Kayaking Lake Champlain

Rich MacDonald gets together with friends each year to kayak from Port Kent, on the western side of Lake Champlain, to Burlington, Vt. Photo by Dennis Aprill.

Invasion of Vermont

By Rich MacDonald

A while back, a few friends and I decided to invade Vermont. By kayak. From Port Kent on the New York side, we would paddle across the wide waters, storm the beaches of Burlington, and fight our way the six long blocks to the Vermont Pub and Brewery.

The first time we invaded, our fleet consisted of two fiberglass solo sea kayaks and a two-man Klepper sea kayak. That 15-mile journey took six hours, including lunch, rest stop and  swim. Riding on the gentle waves as we finally approached Burlington, we set our sights on a sandbox-size stretch of beach. We caught the Vermonters by surprise and made our landing with a minimum of interference.

Last year, 16 of my friends in 11 boats helped maintain what has become an annual tradition of paddling to Vermont and returning on the ferry. More often than not, the weather has been mild, bordering on calm. There were times we yearned for a little wind to cool us down. Two years ago, however, we started with a day as calm as it gets and finished with waves approaching four feet, rain coming at us sideways and visibility quickly deteriorating. We were reminded, once again, that this is a trip for the experienced paddler.

The public beach at Port Kent, next to the ferry dock, is the perfect starting point, and a good place to park. From the beach, we paddle south around the big dock, being sure to give a wide berth to the ferry if it’s anywhere near. U.S. Navigational Law gives ferries the right of way, and so does common sense.

Initially, our view south is re-stricted by Trembleau Point, but once around it we’re treated to a magnificent vista stretching for miles down the lake, with Schuyler Island in the foreground. Farther on, the Four Brothers break up of the lake’s surface. Beyond that, the lake narrows considerably, with the fjordlike Palisades of Split Rock Mountain dominating the western shore. Across the way the fertile valley of Vermont swells gently toward the Green Mountains.

At about 2.5 miles we reach Schuyler Island, our first port of call. As much as I like paddling, I rarely pass up a chance to stretch my legs. A campsite on the west side affords a sheltered view to nearby Port Douglas, while the cobbled eastern shoreline is more wind-blasted and reminiscent of its marine heritage. We walk, snack, water a bush or two and watch out for the abundant poison ivy. Schuyler is a good place to see spotted sandpipers, maybe peregrines hunting, great blue herons fishing and a huge variety of warblers from May through September.

Back in the boats we aim for the Four Brothers, across five miles of open water. This little cluster of islands, owned by the Adirondack Nature Conservancy and managed by the High Peaks Audubon Society, is home to one of the largest colonies of water birds in the state. During the breeding season there may be more than 100,000 birds in and around this unique preserve, including ring-billed, herring and black-backed gulls, cormorants, black-crowned night herons, great blue herons and, earlier this summer, a few glossy ibis, the first time these graceful, typically Southern birds have nested in this state north of Long Island. The Four Brothers are not open to the public and are patrolled by an Audubon warden (I have the good fortune to have that job). Since these islands are strictly for the birds, paddlers can enjoy the views from their sea kayaks, but they should not land.

Juniper Island is also privately owned. So far the owner has been friendly to my co- paddlers and me. If his boat is there when we land, I make a habit of seeking him out, saying hello and asking for permission to rest there. Sprouting from the island is a derelict cast-iron lighthouse. The craftsmanship that went into constructing this landmark is only barely surpassed by the spectacular view from its lofty spire. At its base are the remains of a tiny chapel.

The final three-mile leg of the trip takes us to Burlington Harbor and the end of our journey. About halfway between Juniper Island and the city’s waterfront, we discern the long breakwater protecting the harbor. Boat traffic of all sorts is fairly abundant here. We huddle together through this gauntlet, increasing our visibility to other boaters while making it easier for them to get around us. In the harbor, we land just south of the ferry dock, haul out our kayaks, and head for the nearby public restrooms, there to change into warm, dry clothing.

Then its on to our frothy rewards at the Vermont Pub and Brewery, but first we purchase one-way tickets for the ferry ride home. Later, suitably refreshed, we load our kayaks on the last ferry for Port Kent, an hour-long voyage and a perfect (and easy) end to a glorious day of paddling. Each year I look forward to the ritual comments from the ferry crew about us having to carry our own lifeboats aboard. As we head home, the sun setting over the Adirondacks reminds me of what I once heard Gary Randorf say: “I tell my Vermont friends they have one thing over Adirondackers—they have a better view of our mountains.”

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