Ausable Delta

Phil Brown and his son Nathan frolic in the river. Photo by Gary Randorf.

Magic in the marsh: Paddlers can enjoy sand and sun in Ausable Delta

By Phil Brown

The French called it Riviere au Sable, or “River of Sand.” If you happen to be fly fishing among the boulders in Wilmington Notch, you might be puzzled by the name, but not if you’re paddling about the Ausable Delta on Lake Champlain.

Sand is everywhere: on the riverbed, on the riverbanks, along the lake, on strands in the lake. This is the Ausable that enchanted the French explorers. And it’s just as enchanting today.

A few miles before flowing into Lake Champlain, the Ausable River splits in two, so paddlers can do a loop by venturing out onto the lake—which may not be advisable on a windy day. The two forks enclose a marsh that’s a must-see. You can make a different loop by carrying from the marsh into the river, avoiding the lake altogether, but don’t expect an easy portage.

The state has built a campground along the large beach at Ausable Point. My son Nate and I, accompanied by photographer Gary Randorf, put in at the campground’s small launch site, where the north fork meets the lake. Instead of heading upriver, we paddled across the mouth to a sluggish channel that winds through the marsh. The channel soon splits. We took the left fork, the longer of the two.

Although we went out in summer, the marsh must be especially beautiful in fall, for the shores are lined with red maple, cottonwood and other deciduous trees. Yellow pond lilies, white water lilies and purple pickerelweed grow in the channel. We heard and saw a variety of birds, among them rough-winged swallows, red-winged blackbirds, song sparrows and purple finches.

The author hard at work. Photo by Gary Randorf.

A ranger at the campground had told us that if we took this channel to the end, we’d have only a 20-foot carry to the Ausable’s south fork. It turned out to be a lot harder than it sounds. If you want to carry to the river, you have two choices. Approaching the channel’s end, you reach a pool with a takeout on the left. From there, you can take a rough path to the river, but it’s a few hundred yards and tough going. Or, instead of bearing left at the pool, you can forge straight ahead through weedy shallows. At some point, you’ll have to get out into the muck and drag your canoe to shore and then through a thicket of small trees. You’ll get to the river, all right, but the state could make things a whole lot easier by clearing a portage trail.

After dropping into the river, we took a short detour to Lake Champlain, passing three small homes on the way. Upon reaching the lake, we were tempted to paddle out to a large sandbar for a dip, but we didn’t have the time. As we returned upriver, a great blue heron glided past and alighted on a dead tree hanging over the water. We drifted in quite close before it fled, gracefully undulating its giant wings.

Soon we passed under a railroad trestle and into a meandering stretch of river. Although deciduous trees dominated the surrounding woods, large white pines grew atop the sandy banks. Rounding one bend, we spied a common merganser followed by        a string of young. They swam hurriedly beneath the shelter of a downed tree and vanished from sight.

A little farther on we reached a large sandbar on an outer bend and stopped to swim. The water was clean, with an amber tint from all the sand. Although you hardly notice the current while paddling, it seems surprisingly strong if you swim against it. Our own beach on a secluded river, birds flitting among the overhanging trees—it was an idyll only slightly marred by the discovery of a half-buried tire in the water. Sand is not the only thing that washes downriver during spring floods.

Map by Nancy Bernstein.

Afterward, we continued a short ways to the split in the river. We had been snaking  through a tunnel of trees, but here the view opens up—it’s all sky, water and sand. If you like sun, this would be the spot to eat lunch and take a dip. It’s possible to canoe up the main stem, but we went directly into the north fork. I didn’t find this stretch as inviting as the south fork: it’s straighter, wider, not as charming. However, we did see another family of mergansers, lined up on a log.

After reaching our original put-in, we kept going into Lake Champlain and rounded Ausable Point to a beach near the campground parking lot. After spending hours alone on the river, we suddenly found ourselves amid swimmers and windsurfers. Gazing across the lake, we watched cormorants moving in a dark line across the sky. To the north, we saw the rocky bluffs of Valcour Island; to the east, the Green Mountains of Vermont.

We had spent about four hours on the water. Want more? You can keep going down the lake to Dead Creek Flow, an inlet to another large marsh, and then to the mouth of the Little Ausable River. Obviously, there’s a lot to see in the delta. But you might want to save some of it for your return trip.

Directions: From Keeseville, drive north on Route 9 to the entrance road to the state campground on the right. The put-in is near Campsite 47. You’ll have to park your car in the lot near the campground entrance. There is a day-use fee.

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