By Mike Lynch
Late this past summer, Mary-Nell Bockman and Andy Buchanan finished up paddling the New York shoreline of Lake Champlain, a feat that they worked on over three summers.
They plan to start paddling the Vermont side next spring, with the long-term goal of circumnavigating the entire lake through a series of day trips.
Bockman said they were inspired to explore the lake after reading “A Kayakers Guide to Lake Champlain: Exploring the New York, Vermont and Quebec Shores,” a book by two women — Catherine L. Frank and Margaret Holden — who circumnavigated the lake doing day trips.
Experienced kayakers, Buchanan and Bockman have paddled in places such as Novia Scotia, Quebec, Scotland and Maine. But the Whallonsburg couple was intrigued by “what it means to explore your backyard,” Bockman said. They live about three miles from Champlain.
Buchanan teaches history at the University of Vermont in Burlington. Bockman is a manager at Hub on the Hill, a nonprofit, small-scale food processor and distribution facility in Essex, that works with area farmers.
When the pair started this paddling journey, they were a few years removed from hiking the 46 High Peaks, and both said that journey helped prepare them and motivate them to take on this challenge.
“One of the great things about doing the 46 is that it sort of forces you to go to places you wouldn’t go otherwise, to push yourself a little further than you might normally feel going,” said Buchanan, comparing the two adventures.
The couple started their Lake Champlain journey in the spring of 2019 and finished the roughly 170-mile New York section in August. They would have finished earlier but Bockman broke her ankle, which delayed them in 2020.
The couple usually paddles between 8 to 15 miles per trip. The past few summers, that meant they were generally on the water for four or five hours per day, sometimes shorter if the wind was at their back, or longer if there was a headwind.
“It was literally one trip after another,” she said.
Their boat is choice is a sea kayak, a long narrow boat that makes it easier to navigate the large waves and gusty winds. Bockman said the most difficult water she’s ever paddled was on Lake Champlain.
“It can be a really peaceful and wonderful place, and it can also be quite challenging because of the winds and the waves,” she said.
Lake Champlain is the sixth largest body of water in the U.S. It is 120 miles long and 12 miles at its widest part, according to the Lake Champlain Basin Program. It flows from Whitehall in the southern part of the lake to its outlet at the Richelieu River in Quebec. Fifty-six percent of the lake’s basin is in Vermont, 37 percent is in New York, and 7 percent is in Quebec.
Because of the environmental challenges, Bockman said there is some essential gear for paddling big waters. Navigational charts are important to have on Champlain. So is having a spray skirt to keep the boat from filling with water. And they always wear their PDFs.
“The most important thing is to be able to judge your own capabilities combined with your environment,” Bockman said. “That’s the rule of thumb for any outdoor activity.”
And waves aren’t the only thing to worry about for kayakers when away from shore. “The most dangerous things about the lakes are the (motor) boats. It’s not the lake,” she said. While the pair said they didn’t encounter any problems with motor boaters, they were aware of the potential for issues.
What they did find on Champlain was plenty of tranquility and beautiful scenery. They hardly saw any other paddlers or there were fewer boats than normal the last few years.
One of their favorite trips was from Whitehall to Benson Landing, Vt. where the lake is like a river. They recalled seeing herons everywhere, a plethora of lush wildflowers, broad marshes, hills on both sides, and amazing cliffs going through the narrows of Dresden.
“It ends under these really magnificent cliffs and we saw eagles soaring over it,” Buchanan said. “It was really, really special.”
“You are paddling through a very calm and serene like place,” she recalled.
Buchanan said he was surprised how nice the southern part of Lake Champlain was to paddle. Going forward, he’s hoping to find more of those surprises as they explore the Vermont side. He is particularly looking forward to seeing some of the islands up close.
“The islands on the Vermont side are larger and uninhabitated,” he said. “I think going into that and seeing what that’s like will be really interesting.”