Cyclists savor past and present in Champlain Valley
By Dick Beamish
The Champlain Valley comes pretty close to Bikers’ Heaven, with its quiet country roads, friendly villages, rolling farmland, and frequent views of lake and mountains. It also offers some fascinating glimpses into American history, especially in the corner of the Adirondack Park that we’ve chosen for a leisurely, two-day trip that will take us only 38 miles on our bikes but 250 years into the past.
To begin with, Rachel and I check in at the state campground at Crown Point. At this narrow “choke point” on the lake there once stood formidable Fort St. Frederic, where the French held sway over the North Country, to be followed by the British with their massively enlarged Fort Crown Point.
Tent pitched and sleeping bags, foam pads, pillows and toiletries stowed inside, we drive south to Ticonderoga where another peninsula creates another narrows from which the French, English and Americans would alternately control this crucial waterway.
Though they share the same Park, the village of Ticonderoga is a world away from the boutiques and bustle of Lake Placid. We stop at Burleigh’s Luncheonette and Soda Fountain, across the way from where the Hotel Burleigh once stood in Victorian splendor. (Alas, there are no hotels or even B&Bs these days in Ti.) A framed photograph on the wall shows the five-story building with its mansard roof and cupola, and another shows the building in flames. (A drab-looking bar and restaurant resides there now.)
Above the lunch counter a sign cautions us: “This is not Burger King. You don’t get it your way. You take it my way or you don’t get the damn thing.” Another notice from the owner reinforces the message: “WARNING. You are looking at a high performance WOMAN. I can go from 0 to bitch in 2.1 seconds.”
Nevertheless, the place seems more reflective of the Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post covers that adorn the walls. Good cheer pervades this local hangout.
With bikes still atop car, we motor uphill from the village center, past elegant old buildings of another era, along the street (aptly named The Portage) where the bateaux of an earlier day were hauled several miles between Lake George and Lake Champlain. The ascent up the hill, known as Mount Defiance, is unrelentingly steep, and we’re glad to be driving. On top are some old cannons pointed toward Fort Ticonderoga down below. It was here in 1777 that General Burgoyne caught the American forces in the fort by surprise—the defenders never thought the British could haul their heavy artillery up there. The sight of the big guns convinced General St. Clair to evacuate the fort and head south, where his troops would soon help turn the tide in the battles at Bennington and Saratoga.
From the summit pavilion we take in long views up and down Lake Champlain. On the Vermont side stretches a long, wooded promontory, christened Mount Independence soon after July 4, 1776. That year, some 12,000 American troops were encamped there.
We head back down through town, past the fort entrance to the ferry landing, where we leave the car and take to our bicycles. The cable-guided ferry, by far the smallest on Lake Champlain, rests on the Vermont side at the moment, a quarter-mile away. We signal, as a sign instructs, by pulling a rope that raises a red sign visible across the way. The ferry’s vital statistics are also posted: Capacity 18 cars. 7 minutes one way. Cars $7. Bicycles $2. Foot passengers: 50 cents. We’re soon aboard the Addie B, churning toward Larrabee’s Point.
A sign on the ferry tells the story of the first American victory of the Revolutionary War. “As dawn came on May 10, 1775, a small assault force of Green Mountain Boys, led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold, set out from Hand’s Cove on the Vermont shore. 83 men made it across Lake Champlain in the dark—a surprise attack on Fort Ticonderoga. The fort and prize supply of cannon and ammunition fell into the hands of the revolutionaries.”
We walk our bikes off the ferry and check out an old stone building, the 1823 Lakehouse, Store and Wharf on the shore, then pedal up a hill into beautiful farmland. Cows, corn, hay in big, tightly packed rolls, apple or-chards, big old barns, traditional New England farmhouses, the Adirondack foothills across the lake and the Green Mountains to the east—such scenery would enrich the rest of the afternoon.
A sign tells us the road to the right leads to the Mount Independence Historic Site. The sign says 6 miles (though it’s more like 10). It’s a tempting side trip, but lacking the time and ambition for extra work, we continue toward Shoreham, passing a nearly hidden cemetery at the top of a rise. Some Revolutionary War veterans are buried here, including Thomas Rowley, remembered on his tombstone as “Chairman of the Committee on Safety, Revolutionary soldier, poet and wit. Died about 1803.”
As we pass Douglas Orchards, the sweet smell of strawberries wafts toward us from the fields across the road. A sign invites us to pick our own. Soon Shoreham announces itself with a tall white steeple above the trees. Five miles from the ferry landing, it’s a tidy little village with picturesque churches, inn, old school building and fine old houses, mostly centered on the village green. But all the action seems to be at the Mobil station and convenience store at the edge of town on Route 22A, where we stop for air and ice cream.
Heading back toward the lake, we go straight on Watch Hill toward the International Paper Co. mill across the water. It stands as a landmark north of Ti, a looming pile of concrete and smokestacks whose emissions serve as a weathervane. The thick gray smoke is spewing northward, reminding us that a wind from the south has made this a warm, muggy day—a good day to be exposed to the cooling breeze we create while cycling. Down a long hill with apple trees on both sides, then right on Lake Street where we’ll have about four miles of dirt surface, now turned muddy after an earlier downpour. This is the only section we’d gladly trade our thin-tired road bikes for fat-tired mountain bikes. Mud splatters our legs. We slip and slide and have to concentrate hard to keep from going over. But the dirt soon turns to pavement, and we can relax and enjoy the scenery.
Hordes of swallows settle on the utility lines, then swarm into the air, erratic and batlike, chasing after their insect dinners. Around a bend a fox stands in the road, eyeing us. We stop and stare back. Evidently young and rather naive, he eventually lopes off into the cornfield. Then we catch our first glimpse of the Crown Point Bridge several miles down the lake (that is, to the north, which is the way these waters flow). Where Lake Street intersects Route 22A we swing left and pass fisherfolk on both sides of the road where it skirts the shore. Then on to Chimney Point, the Vermont side of the bridge, and, more important, to the Bridge Restaurant, a favorite of both locals and tourists. As always the soup is great, and our stir-fry entres hit the spot. When I request milk with my coffee, the small, bouncy waitress responds: “No, I’m sorry, we don’t have any cows in Vermont.” But she laughs and brings the milk anyway.
After dinner we pedal slowly up the long rise to the top of the bridge, which marks the spot where the Adirondack Park boundary runs down the middle of Lake Champlain. Some High Peaks can be seen in the distance. Looking down on the campground where our tent awaits us, we see people fishing on the pier that extends out from the lighthouse memorial to Samuel de Champlain.
The sun hasn’t set yet, so we cycle around the old fort grounds for a self-guided tour. We’re alone except for a group of Amish, all in traditional dress, viewing as we are the remains of the British barracks bordering the parade ground. Nearby are the ruins of Fort St. Frederic, established here by the French in 1734. Two decades later the British took control of that fort, which was destroyed by the retreating French. Over the next three years the Brits built here one of the largest fortifications in North America.
We’re puzzled by an unidentified, ovenlike structure near the small museum and visitor center, a feature that will take on added significance in our travels the next day. Back at the campground, we check out the memorial lighthouse, where a sculpture of the great explorer stands tall, looking out over the lake that bears his name. On the pier beyond, a teenage girl reports catching lots of perch and some smallmouth bass. But yesterday, she said, she hooked a largemouth bass measuring 18 inches and weighing 5½ pounds. “It really bent the rod,” she beamed.
We bike to our tent, hit the showers nearby and turn in. Next morning we pile our camping gear on a nearby picnic table and cover it with a tarp—to be picked up later during our drive home. We bike over the bridge for a lumberjack breakfast, then pedal back past the campground and onto Lake Road, past a busy dairy farm. We stop at Ledgetop Orchard, a place once advertised for sale in the Adirondack Explorer. The ad pictured a farmhouse that, along with the big barns and 75 acres of mostly apple orchards, was listed for $199,000. The ad drew responses from all over the country, but for some reason the place didn’t sell. But now it appears to be under new management. The man riding a lawnmower around the front yard shuts off the motor and fills us in. He bought the place a year ago, he says, and intends to make it productive again.
His name, believe it or not, is Maurice Chevalier. He has owned a nursery in Massachusetts, his wife still works for the state in Rhode Island, and his daughter and her boyfriend actually run the farm. They are growing corn and other vegetables and have begun to replace the hundred-year-old apple trees with young ones. These will yeild an old-fashioned “heirloom” variety called Wolf River apples, which are enormous. “You can make a pie with just one of them,” he says.
But it’s a real challenge, Maurice tells us, what with the weeds, drought, insects and critters. As we talk, three chickens forage around the yard. Maurice says he plans to sell eggs someday, if a neighboring fox doesn’t eat the chickens first. We wish him luck and continue to the end of the road, where a memorial plaque on a boulder announces: “182 feet north of this spot stood the oak to which Israel Putnam was tied and tortured by the Indians in 1758.” It was tough then, too.
A brief, busy stretch of Route 22 takes us into the village of Crown Point. Turning right onto Park Avenue, we circumnavigate the old village square (a rectangle really), bordered by some ancient maples and flanked by a church and its cemetery behind a rusty iron fence. The gravestones reveal an influx of settlers here immediately after the Revolution, since many died in the early and mid-1800s.
Across the green we visit an impressive memorial to the war veterans from the area, with the names adding up to: Revolution—9, War of 1812—106; Civil War—146; WW I—88; WW II— 48; Korea—37; Vietnam—32. A Civil War monument honors those “who gave their lives as a sacrifice for their country and humanity in the suppression of the great rebellion of 1861-65.” We count 63 dead, a staggering toll for a small, rural community.
Another monument honors Pink, who died May 1886 at age 30. His story is engraved in the granite. “This horse carried his master 25 years. He was never known to show fatigue while other horses in the cavalry and flying artillery were dying from want of food and exhaustion. He was present in 98 skirmishes and 34 battles.” These included Second Bull Run, Gettysburg, The Wilderness and Spottsylvania. It appeared that Pink and his grateful master led charmed lives.
On the main (and only) drag through town we stop at Frenchy’s Creamee Stand for the best fat-free frozen yogurt imaginable—the flavor of the day being maple. Across the street we visit the Crown Point Bread Company, where we find a delectable array of breads and pastries presided over by the young, crew-cut proprietor, Yannig Tanguy. He says he often starts baking at 4 a.m. and some nights he never goes to bed. He grew up here, he tells us, but spent summers with his French grandparents in Brittany, where he learned to make bread the old way.
“I bake in the tradition of the region,” he explains. “All my bread is made from stone-ground flour. It’s all milled in back, and it comes from organically grown wheat in Essex County. The Champlain Valley was one of the breadbaskets of America in the 19th century. Now all our food comes from somewhere else. We need an advertising campaign to get people to buy their food locally, and seasonally. Think of the fuel we’d save, and the air pollution we’d avoid, and the economic benefits in restoring agriculture to the region.”
The sour cherries in his tarts, as one small example of what he’s advocating, come from Ledgetop Orchards on Lake Road. Yannig also conducts workshops in bread baking, and it was he who built the French field oven we saw at the Crown Point Historic Site, as well as others at Fort Ticonderoga and the Trenton Barracks in New Jersey.
In parting, Yannig gives us a baguette, which we tie on the rear rack of Rachel’s bicycle, in the French style.
We continue on peaceful back roads most of the way to Ti—up Sugar Hill Road from the village of Crown Point, onto Sam Curran Road to the foothills behind town, along Vineyard Road and down a long hill to Route 22. Just past the intersection we stop at Drinkwine Produce, a vegetable stand with the first sweet corn of the season. “A German couple stopped here to buy wine last week,” said the friendly woman behind the counter. “They were confused by the name.”
We cut off Route 22 toward the lake on an unnamed back road, working our way through wide-open, rolling farmland around the edge of Ticonderoga, then onto the long entrance road to the famous fort and back into the storied past–to a fife-and-drum corps performance on the parade grounds, a history on ramparts by an Abanaki Indian, a tour of the cozy museum above the reconstructed barracks. We marvel at the canons and mortars that ring the fort and wonder at the herculean effort of the Americans, who captured the place in that surprise raid and then hauled much of the artillery 300 miles through the wilderness to Boston. Just the sight of these weapons of mass destruction was enough to end the siege of Boston Harbor and send the British packing.
Vowing to return–you can’t do Fort Ti justice in a few hours–we cycled the last half-mile down the hill to our car and the return trip to the 21st century.
0.0 Miles – Crown Pt. Campground
2.0 – Left on Lake Rd.
5.2 – Left on Rt. 22
6.4 – Enter village of Crown Point,
visit green & village center
7.9 – Straight on Sugar Hill Rd.
8.5 – Right on Sam Curran Rd.
11.0 – Left on Vineyard Rd.
14.3 – Right on Rt. 22
15.3 – Left on first road (nameless)
16.4 – Right on Delano Rd.
16.7 – Right on Shanahan Rd.
17.8 – Cross Shore Airport Rd., straight on
19.1 – Left on Fort Rd.
20.0 – Fort entrance on right
20.5 – Arrive ferry dock and boat launch
Cross to Vermont
21.0 – Mount Independence road on right
25.0 – Shoreham, tour village
27.0 – Watchpoint Rd., straight to lake
28.0 – Right on Lake St.
34.6 – Left on Rt. 22N
37.0 – Rt. 17, Bridge Restaurant
37.8 – Campground via bridge
For more information:
Crown Point State Campground
66 campsites, boat-launch ramp, fishing pier,
Champlain Memorial Lighthouse
Crown Point State Historic Site
Ruins of French and British forts
Grounds open May 1— Mid-October, until dusk
Museum/Visitors’ Center, 9-5 Wed.-Mon.
Restored fort, living history
Mid-May—Mid-October, daily 9-5
Museum shop, snack bar, picnic grove
Booklet: Historic Ticonderoga
A Walking (or biking) Tour
Pride of Ticonderoga
Lake Champlain Region Map (Free)
Guide to bicycle routes, etc. (New York only)
Lake Placid/Essex County Visitors’ Bureau
Lake Champlain Bike Maps ($3.95)
(802) 860-2886 or www.emapcenter.com
Crown Point B&B, (518) 597-3651
Harwood Homestead B&B, 597-3429
Belfred Court Motel, (518) 585-7000
Circle Court Motel, 585-7660
Cook Cottage Rentals, 585-7580
Green Acres Motel, 585-2274
Latchstring Motel, 585-2875
Lord Howe Valley Motel, 585-7454
Stone House Motel, 585-7394
Super 8 Motel, 585-2617