Kayaking to Canada: A Champlain Odyssey (Part I)
Churning waves, propelled by a gusty wind, crashed against towering cliffs and washed over our kayak decks as three of us struggled to stay upright on roiling Lake Champlain.
“What do you say we head ashore and take stock?” Andy Lynn called from his boat.
“Sounds like a good idea,” I replied, steering shakily around Split Rock Point off Essex, N.Y., toward a protected beach in Whallon Bay. Rain showers contributed to our misery.
This was the second day of a five-day, 90-plus-mile excursion from Ticonderoga, N.Y., to Rouses Point on the Canadian border, and by far the most challenging.
“This is payback for yesterday’s calm conditions,” Phil Plouffe grumbled. He was paddling in the bow of my 22-foot tandem kayak; Andy was aboard his 18-foot single.
Phil later said he was terrified that wind and waves would slam us into the rocky shore. Meanwhile, Andy was so focused on reaching the beach he didn’t even notice the huge boulders only feet away.
“Just before the wind picked up, my arm started to bother me. But once the waves got rough, it stopped hurting,” he said. Evidently, the body can deal with only one challenge at a time.
Whether or not Sunday’s near-squall was payback, it certainly presented a departure from our launch the day before at a public ramp not far from historic Fort Ticonderoga. The lake was so calm and the temperature so balmy then we didn’t bother securing spray skirts over the cockpit coamings, and a steady tailwind blew us quickly 15 miles to our first campsite.
“Perfect conditions!” I exclaimed. “This is why I wanted to come back to Lake Champlain.”
Almost 20 years ago, friends, family and I kayaked south from Rouses Point to Ticonderoga, and then some of us continued south on Lake George, portaged over to the Champlain Canal and down the Hudson River, finishing a 320-mile voyage by rounding the Statue of Liberty near the southern tip of Manhattan.
I particularly enjoyed the Champlain leg of that 13-day expedition, and when planning last week’s voyage, I decided to reverse direction and paddle south to north. That way, we wouldn’t be squinting into the sun every day, and also, I hoped, we could take advantage of a prevailing south wind.
That strategy worked well on the first day, but then the confounded wind shifted. For three straight days, we fought a north headwind that brought clouds and rain. The weather improved considerably, though, at the finish of our trip, so, as Shakespeare wrote, all’s well that ends well.
Champlain, sometimes called America’s sixth Great Lake, spreads out over 490 square miles between New York’s Adirondacks and Vermont’s Green Mountains. Named for French explorer Samuel de Champlain, the first European to reach its waters in 1608, the lake measures 12 miles across at its widest section, but narrows to only a few hundred yards at its southern end. After launching on the New York side, we easily crossed east into Addison, Vermont, where I had reservations at a small campground.
We were the only tenters, surrounded by dozens of RVs – hardly a wilderness setting. No matter, it was a convenient place to spend the night, offering running water, a picnic table, fire ring and even an outlet to charge our phones, which we used, along with printed maps, to help navigate.
The next morning, after cooking breakfast over butane camp stoves, we folded tents, rolled up sleeping bags, stuffed clothes into waterproof bags, packed away other supplies, and lugged everything a couple hundred yards from the campground to our boats, which were pulled up on a beach across the street. Mist dissipated after we set out shortly after 8 a.m.
Fifteen minutes later, we paddled beneath the gracefully arched, 2,200-foot-long Lake Champlain Bridge between Crown Point, N.Y., and Chimney Point, Vt., and steered due north. We pulled ashore a couple hours later for a short break to stretch our legs, and felt a gentle breeze in our faces.
Soon, though, ripples creased the lake, and then the wind began to blow in earnest. A couple in a powerboat pulled ashore, warning us that conditions were about to worsen.
My initial plan had been to hug the Vermont shore a few miles north before scooting across to New York just beyond The Narrows, but realized we would have to make that crossing sooner.
“Let’s go!” I urged, and we aimed due west, buffeted by a crosswind and beam waves.
An hour of hard, steady paddling finally brought us to comparative calm in Port Henry, but we still faced a long, upwind leg to reach our intended destination in Essex, N.Y. Because it was Labor Day weekend, all the nearby campgrounds were booked when I tried to make a reservation a week earlier, but I was able to book a night at a waterfront cottage. We just had to paddle there, against building wind and seas.
Rather than paddle straight into the wind, we frequently ducked into bays and coves, which nearly doubled the distance. As darkness approached 10 hours and 22 miles later, when we barely made it past Split Rock Point and decided to hole up at Whallon Bay, we still had more than two miles to go to reach the cottage.
Luckily, our fortunes were about to turn.
While Andy and I unpacked gear, bailed out our boats and prepared to leave them for the night, Phil, soaking wet, tramped to a nearby road and caught the eye of a passing motorist.
“You need help?” a young man named Tom, asked.
“Well, yeah,” Phil responded.
Tom drove us to the motel, where James Youngs-Schmitt, owner of the cozy cottage, greeted us warmly.
“I was beginning to worry about you guys,” he said.
James delivered hot towels, threw our soggy clothes into a dryer, called a nearby restaurant to make sure their kitchen would stay open for us, and basically took us under his wing, serving not just as gracious hotelier, but chauffeur, tour guide, historian and entertaining raconteur over the next couple days.
In the morning, James – whose great-grandfather operated the ferry between Essex and Charlotte, Vt. In the 1800s – drove us back to our boats. He also urged us to call him if we needed help later in the day, when the forecast called for continuing rain and wind.
“Don’t hesitate!” James insisted. We thanked him profusely, loaded our boats and climbed aboard. I had hoped we’d reach a state campground at Ausable Point in Peru, N.Y., that afternoon, but with the added distance, we’d have to cover because of our weather-shortened day, this was now about 27 miles away.
“I think we have to revise our itinerary,” I said, as we began paddling north.
I’ll describe the rest of our voyage in next week’s column.