my car, boat and I crossed over to Plattsburgh, NY on the Lake Champlain ferry. Reaching the New York side, I then drove 4 miles to Cumberland Bay State Park where only a handful of the campsites were occupied. My tent was pitched not far from the water and from it I could see Plattsburgh and the Saranac River on the bay's south shore.

After a chilly night under the stars, I awoke and began preparations for my planned journey. At 8:15 I launched my loaded kayak into the bay and paddled the 2 miles over to where the Saranac River enters the lake. As I entered the river, I found myself looking up at a monument to the man himself, Monsieur Samuel de Champlain. This monument was erected in 1912 following the Tercentenary of Champlain's 1609 "discovery" of this large inland sea. He was actually being escorted by Algonkin Indians who already knew about the lake and called it Bitawbagok. The monument consists of a 22 foot high pedestal of Massachusetts Pink Granite. Near the base, on each side, the prow of a birchbark canoe laden with corn and animal pelts emerges. Above this, an Indian wearing a bearskin and equipped with a bow and shield looks out across the lake. At the top of the pedestal stands a 12 foot high bronze statue of Champlain in his full regalia of cape, arquebuse (early musket), sword, and morion. He also is looking out across the lake. The statue was sculpted by Carl Augustus Heber. I imagine this will be a fairly busy spot next year when the Quadricentennial is celebrated. See pictures # 30 & # 31 at the following address

I paddled a short way up the Saranac but it soon became very shallow and rocky. So, after looking up at another monument with an eagle seemingly in flight at the top, I turned around and headed out into the lake to follow the course of the NFCT to Missisquoi Bay, some 29 miles to the north-northeast.

After paddling around the tip of Cumberland Head, I came upon the very well choreographed dance of the three ferry boats that were handling the vehicle traffic across the lake. Two of the ferries were always in motion while a third was being loaded or unloaded. Since the size of my vessel is rather smallish, it was prudent that I time my crossing so as not to disrupt their good rhythm.

Once safely across to the Vermont side, I began paddling along the west shore of South Hero Island, past the Sister Islands. On a ridge to the northwest I counted some 40 to 50 wind turbines. Fortunately for me, they were mostly idle as were the lake's waters. Turning my bow to the east, I passed through The Gut that separates South and North Hero Islands. Now, on the east shore of North Hero, I continued my paddling to the northeast. To the east loomed the high peaks of the Green Mountains and to the southwest were the Adirondacks.

At about mid-afternoon, I arrived at North Hero State Park, which was closed for the season. Having obtained permission in advance, I camped here for the night. Just as the Sudbury River has postings about mercury poisoning in fish, here, Lake Champlain has postings about Eurasion milfoil and zebra mussels. The park is located at the northern tip of N. Hero Island and from my campsite, I could look to the north and see the 4,000 foot long bridge that carries Route 78 across the lake.

In the morning, I broke camp and started paddling the 3.5 miles to that bridge. Unlike the previous day's calm conditions, the wind was beginning to stir out of the south. This would help to get me to my destination, but would hinder my progress on my return. Just before reaching the Route 78 Bridge, there is an equally long railroad bridge with a movable section in the middle to accommodate boats larger than mine. Approaching the channel, I saw that the bridge is manned only between June 15 to September 15. If my craft was a sailboat, I would have been out of luck. The highway bridge, on the otherhand, was recently built to rise high enough to allow uninterrupted passage of sailboats. This is ironic but I guess there must not be sufficient demand for passage or the US Coast Guard would not allow this condition to exist. See an aerial photo of the bridges and Missisquoi Bay at the following address

After the bridges, I proceeded into Missisquoi Bay, then to Donaldson Point and to my destination, Metcalfe Island. This is where the West Branch of the Missisquoi River enters into the bay. This whole area is a very shallow, marshy area. It is part of the 6,600 acre Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge which serves as a critical stop over for migratory birds. I paddled around and through the marshgrass until I reached the point where I could see the heron rookery on Shad Island. This is where I had emerged from the lower Missisquoi in October 2006 and marked my turnaround point.

Soon, I was heading south and after a few hours of paddling stopped for lunch at the tip of N. Hero Island. Here, I decided to stay to the west of N. Hero and pass through the Alburg Passage. I turned to take a last look to the north and noted something glittering in the sun on the railroad bridge. With my binoculars, I observed a long freight train just beginning a slow crossing of the aforementioned railroad bridge. The train was pulled by several Canadian National Railroad locomotives and was well over a mile long. It was passing from the rails of the New England Central Railroad (formerly Central Vermont RR) onto Canadian National tracks and would soon enter Canada.

The trip through Alburg Passage took me past some floatplanes at Northern Lights Airport before reaching the Point of the Tongue where I crossed over towards Cloak Island and the southern tip of Isle la Motte. The scarcity of other boats on the lake and the fact I was paddling a sea kayak allowed me to take a heading on Cumberland Head and begin a long open water passage of about 8 miles pretty much as the crow flies. A light but steady breeze out of the west-southwest kept me from overheating. Several times the calls of loons led my eyes to where they were bobbing on the waves. Twice, large groups of Canada geese flew overhead in chevron formation. Like me they were heading to the south.

After several more hours of paddling, I once again crossed the "Dancing Ferryboats", rounded Cumberland Head and paddled the last bit to the beach at Cumberland Bay State Park. Having covered 36 miles since morning, I was pretty well spent physically and glad to have brought along a self-heating meal of chicken parmesan which provided a quick and easy supper.

By morning, all of the muscles that were sore had recovered and I awoke to balmy temperatures and a wind blowing in from the lake. It made for a beautiful morning to walk around downtown Plattsburgh before saying goodbye to New York state until I someday return to connect the dots between Picketts Corners and Plattsburgh. For that 24 mile section of rocky shallows and four difficult portages, I'll bring a plastic boat and as little gear as possible.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great communication. Impressed with your manner of writing. Could imagine your adventure as though with you as I read.
Ancient Warrior