"Lake Champlain on Five Wheels"

Marissa Fink


The Champlain Bikeway winds its way through 363 miles in New York’s Adirondack Park, along the Richelieu River in Quebec, and through the Champlain valley of Vermont. We rode 308 miles of it. I took to the road on my Bike Friday New World Tourist and my husband Marty on his Greenspeed trike.

We started on a warm September morning from Silver Bay, New York, on northern Lake George. Thirty-two miles long, Lake George is one of the clearest lakes in the country and flows south to north to empty into Lake Champlain, which is America’s sixth largest body of water. Its northernmost town, Ticonderoga, and others like Crown Point and Port Henry all played key roles in the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars.

As we roll into Crown Point, we enjoyed a serendipitous tour of the Crown Point Bakery. Seeing that the shop was closed, we stopped at one of the tables and chairs out front to enjoy a morning snack from the supplies in our panniers. The owner, a young man who introduced himself as Yanek, saw us and invited us in for a look around. He mills his own flour from local organic wheat berries and bakes a variety of breads and pastries in his imported-from-France round wood-fired oven. The smells were intoxicating. We thanked him for the olfactory treat (alas, nothing was baked yet) and promised to visit again.

We headed on towards our first overnight destination, Westport, New York. From Port Henry to Westport, the route was a series of lakeshore rollers. For clarity, I’ll define “lakeshore rollers” as gently rolling with the occasional long steady hill or short climb out of the valley. Although the route took us farther from the lake shore than we had hoped, we were rewarded with occasional glimpses of the blue waters of Lake Champlain reflecting the cloudless skies through the still green trees.

The New York portion of the Champlain Bikeway is filled with dozens of historic markers, fishing marinas, resorts, and orchards. A stop at Gunnison Lakeshore Orchards in gave us a chance to stretch and get a few snacks. My favorite part was the apple cooler - where you could buy just one or a bushel of more than a dozen varieties of apples. You could almost taste their tart-sweetness in the chilled air. We took a few scones for the day and some apples for the days ahead.

We took a short detour as we neared Westport to visit YMCA Camp Dudley, America’s oldest continuously running boys’ summer camp in operation since 1885. The historic buildings and the new blended well on this spectacular lakeside property. While I was sitting on the front porch step of the Administration building, the camp dog, who I dubbed “Dudley Dog”, came to share the last of my scone from our orchard visit.

Arriving in Westport, we settled into our bed and breakfast accommodations and headed out for dinner. After a nice meal at the Westport Hotel, we took in one of the season’s last summer stock performances at the Depot Theatre housed in a restored railroad station. Players in the 130-seat theatre have to “freeze” the action for as long as 2 minutes or more when a train roars by on the still active tracks not 20 feet away from the stage and audience.

After repacking the panniers, we said goodbye to our hosts at the Inn on the Library on the Lawn.  Everybody’s Supermarket packed us two turkey sandwiches, pickles, and chips to go. It was to be a clear and windy day filled with a series of long, steady climbs and thrilling downhill runs. On one of the first of those runs so common to Adirondack riding, the headwind was so powerful that I had the sensation of what it might be like to be airborne flying on a Nimbus 2000. The tall woods and the mountain views were additional bonuses.

Long after our turkey sandwiches were gone and with many miles ahead of us, it was time to start looking for a refueling stop. Just as we were beginning to consider dipping into our reserve food bars, we saw a man posting a sign for a cheese shop and café. When we stopped him for directions, we realized we would pass right by the café on our intended route, and he realized that he was putting up his roadside sign in the wrong direction. Less than five miles ahead, just somewhere north of Willsboro, we enjoyed a great chunk of local organic smoked feta, home-made bread, and sparkling water.

We headed on to our overnight accommodations on Cumberland Head, a peninsula jutting out into the lake just outside of Plattsburgh, New York. Although the guest house was simple and unremarkable, the rhythmic waves crashing on the shoreline made this one of our favorite stops. From the yard we could almost see the ferry that crosses Lake Champlain to Grand Isle, Vermont, where we would find ourselves in a day or two.  

Still rolling through New York’s North Country, at Chazy Landing we elected to try one of the dozen or so inland loops that connect to the Champlain bikeway and ride to the Lake Alice Wildlife Management Area. Upon arrival we traded our bikes for a few short hikes to search for some letterboxes.  Letterboxes are small hidden containers that hold a logbook and a rubber stamp found in natural settings. Letterboxers hide them and put clues to their location on the Internet on one of several letterboxing websites. When you decipher the clues and find a letterbox, you get to stamp in with your own personal rubber stamp and add your reflections of the hunt or the day to the logbook. We look for them on all our rides and love sharing about our adventure and reading of others who have come that way before us. Our own personal logbooks have recorded hundreds of letterbox stamps and our reminiscences from rides and hikes all over North America.

After a quick stop at Ausable Chasm, we promised ourselves that we would come back again when we had more time to hike and explore. Popular for hiking, rafting and tubing, the Ausable Chasm is America’s oldest natural attraction.  It was formed when the Ausable River cut its way through the sandstone strata for thousands of years.

At Rouses Point, near the Canadian border, you can continue along the bikeway and the Richelieu River in Quebec, or cross Lake Champlain to Alburg, Vermont. The Canadian route travels along mostly flat plains, on rural roads with a short stretch on the hard-packed towpath of the Chambly Canal towards Fort Chambly. We shouted our “Bonjour” to Quebec and chose the crossing into Vermont. Already we had more than 40 miles behind us and at least ten until our bed and breakfast booking at Ransom Bay on the Lake Champlain Islands.

The Lake Champlain Islands stretch down the center of Lake Champlain for 27 miles from the mainland of Quebec in the north to South Hero Island at its southernmost point. We spent a few days on the islands using the Ransom Bay Inn as our home base. On the islands, which are connected by bridges and causeways, we explored the small villages, lakeside orchards and farms, and collected a few more letterboxes. Island life, at least at this time of year, is unhurried and non-commercial with constant views of the water with the Adirondack Mountains of New York and the Green Mountains of Vermont.

We left the Champlain Islands for a 56-mile ride to Burlington, Vermont. A heavily- trafficked causeway with a generous shoulder on Route 2 connects the islands to the Vermont mainland where the Champlain Bikeway continues along Mallets Bay. Had we made this ride in the summer, a seasonal bike ferry enables riders to avoid Route 2 and connects South Hero with the Island Line, a 13-mile rail trail from the Colchester Causeway to Burlington. Unfortunately, the season is very short and was over long before we arrived. Shortly after the causeway we were on the bike path heading to Burlington, once more riding along the lakeshore. We shared the trail with joggers, walkers, strollers and rollerbladers as we got close to the city. Despite a few root heaves, it was a charming ride into the heart of the city. Our final miles for the day were on city streets towards the University of Vermont and our accommodations for our Burlington stay.

Our guest house on Howard Street was a perfect haven to stow our bikes, take a quick shower, relax, and then only a one-mile walk to the Vermont Brew Pub for dinner and refreshments. The nearby downtown pedestrian shopping area is perfect for evening window shopping and a quick pop into Lake Champlain Chocolates for a bit of dessert. The full moon smiled down on us as we walked back to the guest house satisfied with our day’s ride and its rewards.

While in Burlington, we made sure to visit many of the excellent bike shops, including the Old Spokes Home. The Old Spokes Home in North Burlington sells both new and re-conditioned bikes and houses a bicycle museum in its top floor. We enjoyed a bit of bicycle history and then wandered on to nearby Ethan Allen Park for some local history.

The weather had been clear, warm, and rain-free for the first seven days of our trip, but thunderstorms were forecast for the day we left Burlington. We had about 50 miles ahead of us to our Addison bed and breakfast reservation so we got an early start hoping to maintain our good fortune. Once we navigated the bicycle friendly streets out of Burlington, we picked up the Champlain Bikeway route again and were soon rolling through farmlands and orchards. The temperatures rose into the high 70’s and low 80’s - a full twenty degrees warmer than average for this time of year; it seemed like it was this way for the entire trip.

One of the highlights of the day was the Shelbourne Orchards just south of Burlington. We watched local workers baking apple pies in outdoor wood-burning ovens, making fresh cider, and frying dozens of batches of cider donuts.  We easily convinced ourselves that we should have a donut and cider while we watched a busload of kindergarten kids roam the grounds picking apples from the low hanging branches. We also met a fellow rider who had just completed a cross-country ride on the Northern Route on his Bike Friday New World Tourist. He decided to stay on in Vermont for a while exploring co-op housing before flying back home to the West coast.

The route from Shelbourne to Ferrisburg continued to reward us with great mountain and lake views. The rain held off as we approached Vergennes for lunch, but road construction put us on a short detour on back streets that were so steep that they nearly brought us on our fully loaded bikes to a crawl. Skies continued to darken and lightening cracked in the distance, but we made it to the bed and breakfast in Addison just as the first raindrops were beginning to fall.

Our final forty miles were along the Vermont lakeshore and through farmland to Shoreham, where we took the cable ferry to Ticonderoga, New York, for the last leg of our trip home. The overnight rain was behind us, and although the clouds decorated our day, we finished up a nine-day trip without once donning our rain gear!

As is typical with many riders, we tend to remember the most challenging parts and recount them vividly when we tell others about our trip. Our challenge this ride came on that last day in the form of four miles of unpaved road that had been turned into mud after the heavy overnight rains that we managed to miss. Marty, riding the Greenspeed, plowed through the muck steadily.  I summoned up all my courage and stamina to keep myself and my Bike Friday upright as I slogged at three mph without putting my feet down on the pudding-like road surface. Fortunately the pleasant rolling terrain dotted with traditional Vermont farmhouses, farmers who waved to us from their tractors, and row after row of heavily-laden apple trees kept us focused on more pleasant things and we and our five wheels made it through without an incident.

Within 20 miles of crossing Lake Champlain we were back home on Lake George. This was our first vacation where we left and returned completely under our own power - never once traveling by plane, train, car, or bus - it was a good feeling knowing how much we can see and do in over 300 miles right outside our back door.

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Sidebar suggestions:

The Champlain Bikeway is a 363-mile route around Lake Champlain and along the Richelieu River in Quebec, on mostly paved, rural roads. There are many connecting loop rides, ranging from 10 to 47 miles that are available on paved and unpaved roads to extend your trip. Two bridges and four ferries create options for shorter rides. Maps, guidebooks, route directions, and suggested accommodations are available from:

Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing
1-800-VERMONT
www.VermontVacation.com

or

Lake Champlain Bikeways Clearinghouse
c/o Local Motion Trailside Center
1 Steele Street #103
Burlington, VT 05401
(802) 652-BIKE
www.champlainbikeways.org

Lake Champlain, is 107 miles long and 14 miles wide at its widest point. The lake and the surrounding valley are named for French explorer Samuel de Champlain.  The largest city on the lake - and in Vermont - is Burlington, home to the University of Vermont, and Vermont Teddy Bears.

Recommended Eating
Old Mill Café, Ticonderoga, NY
American Flatbread, Burlington, VT
Vermont Brew Pub, Burlington, VT
Skinny Pancake, Burlington, VT

Letterboxing
For more information about letterboxing, visit letterboxing.org or atlasquest.com. Read about the author’s research on letterboxing at www.letterblogger.blogspot.com