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Lake Champlain by Solo Canoe: October 6-8

Aug 2, 2011
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Scituate, RI
Paddlers & Boats:
Chuck: Hemlock SRT
Mike: Mad River Explorer 16
Tommy: Bell Magic
Jim: Mad River Guide

After constantly monitoring the forecasts, and agonizing over our trip choice, we made the call to go for Lake Champlain to take advantage of a “ginormous” (NWS terminology, not mine) “ridge-o-saurus” (again, NWS, not me) of high pressure that was coming into the northeast. So we met at the take-out, left Jim’s Rav-4, and headed to Plattsburgh to spend the night.

After taking advantage of the free Econo Lodge continental breakfast, such as it was, we headed to the Green Street boat access located where the Saranac River flows into Cumberland Bay. From the put-in, things looked pretty calm, with a light breeze out of the north. So, instead of hugging the shore (one of our “Rules of the Trip”), we decided to head straight out to Cumberland Head Light, a distance of a hair less than three miles. Since the boats were trimmed for heading into the wind (which was coming from the north as we headed west-southwest), some of us had some control issues (Jim piped up that he disliked big lakes), but we made it without incident, and rounded Cumberland Head to head north.

Straight ahead of us was the ferry, which was leaving (with another headed over from Gordon Landing on South Hero Island), so we took a short break on the beach at the dock. Once the next ferry arrived, we made our move, and ended up threading the needle between the two ferries as one arrived, curving in front of us, and the other departed behind us. In the meantime, we were now headed into a moderate breeze with 1 to 2 foot waves. This was no big issue, since our boats were trimmed to deal with this, and we ferried ourselves across to South Hero Island, crossing into the State of Vermont as we did so.

From there, we battled our way north towards Nichols Point. By the time we got there, the wind had picked up again, coming from the northwest at around 10 to 15 mph. Jim mentioned that he wasn’t a fan of big lakes. We picked our way into the lee side of Long Point Island and took another break, looking across at the entrance to The Gut (the bay that separates North Hero Island from South Hero Island) a little over half a mile away. It was still early, about 11:30. One camping option was Campmeeting Point on the north side of The Gut, but we decided to go straight across to the other side of North Hero and see if conditions there were any better.

They were, so we decided to head to Knight Island. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. The safest route between two points, at least on big lakes, is a short line. These two lines are often different lines. We initially stuck close to shore, but Mike started to drift, clearly taking the direct line route. So, to stay together, we all chose the beeline and headed straight across the Inland Sea. “Go Big or Go Home.” We made it to Knight Island almost two hours later and, after a little perusal of the shoreline, settled on Birch Bay campsite, equipped with a privy, fire pit, picnic tables and two lean-tos. The mileage was 14 miles for the day.

Winds seemed manageable when we got up the next day, so we again got a wild hair about us and decided to beeline straight for Kings Bay. The wind had shifted to the south, and by the time we reached Kings Bay 3.8 miles later we were catching some surf rides on the rollers. Things didn’t really calm down that much until we reached Holiday Point, but after that we had easy conditions the rest of the way to Stephenson Point, and when we rounded that point we found our first “glassy” conditions of our journey. Jim was happy, but denied he had taken a liking to big lakes. A quick paddle around the other side of the point found us at the trail leading into the closed loop of North Hero State Park that is now used for primitive camping for paddlers.

This campsite was basically created out of a swamp, so it is no wonder it has a reputation for voracious mosquitoes, a reputation we found to be well deserved. It would be much improved if they would at least install a privy, or open up the bath houses, but we’ve done primitive before so it was no big deal. We walked around the abandoned campsite for a while, and found a neat nature trail with some enormous shagbark hickories and a distinct lack of wildlife, save for the aforementioned mosquitoes and the first eastern redbellied snake I had ever seen.

We had a good campfire, and fell asleep to the hoots of barred owls and whines of mosquitoes. WE had paddled 9.5 miles this day.

The next morning, we heard some heavy gusts through the trees. “Light and Variable Winds my ass” was our feeling about the NWS forecast of a couple days ago. Jim started complaining about big lakes. The adrenaline started before the boats were loaded, even though from our limited vantage point things looked pretty benign.

The plan was to head northeast from Stony Point across to Clark Point in as expeditious a manner as the taciturn lake would allow. Things began auspiciously enough, but as we traded the blocking influence of North Hero Island for the blocking influence of Popasquash Island (which is about a bazillion times smaller and farther away), we started to rock and roll. This water was BIG. The winds seemed to only be in the ten m.p.h. range, but the waves, which occasionally were in the 3 to 3.5 foot range, hadn’t gotten that message. Fortunately, these were not breaking waves; rather, they were fairly steady swells with interspersed minor chop and a smattering of whitecaps. Nevertheless, it was an unsettling feeling, and I now have a good idea what it might be like to paddle open canoe in the open ocean.

Our route pretty much left us with beam seas coming from our right (southeast), and this orientation lead to a pretty weird phenomenon as we stroked our way north. Despite the wind coming from the southeast (which should have pushed us northwest) and the waves rolling with the wind (which also should have flushed us in the same direction), our canoes definitely drifted to the northeast (in fact more east than north) with no effort. My suspicion is that, with a heavy stern, the waves were swinging the boats so that as we paddled we were slightly quartering the oncoming waves.

At any rate, I never felt unsteady or in danger. Whoever said the SRT excels in big lake water was absolutely right…the boat did everything I asked of it and more. When the time came to turn downwind so I didn’t smash myself to pieces on Hog Island, it even caught some swells for brief but exhilarating surfs. We all eventually made it across and at the first opportunity landed on a beach to kiss the shore and let the adrenaline levels subside a bit.

Our next challenge (this last day seemed to be throwing plenty at us) was to make it under two bridges in to Missisquoi Bay. This sounds pretty easy, and in the case of the Route 78 bridge it was, but before we got to it we had to get under a railroad bridge. The bridge, which is only about 4 feet high, is set on large piers set maybe 4 feet apart nearly across the entire width of the lake, except for a section near the center that is set on a large mechanism that rotates to allow larger boats through. Hoping to avoid paddling that far out into the maelstrom, we sought a way through the piers. The problem was, for quite a distance, all of the piers marching from the eastern shore were blocked with cross bracing. Once we found openings without the cross-bracing, we found most to be inhabited by the stubs of former pipers, the tops of which winked in and out of sight in time to the swells. So, we picked one that seemed to be stub-free, approached cautiously, and essentially surfed our way through the wickets.

Once in Missisquoi Bay, things got a lot easier. The waves calmed down to the “one foot or less” that the NWS was predicting, and we had a pleasant paddle past Donaldson Point into Long Marsh Bay. The delta hiding the mouth of the Missisquoi River was pretty obvious and, unlike many travelers before us, we had no problem finding the correct channel. GPS is a beautiful thing, but I think a good map is enough in this case.

At the mouth, we met a couple guys fishing, and Jim asked them if “this was the way to Louie’s Landing”. They replied in the affirmative, and suggested that they hoped we had “eaten our Wheaties” (people up in Northern Vermont evidently still use that expression) because we had to paddle against the current into a southerly wind. Ha! If they had only known what we’d paddled through that day already! Needless to say, the Missisquoi presented no obstacle whatsoever, and it was nice to have a change of view for the last few miles of our trip.

It was a phenomenal experience to take on the challenge of solo canoeing across Lake Champlain, and we all enjoyed it immensely. Except perhaps Jim, who frequently asked us all if he had mentioned that he despised big lakes. I think it is safe to say that we all agree (especially Jim) that we are unlikely ever to try it again. We never had any major problems, but I think we all feel like we got away with one. Shiva doesn’t blink often.

Photos of the trip can be found at: http://outdoors.webshots.com/album/581466396xBtlIU
A slightly more detailed write up can be found in my NFCT blog, www.canoetales.wordpress.com


Re: Lake Champlain by Solo Canoe: October 6-8

Thanks for the great report