A kayak, a car and two weeks on the water
By Brian Nearing
With the Adirondack Mountains to the west, New York’s shoreline on Lake Champlain is branded recreationally as the Adirondack Coast. This 120-mile lake flows north, making this coast’s unofficial starting point the lake headwaters in South Bay, just north of the historic village of Whitehall in northern Washington County.
Having kayaked several times in South Bay’s shallow, milky waters from a state boat launch off State Route 22, I often wondered about the lake’s distant northern outlet, at the Richelieu River, which runs through Quebec to the St. Lawrence River and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean at the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Last summer offered two weeks to make that trip, driving, camping, and kayaking along portions of a lake with a whopping 587 miles of shoreline in New York, Vermont and Quebec. It could at best be a snapshot, not a detailed portrait.
South Bay forms a southeastern portion of the Adirondack Park’s Blue Line, which runs northward through the lake about 80 miles to the Valcour Island Primitive Area, near the town of Peru in Clinton County. From South Bay and its handful of private camps, the lake moves slowly north past cliff-lined wetlands of the lower lake up to the beginning of the wider lake beyond Ticonderoga.
It takes up to three years for the bay’s water to drain north through the lake to the Richelieu, according to Lake Champlain Basin Commission, but I didn’t have that kind of leisure time.
Starting from a camp just north of South Bay in late July, a short hop led to the Crown Point State Park Campground in the shadow of the graceful arch of Crown Point Bridge and a historic lighthouse. This Vermont connection opened in 2011 after the unstable old bridge, which dated to when Franklin D. Roosevelt was governor of New York, was closed and demolished.
The grassy, wooded campground offered 66 campsites that were fairly spaced out, as well as hot showers, a trailer dump station, a recycling center, a small picnic area, and firewood sales.
The park’s boat launch provided easy and immediate access to paddle beneath and around the bridge, as well an opportunity to take out at a small museum on the Vermont side at the Chimney Point State Historic Site, where a steel pier from the old bridge remains on display outside. Tucked in along a retaining wall, I found a beautifully painted rock hidden by someone who is part of a Facebook group called “VT Rocks.” The group promotes the creation and scattering of such tiny artworks.
For the ambitious paddler, the lakefront town of Port Henry was more than a mile north across the neck of Bulwagga Bay, but I was content to meander along the Vermont shoreline at Chimney Point, before turning back to the New York side and a rocky take-out just above Coffin Point.
The next day, the bridge at Crown Point provided a route into Vermont and a dozen miles northward to Button Bay State Park, located on the lake about an hour’s drive south of Burlington.
Located in Ferrisburgh on a bluff overlooking the lake, this 253-acre park has 53 tent/RV sites, 12 lean-tos, and four cabins.
Button Bay is so named for the button-like concretions formed by clay shoreline deposits. These geologic formations are created during several centuries as clays collected around plant stalks. When the plant stem dies and rots away, what’s left behind resembles a rock with a hole drilled in its center.
Wind was light and the water calm on the bay, allowing a short and easy paddle from the park’s boat launch to the bay’s namesake 1.5-acre limestone island. This natural area, with sweeping lake views, contains foundational ruins of a 19th century summer home of a wealthy New York City art dealer, and trails to explore.
In the car, my route backtracked into New York and Crown Point and then again northward on Route 9N, to Port Henry, a self-proclaimed home of Champ, the mythical Lake Champlain monster, and during the 19th and mid-20th centuries, the actual home of a thriving port to service the area’s many small iron furnaces and canal traffic. The village has a beach and picnic area named for its famous aquatic denizen. Each summer, a Champ festival is held, featuring cardboard boat races, movies on the beach, and other family events.
A boat launch offered easy lake access and another view of the Crown Point Bridge, but I had a schedule to keep.
An hour’s drive north at Cumberland Bay State Park in Plattsburgh, I camped a short walk from the shoreline. The 350-acre park has more than 150 tent/RV sites, a broad, sandy swimming beach, and a new bathhouse and family-friendly playground. The wind here was too brisk for safe kayaking, but a swim was possible.
After a comfortable night tenting, I continued northward to Rouses Point, the gateway to the Canadian border crossing as well as to a bridge to the Champlain Islands, including the Alburgh Tongue, a small peninsula extending from Canada into Lake Champlain, and thus surrounded by water.
Alburgh contained numerous boat launches, including one directly across the bridge on Route 2, but high northerly winds made that part of the lake unsafe to kayak. I headed south down the peninsula’s southern tip and Alburgh Dunes State Park, which features one of the lake’s largest natural sand swimming beaches.
Alburgh Dunes is for day use only and a single trail runs parallel to the beach, but the dunes themselves are fenced off to protect the delicate beach grasses and other stabilizing plants. There is no public drinking water supply.
The beach also was a great place to launch a kayak, as the area was somewhat protected from the northern winds. With Isle La Motte just to the west, winds coming from that direction could also be mitigated.
Given the potentially long outings on this massive lake, wind speed and direction must always be considered before setting out in a kayak or canoe. Conditions can change quickly.
Alburgh is also a bit of a geographical oddity for trivia buffs. A welcome sign identified it as being located on the 45th Parallel. This geographic line was to have been the border between the U.S. and Canada, but a long-ago cartographic error placed the border about a mile north of the 45th in many places, which gave Alburgh several square miles of land that should have been in Canada rather than the U.S.
Rouses Point presented no nearby camping options and a hardscrabble downtown with some echoes of its tourist past, but with only one lodging accommodation – a large motel with its tourist heyday long behind it, now occupied primarily by long-term residents. It proved comfortable and provided the chance to sort through coolers and dirty clothing to take to a local laundromat.
At the time, due to the pandemic, crossing the Canadian border required use of a mobile phone app to relay basic passport information and vaccination/health status to customs authorities prior to arrival at a border station. That app requirement has subsequently been discontinued.
Crossing the border put me along the western shoreline of the Richelieu River, a 77-mile tributary of the St. Lawrence. The trip north on Route 223 was along the flat broad plains of Quebec, passing through agricultural fields and little towns that led to the small city of Chambly, a favorite recreation spot for residents of Montreal about 30 miles away.
Water recreation centers on the Chambly Basin, formed by an enlargement of the Richelieu that creates a small lake extending from the foot of the river’s rapids. Kayaks, paddleboards, and recreational boats filled the basin as I joined in on a perfect summer day. The lakeshore at Chambly is all privately owned, so there were no places to take out for a break.
Later, I strolled along the shops and restaurant of the compact town and to Fort Chambly National Historic Site, an imposing stone structure with parts dating to the early 17th century French colonial period. Nearby was a lock for the historic Chambly Canal, which connects the river to the St. Lawrence and Lake Champlain and ultimately, to New York City through the Champlain Canal starting in Whitehall and running to the Hudson River at Fort Edward.
After kayaking the basin and finding a small motel for the night, I again headed north, pitching my tent at a well-equipped private campground, Domaine Des Erables, located east of the river about an hour’s drive north in the village of St. Roch-De-Richelieu
Nearby, the town boat launch was home to a small cable ferry that takes cars back and forth across the river. The Richelieu remains flat and placid, with negligible current and periodic river traffic confined to occasional recreational boats. A gentle paddle from the launch at St. Roch-De-Richelieu led south to the historic Chambly Canal lock on the island of St. Ours National Historic Site. The lock was built between 1830-1833, and the lockkeeper’s house is now a small museum that describes the canal’s commercial heyday. Parks Canada also has placed six large rental tents on the island for campers equipped with electric heat and cooking supplies. These rentals — a cross between a tent and a cedar cabin — are a leisurely, comfortable way to experience the flow of the river and of the lock as boats pass through.
Now the beginning of August, my push was to reach the mouth of the Richlieu at the St. Lawrence port city of Sorel-Tracy, about 20 miles north. The area at the mouth is industrialized in this city of about 35,000 people, and the St. Lawrence is broad, powerful, and occupied by large ocean-going freighters, making it an imprudent place to kayak.
But only a 20-minute drive downriver, the atmosphere was completely different. There, the western edge of the Archipelago of Lake Saint Pierre is dotted with 103 islands and wetlands that are important habitat for migratory waterfowl. The area, including Lake Saint Pierre just to the east, was recognized as an ecologically important Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations in 2000.
A boat launch immediately across from the private campground where I had set up (Camping Chenal-du-Moine) offered a tantalizing glimpse into this sprawling maze of islands and channels, as well as a guarantee of being outside the main shipping channel and the massive freighters cruising through.
The launch was still several miles from the lake itself, a widening of the river about 20 miles long and up to nine miles wide. For those who want to tour the area, several private tour businesses are available.
During my paddle along the channel between the shoreline and L’Île-du-Moine, I was joined by small recreational boats and saw many small seasonal cottages along both sides. The land was all privately owned, so there was no place to legally take out. But it was a quiet refuge close to the busy shipping lanes.
Sadly, I was behind my schedule, and so had to turn south the next day and make a run along the east bank of the Richelieu for the U.S. border, with a long drive taking me past sundown and thus, requiring a stay in a Vermont motel. That led to a detour Burlington, which also offers fantastic views of the Adirdondacks across the lake, and then, on to a campsite in a return visit to Button Bay State Park.
My two weeks were coming to an end, and I again crossed the Crown Point Bridge to return to the Washington County camp where I had started. I had added 700 additional miles on my odometer, and some great memories of two rivers and a beautiful lake region that could take several lifetimes to fully explore.