Lake Champlain: Pedaling to Perfection in Vermont
In Vermont, the Colchester Causeway extends across Lake Champlain to connect Colchester and Burlington to the nearby Lake Champlain Islands. Illustrates VERMONT-BIKE (category t), by Lindsay J. Westley, special to The Washington Post. Moved Tuesday, July 23, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Lindsay J. Westley)
A mid-ride beep from my neon-colored GPS watch usually signals a moment of weakness: a stop for a gulp of water or to rest quivering calves after climbing one of Vermont’s many mountains. Today, as I wheel my bike around the potholes in a farm lane, it’s signaling a more important item on the agenda: maple creemees.
The rest of the country calls the frozen treat twisting into my cone “soft serve,” but here in Vermont, it’s a creemee. Made with farm-fresh milk and a high grade of real maple syrup, it’s a delicious start to the weekend — and the official guarantee that no cycling speed records will be broken over the next two days. But we will eat well. And often.
After all, we have the home-court advantage on this vacation. My husband and I have been living on the southernmost tip of Vermont’s Lake Champlain Islands for nearly two years, having moved here from Pennsylvania as newlyweds.
We landed in South Hero mostly by accident, but we’ve enjoyed getting to know the series of islands that hopscotch their way through Lake Champlain until they dead-end at the Canadian border 30 miles to the north. Framed by the Adirondack Mountains to the west and the Green Mountains to the east and surrounded by the waters of the lake, the islands enjoy a temperate climate that has earned them the nickname of “the banana belt of Vermont.”
Flat roads and warmer temps make them ideal for cycling, so we’ll be playing tourist with plenty of like-minded visitors this weekend — with the added benefit of knowing where to find the best strawberries and the most gratifying views. And even though Lake Champlain is only inches from flood level at present, and we’ve been hearing flash-flood reports on a nearly daily basis, the sun is actually shining today. Primary goal of the day: replace depleted stores of Vitamin D. But first we have friends to meet and a returning hero to cheer.
They arrive together under the flag of Local Motion, a Burlington-based nonprofit promoting people-powered transportation. In this case, the returning hero isn’t Ethan Allen, leader of Vermont’s Green Mountain Boys (although North and South Hero islands were named in honor of Ethan and Ira Allen in 1779), but the Local Motion pontoon boat carrying our friends Matt and Emma and their bikes over to South Hero from Burlington.
It’s not a long boat ride across “the Cut” — just 200 feet — but it’s the crucial link between Burlington, Colchester and South Hero, where my husband and I are waiting. The three towns are connected by a 14-mile recreational trail called the Island Line Trail, which meanders north through Burlington and Colchester until it strikes out straight across the lake. This three-mile section is spectacular — until it abruptly ends in concrete blocks at the Cut, leaving a maddeningly short stretch of water between the Colchester side of the Island Line Trail and the South Hero side.
When the trail was first built in 1899 as part of the Rutland-Canadian railroad, a drawbridge spanned the gap. That bridge is long gone, but until two years ago, Local Motion’s weekend bike ferry shuttled cyclists across the 200-foot stretch. In 2011, severe flooding damaged the causeway on both sides of the Cut, effectively closing that entire section of the trail and rendering the bike ferry’s services useless. Repairing the damaged stretch of trail took two years and $1.5 million, but on June 11, the Island Line Trail reopened, and the bike ferry resumed service.
Today marks the first time that my husband and I see it in action, and it feels like an appropriately heroic effort to celebrate. We moved to South Hero just after the floods (we’ve since moved to nearby Hinesburg), so we’ve often stood on the concrete blocks at the end of the causeway staring at the short stretch of water and wishing for a boat, a blowup raft, a skiff — anything — to bridge that gap. Now $8 will get you there and back again, along with a crowd of 100 to 600 other day-trippers.
The ferry is bustling today, and if nothing else, it provides a dramatic entrance for Matt and Emma as they join us for our Champlain adventure. We pedal slowly away from the ferry docks toward where the causeway joins solid ground in South Hero, marveling at the Volkswagen-size blocks of marble used to build the man-made trail across the lake. We’re riding across a natural shallow spot here — about 10 feet deep — but there’s a 100-foot drop-off to the east, and to the west, the lake is almost 300 feet deep. You wouldn’t want to wipe out here.
Once on the island, we don’t even make it three miles before we’re sidelined by creemees. Still, I figure that we need to pay homage to the “milk trucks” that once traversed this same route across the lake, and as Allenholm Farm claims to be Vermont’s oldest commercial apple orchard, we could do worse. We have reservations for the night 25 miles north at Ransom Bay Inn in Alburgh, though, so we hop back on our bikes without pausing to give Fergie, the Scotch Highland cow, a scratch behind her hairy ears.
We pass numerous roadside stands as we ride north, but not even the Blue Paddle Bistro — South Hero’s best restaurant, hands down — can distract me from reaching Pomykala Farm in Grand Isle. We hook right for a rapid-speed descent down one of Grand Isle’s few hills and a killer view of the lake, then continue onto East Shore North. Arguably the prettiest road on the islands, it hugs the rocky shore for miles, framed by farms on the other side of the road. There are a few kids splashing around in the lake, but the intense summer rainfall has completely covered the small beach where my husband and I usually swim. The water looks tempting, but strawberries are a bigger priority.
When the four of us pull into Pomykala Farm, we discover an unexpected bonus: The annual strawberry social will coincide with our ride back to the ferry the next day. Trading up to strawberry shortcake (instead of strawberries eaten out-of-hand on a moving bike) seems like a good idea, so we continue on.
At this point the islands narrow, funneling you over a drawbridge into North Hero. We have to slow down for kids eating ice cream and a boat dock bustling with people enjoying the rare day of sun, nearly all driving cars with license plates from Massachusetts or Quebec.
That’s not the case after you crest the peak of the bridge spanning the Alburgh Passage. The northernmost of the five towns in the Champlain Islands, Alburgh feels much less touristy, and I can already imagine the fields filled shoulder-to-shoulder with sunflowers in August. My grandmother, a landscape painter from western New York, once said that she thought Vermont had a different quality of light shining on it. Coasting down one of the final stretches to our bed-and-breakfast, I’m convinced that she’s right.
Having bypassed the frequently written about (and more expensive) North Hero House in favor of a less-traveled option, we’re pleased to enter Ransom Bay Inn to find an inviting-looking restaurant and a sun-dappled deck.
We’ve booked last-minute on a holiday weekend, so all four of us are staying in one room; hence, one old-fashioned claw-foot shower-tub has to serve the needs of four road-dusty cyclists. Luckily for the others in the restaurant, the day’s nice enough that we can enjoy a beer on the deck while taking turns cleaning up for dinner.
If the bathrooms are old-fashioned, they came by it honestly. I picked Ransom Bay mainly because of the positive reviews from other cyclists traveling from Burlington to Montreal, so I’m unexpectedly pleased to explore its legitimate pedigree as a circa-1795 stagecoach stop, inn and tavern. It’s small — only four rooms — but husband-and-wife team Loraine and Richard Walker offer a warm welcome and plenty of food to fuel weary riders. There’s little that can keep us from our cherry-wood sleigh beds tonight, though — even the promise of dessert.
The next day begins with sunshine — two days in a row! — and Loraine’s signature croissant French toast, which might satisfy even my husband until lunchtime. That’s fortunate, as we decide to tack on a loop around nearby Isle La Motte. Fellow B&B guests had recommended it over breakfast, but I’d retained little information about it apart from its having an art barn and a 480-million-year-old reef. That, coupled with confirmation from our map that it’s flat and scenic, is enough to justify a side trip.
Isle La Motte lives up to its promise of empty roads and nonstop views out over the lake, but we’re the odd ducks out when we roll up to church in spandex. This particular church — St. Anne’s Shrine — is located at the original site of Fort St. Anne, Vermont’s oldest European settlement, so it’s likely that its saint has seen much worse during the past three and a half centuries.
We arrive at the site of the Chazy Reef just as it begins to drizzle, so we stop for a minute at Fisk Farm, next door. The sign outside advertises the art barn and Sunday tea and concert series, but even though today is Sunday, we suspect that the damp weather and the mosquitoes will keep away all but the most loyal listeners. Thirty minutes before concert time, the audience is an older couple and their aging yellow Labrador, who wags his tail at us for a minute before flopping back onto the deck. I sympathize. In the rain and with 20-plus miles to pedal until we reach the ferry, this side trip seems less appealing than it had over croissants and coffee. We spare a few moments to check out the reef — is that a mollusk? maybe a gastropod? — then head south.
Some sleuthing over the breakfast table had yielded an interesting tidbit that propelled us through the rain: the promise of seeing rare Tennessee fainting goats on a farm just south of Alburgh. These petite goats have a genetic disorder called myotonia congenita that causes them to stiffen or fall over when startled or excited, with no lasting negative consequences.
Last year’s guidebook to the agriculture produced on the islands had invited cyclists to stop by for farm tours, so we make a short detour up a steep drive to Morgan Hill Farm. Owner Sherry Siebenaler meets us at the door, but regretfully tells us that she’s late to pick up a load of hay and, with a glance at our bike shoes, warns us that it’s knee-high mud in the fields.
We’re disappointed, but she assures us that the goats will, in fact, faint over something as inconsequential as Siebenaler appearing with a feed bucket. Knowing that the breed lives long, healthy lives, we thank her for what is undeniably an amusing mental picture and head back down the hill.
We’re parking our bikes at a picnic table outside Hero’s Welcome general store in North Hero when the rain begins in earnest. Our timing couldn’t have been better; even though I ride through North Hero fairly frequently, I’ve never been inside the labyrinthine store. Rooms full of oddities and puzzles found in the best Vermont country stores keep us occupied as our lunch break turns into afternoon coffee while the rain chops the surface of the lake. Only the promise of a few leftover strawberries at Pomykala (closing up shop as we pull up) and the threat of missing the last ferry back to Burlington stirs us from our stools and out into the rain.
We arrive back at the ferry wet, a little chilled, and having missed the last two planned stops of the day — Grand Isle Art Works and Snow Farm Vineyard. Dinner at the Blue Paddle will also have to wait for another day.
But as we joy-ride over on the ferry to see Matt and Emma safely on their way, it’s hard to feel as if we’ve missed much of anything. The Green Mountains are a hazy blur beyond Burlington to our east, but a single ray of sun beams down through the clouds to the west, possibly shining on Isle La Motte, or illuminating the path of Ethan and Ira Allen, leading the Green Mountain Boys back home.
Westley is a freelance writer in Vermont.