Kayaking to Canada: A Champlain Odyssey (Part II)
After battling three days of wind, waves and rain while kayaking to Canada on Lake Champlain, Andy Lynn, Phil Plouffe and I at last found refuge on Valcour Island, half a mile off the coast of Peru, N.Y.
“This looks like a good place to hole up for the night,” I said, as we approached protected coves and sandy beaches along the 968-acre island’s mostly rocky shore.
We hoped to fare better here than General Benedict Arnold did in October 1776, when he was still fighting for the Americans. After the Continental fleet hid on the island from British warships, Arnold ordered troops to sneak away at night in rowboats.
Big mistake. The Brits caught up, burned Arnold’s flagship, the Royal Savage, and forced the Yanks to skedaddle on foot, all the way to Fort Ticonceroga at the south end of the lake.
The village of Ticonderoga is where Andy, Phil and I began our 90-plus mile kayak excursion on Sept. 3. I wrote about the beginning of our adventure in last week’s column, “Kayaking to Canada: A Champlain Odyssey (Part I);” this installment describes the rest of our voyage to the Canadian border.
The day before we landed on Valcour, wretched conditions led us spend a second night at a motel cottage in Essex, N.Y., rather than pitch tents at Ausable State Park in Peru, where we had a campground reservation.
Once it became clear we were too far away to reach Ausable that day, the three of us detoured into Corlear Bay in Keeseville, N.Y.
I was dispatched to seek permission from the owners of a beach to leave our boats for the night. Andy said I was perfect for this mission because of my customary strategy of “washing ashore and relying on the kindness of strangers.”
Barbara Sullivan and Darrell Burns, whose hilltop home overlooks the beach, were extremely gracious, and peppered us with questions. They couldn’t quite understand why three guys from Connecticut would voluntarily kayak all day and sleep in tents at night.
“You guys are crazy,” Barbara concluded.
Truth told, we didn’t camp every night, or only eat granola and energy bars. After securing our boats, we phoned motel owner James Youngs-Schmitt, who arrived by car, drove us about 20 miles to his cottage – we all stopped first for pizza – and then brought us back to our kayaks the next morning. Benedict Arnold’s soldiers didn’t have it quite so soft.
Skies had begun to clear and wind subside when we lugged our boats from the beach the following day. Barbara and Darrell waved from a window as we shoved off.
A few sailboats and powerboats were anchored off Valcour when we arrived in late afternoon, but the island itself was deserted. The French named it Isle de Valcours, or Island of Pines, after the area was colonized as New France following Jacques Cartier’s 1534 explorations. New France was ceded to Great Britain and Spain in 1763 and eventually absorbed within Canada and the United States.
Much of the island was divided into small farms during the 19th century, when a small Utopian community, the Dawn Valcour Agricultural and Horticultural Association, established in 1874, briefly flourished. Boys attended a summer camp on Valcour in the early 20th century, when seasonal cottages also dotted the shoreline.
The state of New York began purchasing properties in the early 1960, with plans to create an elaborate park with marinas, picnic areas, 18-hole golf course and giant movie screen for boaters. Fortunately, conservation activists persuaded authorities to include Valcour in six-million-acre Adirondack Park, which prevented extensive development. Today, the state-owned island is managed by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, which provides 29 primitive campsites on a first-come, first-served basis.
After pitching our tents, we walked for a couple miles on well-marked trails and stopped to admire the Bluff Point Lighthouse, completed in 1874 and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Built of blue limestone with a red-shingled mansard roof, the lighthouse’s 35-foot octagonal tower provides a solar-powered beacon that continues to serve as a navigational aid.
For Phil, no camping experience is complete without a campfire, and he spent more than an hour gathering twigs and branches. The three of us lingered around a crackling blaze after dinner, and then were lulled to sleep by gently lapping waves and the mournful calls of loons.
A glorious dawn greeted us the next day, and we made good progress paddling around the enormous Cumberland Head peninsula, cutting between Plattsburgh, N.Y., in Cumberland Bay to the west, and Grand Isle, Vt. to the east.
Eastern monarch butterflies fluttered overhead. Every fall they fly thousands of miles to central Mexico, a journey that puts ours to shame – no maps, no GPS, no cozy cabins in stormy weather.
While paddling, we observed an abundance of loons, osprey, eagles, great blue herons, black ducks and brants. However, we did not see the legendary lake serpent Champ, sometimes called Champy – Lake Champlain’s version of the Loch Ness Monster.
During a three-mile paddle across Treadwell Bay, we gazed at New York’s Adirondacks to the west and Vermont’s Green Mountains to the east, including distinctive Camel’s Hump.
We then took a short break at Rocky Point, near the tip of Point au Roche State Park – only a couple miles from a campground at Monty’s Bay in West Chazy, N.Y., where we had a reservation that night.
There was still plenty of daylight, though, so after checking a map, we decided to push another 10 miles farther north to a campground in Kings Bay, near Coopersville.
The sun dipped beneath the western hills when we approached Kings Bay at the Point Au Fer peninsula. If we steered to the west side, we would arrive at the campground in about half an hour, but if we paddled on the east side, we could reach Canada by dark.
The vote was unanimous: Keep paddling north. When we steered past Point Au Fer, I announced, “Well, we’ve crossed the Rubicon.”
“Avanti!” Andy replied.
Less than two hours later, we paddled under the mile-long Rouses Point Bridge, also known as the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge. Just ahead, the remnants of Fort Montgomery, built in 1844, rose from an eight-acre island off Rouses Point.
In 1983, the U.S. government sold the property to Rouses Point industrialist Victor Podd, who put the old fort back on the market when development plans fell through. At last report, it’s still for sale.
The stone structure, incidentally, replaced a partially constructed fortification begun in 1814 that had to be torn down when it was discovered that a surveying error led to it being built on Canadian soil. That project became known as Fort Blunder.
A border agent had told me that a buoy beneath the Rouses Point bridge marked the U.S.-Canadian boundary, but we saw no such marker when we exited Lake Champlain and entered the Richelieu River. Had we continued kayaking farther north, we eventually would have reached the St. Lawrence River, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and then, after passing Newfoundland, the Labrador Sea.
We had paddled more than 27 miles over the past 10 hours, bringing our five-day total to nearly 100 miles. The Canadian border was far enough.
“OK, guys, great trip!” I said, “Time to head home.”
CATCH THE NIGHTLY SWALLOWS’ SHOW IN OLD LYME
Time is running out to view one of nature’s most stunning displays: the swirling, tornadic migration of hundreds of thousands of tree swallows at Goose Island on the Connecticut River, just off the Old Lyme shore.
The birds, which fly south for the winter, swarm every night around sunset, to the delight of kayakers, canoeists and paddleboarders who venture out to watch them.
The best places to launch are from a small parking lot at the end of Pilgrim Landing Road or along Ferry Road near Ferry Landing State Park. Both roads are off Route 156 in Old Lyme.
Last week, Lisa Brownell, Andy Lynn, Susie Schwartz, Robin Francis, Curt Andersen and I were among dozens of paddlers who made the short voyage to Goose Island, just north of the Baldwin Bridge. To avoid powerboat traffic and gusty winds, we steered into Lord Creek on the east side of the island, and enjoyed a bravura performance.
The migration is expected to continue for a few more weeks. Bring flashlights, lanterns and/or headlamps for the paddle back to shore after dark.
– Steve Fagin