Sea-Kayaking, hiking and camping around the island
By Eben Punderson
The boat traffic was heavy that Sunday afternoon, and our sea kayaks were being bounced around in the cross-pattern of wakes thrown off by much larger boats in more of a hurry than we were. As my wife, Jill, and I paddled at our leisurely pace we saw up ahead the low profile of a loon. It dove and resurfaced as our boats approached and, in that setting, floating so close to the surface, we felt an affinity with it. For a minute we lost track of the loon, but suddenly it popped out of the water about a paddle’s length away. In the moment it remained before diving again, we were eye to eye with the loon and could see every detail of this beautiful bird. I was once again reminded of the advantages of being in a sea kayak.
This chance encounter came at the end of our three-day excursion on and around Valcour Island, and it typified our experience. Though we happened to be there on one of the busiest weekends of the season, exploring in sea kayaks allowed us to become quietly and intimately acquainted with this special island just a few miles south of Plattsburgh.
While the lakes and rivers of the Adirondacks have spawned a rich tradition of canoeing, rowing and river kayaking, it’s easy to forget that the Adirondack Park boundary runs down the middle of Lake Champlain—the nation’s largest lake after the five Great Ones, and a newly emerging mecca for sea-kayaking. Three-mile-long Valcour Island, with its sheltered coves, sandy beaches and high bluffs, forms the easternmost point of the Adirondack Park. And it’s now entirely in public ownership, a small, but lovely addition to the state’s “forever wild” Forest Preserve. [See sidebar.]
Shoving off from the landing, I tried to imagine the Battle of Valcour Island that took place here in October, 1776, when Benedict Arnold moved out from his hiding place to intercept the British Fleet sailing down from Canada.
Those warships have been replaced with fleets of pleasure craft, which on a summer weekend swarm about Valcour and tie up four-and five-abreast in the island’s numerous anchorages. Valcour’s proximity to Burlington, Plattsburgh and Montreal make it a popular destination, so an overnight stay at the height of summer is more a communal than a wilderness experience. This came as a surprise to us, for when we set off on Friday afternoon the parking lot at the landing was empty, and there was one sailboat anchored in Smuggler’s Harbor on the island’s eastern shore where we decided to make camp. By sunset however, 15 more boats had tied up in the harbor, many from Montreal, and strains of conversations in French drifted across the water to our campsite.
Yet the island’s heavy seasonal use does not detract from its unique beauty and should in no way discourage paddlers from coming ashore. Several of the campsites are well away from the popular anchorages and, according to Forest Ranger Tom Gliddi, midweek and off-season use is, as one would expect, dramatically less than on an August weekend. Despite the number of boaters sharing Smuggler’s Harbor with us, our stay was quite peaceful; at night we lay on the rocks and watched for shooting stars, and woke to a loon calling in the early morning calm.
Although the state classified the island as “primitive,” the campsites are nonetheless quite comfortable. All have outhouses, a picnic table and a fireplace with a grill. The sites on the northern end have sandy beaches; those on the rocky eastern shore are nestled under hemlocks and overlook limestone ledges that slope down to the water, with views across to the Green Mountains and down the lake to the horizon. Occupancy of the campsites is first-come, first-served.
After leaving the landing, Jill and I paddled southeast around the island, which lies about a mile offshore, with a light northwest breeze easing us along. As we rounded the southern tip of the island, the wind conditions allowed us to hug the base of the sheer limestone cliffs and peer into the deep fissures at water’s edge, where the waves gurgled and hissed. Jill spotted a mallard duck perched on a ledge inside one of these small grottoes. Then, looking up about 30 feet, we saw what Ranger Gliddi later told us was a raven’s nest, built of large sticks on a ledge. (We also learned that peregrine falcons once nested here long ago.)
Around the island’s southeastern tip the cliffs change from solid rock to layers of sedimentation, which has buckled and waved to form beautiful patterns. This softer rock also shows the effects of the weather and waves on this unprotected shore, and we poked our boats in under great, scalloped overhangs. Farther along, where the cliffs give way to a pebble beach, we pulled in for a rest.
Although outnumbered by motorboats and sailboats, we did see several other kayakers either camping on the island or paddling around it. Just north of where we camped, on Tiger Point, we encountered a group of about a dozen young kayakers on an extended trip. They told us they had built their own kayaks in a course given by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, near Basin Harbor, Vt. Now toward the New York side and camped at Schuyler Island, before proceeding north to Valcour. Now they were preparing to paddle back across the lake for a night at Law Island, on the Vermont side, but were waiting for the wind to die down before embarking.
Weather on Lake Champlain is fickle. The wind can come up fast and when it’s out of the southeast it can kick up a steep and choppy sea. We experienced this kind of weather on our second day, when we set off to paddle around the island, a voyage of about eight miles. As we paddled north, a gentle breeze pushed us along. By the time we got around to the southwest tip the wind had grown stronger.
Sitting in our kayaks in the protective lee of the headlands we’d skirted the day before, we watched sailboats out on the lake heel sharply as they tacked into a stiff southeast breeze. Whitecaps danced just beyond the tip of the island, and we could hear the waves, grown to three or four feet on the long fetch up the lake, smash into the cliffs just around the corner. The conditions weren’t dangerous for sea kayaks (though an open canoe would be easily swamped), but we knew we had to pay attention and steer our boats into the waves to keep from being swept broadside. Cameras were stowed and sprayskirts cinched as we came out from behind the sheltering cliffs to meet the wind and waves head on.
Later, wet but exhilarated, we regrouped in a protected cove on the eastern side and continued up the shore with the wind at our backs to complete our circumnavigation.
If it’s too rough to paddle, there’s plenty to do on shore. Hiking trails cross the island in two places and trace the entire perimeter, connecting all of the campsites. The island exhibits a wide range of forest types and many rare flora, including ramshead ladyslippers, a rare orchid. On our hikes we saw lots of deer tracks, a ruffed grouse, and the odd sight of a great blue heron standing in the trail. Herons are common on the island, which is home to a large heron rookery.
Our walk around the perimeter revealed much of the island’s natural and human history. Well-preserved marine fossils can be found in the limestone bedrock deposited some 450 million years ago. More recently, Valcour supported two farms, and one of the trails leads through overgrown pasture and past the rusted remains of farm equipment. On Bluff Point overlooking the channel stands a stone lighthouse, built in 1874 to safeguard the increasing commercial shipping traffic at that time. It was decommissioned in 1931 and purchased in 1986 by New York state. Recently, the Clinton County Historical Association has begun a drive to restore the lighthouse and open it up to visitors. The structure is accessible by a trail that follows the edge of Bullhead Bay.
On our third and final day we were awakened before sunrise by the sound of waves crashing on the rocks just feet from our tent. The water had been flat calm when we went to sleep, but overnight that southeast wind had picked up and was even stronger than the day before when we made our dash around the southern end of the island. We were supposed to meet Rich MacDonald, a conservation assistant with the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, that morning on the other side of the island, but decided to walk across rather than paddle around, hoping that the wind would die down before we were ready to break camp and leave for good. Rich is writing a guidebook about sea-kayaking on Lake Champlain, and he’s also the overseer for Four Brothers Islands, a key nesting area for double-crested cormorants and ringed-billed gulls.
But by the time we returned to our campsite, with Rich and his brother Ramsey, the wind was as strong as before. Putting safety before pride, we pressed our new companions into service for the three-quarter-mile portage to the leeward side of the island, where we put in and paddled back to the landing.
Thus ended, on a rather anticlimactic (but dry) note, our long weekend of exploring Valcour Island by paddle and by foot. Thanks to our means of exploration, we had been on intimate terms with the island and its surrounding waters. The experience was not diminished by the fact that we had shared the island with many other boaters. Soon after departing, Jill and I were already contemplating a return in the fall, when we would find far more solitude. Or perhaps we will explore elsewhere on the lake, for our trip to Valcour gave us a tantalizing hint of the possibilities for sea kayaking on this 120-mile-long waterway with its varied shoreline, its islands, coves, beaches and wild marshes, its thriving birdlife and rich human history, its quaint villages and ports of call, and its endless small surprises.