|From my isolated campsite on the western shore of Lake Champlain, I witnessed the northern lights arch across the cavernous sky simulating a luminous, murky rainbow. The darkness of the night canvas intensified the shower of stars that seemed to shimmer down like crystal raindrops. The rhythmic lapping of the water against the rocks provided the evening's auditory delight, while the lone motorboat gradually making its way down the lake was the only witness to civilization.
Wedged in between the Green Mountains of Vermont and the Adirondacks of New York, Lake Champlain-- 120 miles long and measuring 12 miles across at it's widest-- affords paddlers unexpected solitude given its size. While camps and houses dot the shoreline along the Vermont side, on its western shore, the foothills of the Adirondacks plummet straight into the water creating a distinctively Swiss image. Much of the New York side is protected land, owned by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
"We were surprised by how rugged the New York side is," recalled John McConnell, of Hinesburgh, VT. He and his wife, Jane Taylor, circumnavigated the lake in August 2001. "It's an undiscovered rural area, but very accessible by water."
With 600 miles of shoreline and 70 islands, Lake Champlain-- named after Samuel de Champlain, a French explorer and the first white man to navigate this body of water in the early 1600s-- offers ample exploration for the nautical adventurer.
The Lake Champlain Paddlers Trails provides outdoor enthusiasts with 27 different camping spots along the lake, ranging from fully equipped state parks to primitive one-tent spots on private land. All but one of the primitive sites has a composting outhouse, tent site and fire pit.
"The Paddler's Trail was a real discovery in itself," said McConnell. He and his wife began their journey in South Bay, near Whitehall, NY and mapped their route according to the Trail. "We wanted to see how much of the lake we could see," explained John, a webdesigner and avid paddler. "We'd been kayaking in Quebec each summer for the past seven years, but realized we didn't really know our own lake."
Heading north along the New York side, they were surprised at how few paddlers they encountered. "We met a lot of sailors and motor boaters, but not many kayakers," he said.
For most of the lake, campsites are eight to ten miles apart, an easy day's paddle. The stretch between Kingsland Bay and North Beach in Burlington is the notable exception, though you could opt for luxury digs at Shelburne Farms Inn, the 19th century former Vanderbilt estate superbly situated on the 3,800-acre Shelburne Farms, now a non-profit educational resource center and working farm.
Located in the northern "Inland Sea" portion of the lake, the Champlain Islands offer remote and scenic paddling. The popular Burton Island State Park just off the southwestern tip of St. Alban's Point is the ideal place to launch an island excursion. Burton Island, accessible by boat or ferry, has 17 tent sites, 26 lean-tos, 15 boat moorings and a 100-slip marina, plus canoe and kayak rentals, a nature center, food service and other amenities.
Knight Island State Park occupies all but 10 acres of land on the 185-acre island's southern tip. From North Hero State Park it is an eight-mile paddle across open water, though with prior reservations the ferry from Burton Island can deposit you here. Only a mile long and a half-mile wide with no sanitary facilities or potable water, Knight Island represents one of the more remote camping experiences on the lake. Even more secluded is Woods Island, a 5-site, 125-acre undeveloped island home to many rare or threatened species of plants.
Paddlers share the nautical highway with plenty of migratory waterfowl: blue heron, peregrine falcons, bald eagles, duck, geese, osprey and loons. Although there are no recorded nesting loons on the lake as yet, the haunting sound of a lone loon occasionally can be heard in Button Bay or further north between Valcour Island and the western shore. In the early spring, bald eagles fish at the confluence of the lake and Otter Creek.
Just south of Otter Creek looms the Pallisades, an expanse of spectacular granite cliffs reaching over 100 feet high. Peregrine falcons nest atop the cliffs and in the spring a constant flow of water down a northwestern corner can be heard from the middle of the lake. The best time to view the Pallisades is at sunrise when the emerging sun casts a pink alpine glow on the towering rock reflecting an Impressionist painting on the liquid canvas below.
One summer morning as we paddled toward the Palisades from Basin Harbor at dawn, I held still long enough to experience a silent flock of ducks glide so closely by that their synchronized flapping sent ripples through my hair.
Other creatures on the lake are not so welcomed, however. With their razor-sharp edges, the proliferation of zebra mussels in the lake makes footwear mandatory. Given their innate water filtration systems, zebra mussels have made the water much clearer over the past five years. But they threaten the ecological, recreational and economic viability of the lake by attaching themselves to shipwrecks, water intake pipes and boats and killing native plants. Mosquitos and deer flies can be a problem in summer, so bring bug repellant. Then, of course, there's Champ, Lake Champlain's purported sea creature.
But Champ isn't the only mystery lurking beneath the surface. Because it connects with the Hudson River with the Saint Lawrence River and eventually the Atlantic Ocean, the lake was an important trade and military route and its bottom is dotted with hundreds of shipwrecks. It is, says Lake Champlain Maritime Museum Direetor, Art Cohn, "One of the most historic bodies of water in North America."
The lake provided a critically important strategic invasion route for the French, British and Americans for three wars beginning with the French and Indian Wars in the 1750s. Remnants of the lake's military and commercial history abound: he ruins of Ft. Ticonderoga are accessible by water for public viewing; old stone warehouses line the shore; and many of the lighthouses built from 1826 onward still serve as a navigation aid for today's boaters. The harbors of Burlington, VT and Essex, NY "exist very much as they were in the 19th century," according to Cohn.
For the historically minded paddler, Lake Champlain is a treasure trove of discoveries. Although it might be one of the most beautiful bodies of water in the world, "The lake's American history enriches the aesthetic experience beyond one's wildest dreams," said Cohn.
For example, south of Basin Harbor, lies Arnold's Bay, named after Benefit Arnold who commanded the American fleet on the lake in 1776. Arnold successfully defended against the British at the Battle of Valcour Island, further up the lake, and retreated to what is now known as Arnold's Bay. It is here that he destroyed five American ships so the British couldn't capture the boats for their own use-- a pivotal moment in the Revolutionary War.
Today, Lake Champlain sees very little action, military or otherwise. The lake, particularly south of Burlington, sees minimal motorized boat traffic though weekends are naturally busier.
As I pushed out from Basin Harbor one early autumn, the fading sun inched toward the mountains saturating the sky with a blush of ocher, pumpkin and goldenrod. Dipping my paddles into the deep water, I created swirls of concentric circles, each lingering ever slightly before dissolving into one shiny surface again. Save for some geese hinting of the winter months ahead, I had no companions--- no fellow paddlers or devoted anglers' and that's one of the great treats this lake has to offer.
"There's a lot of diversity on Lake Champlain. You can go twenty miles south or north, or across the lake, and have a completely different experience," said McConnell. "If you put in at a different spot and paddle a few miles, you can discover you own little bit of solitude."