Paddlers’ Trail offers human-powered adventures on Lake Champlain
MIDDLEBURY — Peter Hamlin says that while winter in Vermont is for the mountains, the summers are for the lakes. Hamlin has been enjoying Lake Champlain since he was a student at Middlebury College 30-plus years ago when he also worked as a chauffeur at the Basin Harbor Club in Vergennes and often canoed across the lake on the weekends to hike and explore in the Adirondacks.
These days, the Middlebury College professor of music spends his summer days cruising Lake Champlain by kayak or in his 22-foot sailboat, Windsprite, which he keeps at Point Bay Marina in Charlotte.
“Within a day’s paddle it’s like you went on 10 different vacations,” he said of the lake’s varying characteristics and scenery, which features views of the Green Mountains, the Adirondacks, the steep 200-foot cliffs of the Palisades, as well as shallow bays, rocky beaches and 120 miles of water. “The variety is amazing.”
It’s that type of awe-inspiring scenery and moods that has Hamlin and many other water enthusiasts plying the waters of Lake Champlain by sailboat, motor craft and self-power craft like canoes, kayaks and guide boats.
But there’s a special characteristic of the lake set aside for those who want to paddle its shoreline. The Lake Champlain Paddlers’ Trail serves as a recreational corridor for human-powered craft and accesses more than 600 campsites along the lake’s shoreline and within the lake’s islands. Running from the northern border of Grand Isle to the southern tip of the lake before it runs into the Hudson River canals, the Paddlers’ Trail is sectioned off in day trips for paddlers who aspire to paddle all or part of the lake’s length, camping in specified sites along the way.
The trail is a project of the Lake Champlain Committee (LCC), a nonprofit that focuses on public access, clean water and a healthy lake. Executive director Lori Fisher said the move toward creating the trail began in 1988, when a group of 18 paddlers (three of whom were over the age of 70) made a nine-day paddle down the length of the lake.
Plans and projects got moving a few years after that, and since 1996 the trail has operated 43 access locations on public beaches, state parks, boat launches, wildlife management areas and a few with easements on private property. The trail is set up so paddlers or sailors can chart their own course to lakeshore and island campsites with many camps based on a first-come, first-service principle, but with permits required for those state campsites that require permits usually gained weeks in advance.
“If you like to experience water under your own power, the trail provides you with an amazing opportunity to access the special places of the lake,” Fisher said. “The trail exists because there’s an organization behind it and if that’s something people enjoy, we hope they’ll help us develop and expand it.”
The official guide to the trail is available in a 100-page guide published by the LCC, which covers the couple hundred miles of shoreline and features “chartletts or sectional charts” with distances between campsites, the natural history of each area, day tours, safety precautions, recommended gear, stewardship techniques and more.
Many of the campsites along the trail are within state parks in Vermont and New York, some with limited amenities and others with a more traditional camping experience. Burton Island and Grand Isle, two Vermont State Parks in the northern part of Lake Champlain, are open to the public and visitors are expected to pay regular site fees. Valcour Island, near Plattsburgh, N.Y., is maintained as part of the Adirondack State Park and visitors are required to obtain permits to camp. Many of the campsites, however, lack potable water and visitors are expected to pack out all trash, including human waste where latrines are unavailable.
The LCC also has agreements with seven property owners in Vermont, allowing the establishment of campsites on private property. In the section of Lake Champlain around Addison County, paddlers can access the trail and camp at D.A.R. State Park in Addison and Button Bay State Park in Ferrisburgh. Campsites in New York can be found at Barn Rock, Snake Den Harbor and Ore Bed Harbor, all in the Westport area. Vermont campsites on the southern lake can be found at Five Mile Point and East Creek Bay, both located in Shoreham.
Jean Richardson of North Ferrisburgh owns 21 acres of land called Five Mile Point, located just five miles north of Fort Ticonderoga. The point includes two campsites with western views of the Adirondack Mountains. Richardson has owned the land since 1994 and began listing the property on the Paddlers’ Trail in 1999.
“I think public access to a body of water is very important,” she said. “There is access for boats and fishing on the south lake, but there’s really very little south of the Crown Point Bridge where the public can access camping or get to know the environment of the lake. This is a wild site that allows you to get away from it all and have a low environmental impact.”
In the summer, she goes on overnight trips lasting four or five days with friends or family, paddling in a lightweight single-person canoe with her camping equipment and dog, William.
“It’s really wild when you consider how built-up the lake is,” she said.
The point has two campsites, which see about a dozen paddlers in a season, she said. A handful, she added, have stopped at Five Mile Point on their journey from the northern tip of the lake and south to the locks of the Hudson River, eventually paddling on to New York City.
In the next year, the LCC is planning to expand the number of overnight campsites so that there will be one every eight to 10 miles on the New York and Vermont shores. One of the largest stretches without a campsite is from Kingsland Bay in Ferrisburgh to North Beach in Burlington, a distance of roughly 18 miles.
Richardson said she’d like to see more property owners consider opening their land to the trail.
“It’s really not an imposition,” she said of the guests who use the campsites. “It might be busy during the Fourth of July weekend, but for the rest of the year there’s plenty of space. If you had a string of choices, canoe paddlers could more easily choose where to stay,” making the whole experience that much better, she said.
Big lake, big risk
While the lake remains open to all, paddlers need to exercise caution, whether they’re heading out for a few hours, a day or an overnight trip. Spanning 14 miles at its widest point, the lake has plenty of exposure to high winds and weather that can change from pleasant to stormy with high winds in a matter of minutes. Winds of 20 to 25 mph are not uncommon and can kick up two to three-foot waves that can tip unsuspecting paddlers.
To be prepared for this, the Committee recommends bringing all the necessary safety equipment and practice sound decision-making. File a float plan that includes an anticipated itinerary with put-in, take-out and planned stops and final destinations; back up plans for inclement weather, regular contact information and “call points” to check in with contacts.
Water travelers should wear or bring personal flotation devices and carry nautical charts and a compass for foggy days or night travel. A VHF radio and cell phone can help paddlers to regularly check the weather and call for help when needed. For emergency supplies, pack an audible signal such as a whistle or horn and a visual signal (safety flares) as well as a waterproof flashlight or headlamp.
While the hardiest of paddlers will explore the lake until ice and snow blocks the way, the LCC’s Lori Fisher said the best time to explore the trail is August or September when the water is at its warmest, reaching into the mid-70s. The waters in June start in the 50s and stay in the 60s through most of the month (which present dangers of its own), usually warming up to the low 70s sometime during July. Summer’s high water temperatures can last into early October as well, but as the region enters autumn, the water temperatures plummet and rougher weather moves into the lake region.
Most importantly, Fisher emphasizes that people explore the lake within their ability.
“Your paddling experience is much more enjoyable if you know your limits and the limits of everyone in your group,” she said.
As for Hamlin’s days on the lake this summer, he says he’s long been planning to put together a multi-day trip through the southern end of the lake spending the nights on his sailboat, while kayaking during the less windy parts of the days, and perhaps visiting the campsites at East Creek Bay and Five Mile Point as well as the several sites along the Paddlers’ Trail around Westport, N.Y.
“It’s such a beautiful and enchanting lake,” Hamlin said. “We’re incredibly lucky to live here.”
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