Vermont's Champlain Islands | Freshwater Pearls
Under blue sky and fluffy clouds, water sparkles on either side of the causeway to Isle La Motte. This least inhabited of the Champlain Islands is favored by cyclists–though all of the islands abound in quiet roads, farms, and fields to the horizon. You’re never far from the lake, with views that make it hard to keep your eyes on the road.
It’s certainly true now, as we pass a marker for Vermont’s oldest settlement, Fort Sainte-Anne, built near the water in 1666 by Captain Pierre La Motte. Directly across the street is St. Anne’s Shrine, an open-air, turn-of-the-20th-century chapel overlooking Lake Champlain. The priest’s words boom out over the loudspeaker, drifting toward the water: “Who is God?”
A lone cyclist flies by, and at that moment it’s hard to imagine a better place to ask that question–although metaphysical questions of a related nature might rear up a mile or so down the road at Fisk Farm, which is certainly a place where dreams come true. Or, in this case, where one determined woman makes dreams come true. A former psychotherapist, Linda Fitch splits her time between Princeton, New Jersey, and Isle La Motte. “It’s not for everyone,” she says, as she gestures around the Fisk Farm property, which includes the ruins of Fisk Mansion, along with a resurrected wooden barn, two guest cottages that rent by the week, and a handful of outbuildings. A typical guest, according to Linda, is “someone who wants to come and write the Great American Novel. This isn’t exactly a Madison Avenue location.”
It’s also for art lovers. In the summer months, the barn brims over with art and music. “We have incredible musicians who come from Montreal,” Linda says. “Move over, Carnegie Hall.” In July and August, Sunday tea is served on the lawn with scones and white tablecloths. It’s insanely beautiful.
And it looks effortless, too, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Following a massive restoration of the collapsing barn, Linda opened the tea garden in 1995. A week later, she was engaged in an eco battle that would last for the next three years, as she tried to prevent Fisk Quarry, practically in her back yard, from reopening. Hidden within the quarry was geological treasure: remnants of the 480-million-year-old Chazy Fossil Reef.
In the past, Isle La Motte’s elegant black-and-gray limestone, with its unique whorls and designs, had graced Radio City Music Hall, the National Gallery of Art, and the floors of the Vermont State House. Homes all over the Champlain Islands feature these quarried stones, too, whose embedded gastropods are a reminder of the once-living reef.
“It’s the best and only geological formation of this kind in the world,” Linda states flatly. “We gathered a grass-roots team, and we kept winning.” And at the end of the day, with state geologists speaking in defense of the ancient, entombed reef, funds were raised; the site, now Fisk Quarry Preserve, was acquired by the Isle La Motte Preservation Trust, and the reef was designated a National Natural Landmark.
A blip in the life of the reef, but a monumental effort that maybe ensures its survival for another 480 million years. Without intervention, “it would be a big hole in the ground, with machinery, no water, flattened and stripped,” Linda says. Instead, it’s a serene, otherworldly architectural monument alive with 108 species of birds, five kinds of fish, plus fox, otter, and beaver. “My biggest gift is finding wildly talented people,” she grins. “The universe plunked me into this area where I just wanted to preserve the beauty.” So how can she bear to leave it for six months of the year? She smiles: “I never leave it. I take Isle La Motte with me wherever I go.” And we do, too, as we skim southward, following the western shoreline, taking in the vast water views to New York.
Thankfully there’s still time: Time to stop at the South End Café and meet owners Steve and Carol Hall Stata, whose Hall Home Place Ice Cider is produced at her family’s historic 1828 homestead. “We joke that Dad would be very pleased,” Carol says. “We’re selling food out of one end of the house and booze out of the other, and making money.”
Time, too, in a few hours, to sling myself into a hammock on the porch of an elegant room at North Hero House, facing the water like a spyglass looking out to sea. To eat a dreamy dinner of delicate salmon dusted in chive blossom, and fall asleep to the sound of rolling waves. And in the morning, the inn’s genial owner, Walter Blasberg, who’s been coming to the islands since he was a child, will show us a rookery where great blue herons’ nests teeter in a primordial swamp. There will be time to rent a bike next door at Hero’s Welcome, an all-purpose general store/café/marina/emporium run by yet another corporate refugee, Bob Camp, the ex-CEO of Pier 1.
And, of course, time to zip around Butler Island with Captain Holly Poulin, whose Driftwood Tours, leaving from North Hero House, offer fishing, sightseeing, or daytrips into Burlington. It’s the watery side of the Champlain Islands story, told by someone who grew up here, got her captain’s license, and has been in business for 13 years.
“This is one of the best bass fisheries in the country,” she says matter-of-factly. Waves slap against the side of the boat as we pick up speed and lean into a turn. “It’s different out here, not crazy like the Burlington area,” she shouts into the wind. “There are so many islands around here to get out of the weather.”
It’s also far from the madding crowd, although Burlington is only about a half-hour’s drive. “We’re off Broad Lake [the main section],” she explains, “in an area called the Inland Sea [the northeast arm]. It borders northwest Vermont and ends in Quebec. That’s part of what makes it so special. A lot of days I’m the only one out here. It’s just so peaceful.”
“What about Champ?” I can’t resist asking.
“That’s one of the first things most people ask when they get on the boat,” she finally says, after a pause. “Last summer I saw something for the first time, something long and very, very large on the water, about 40 feet away. Just lying on top of the water, moving around.” She shrugs. “It was something, and it was big.” Who doesn’t love the mystery of water–what it hides, what it reveals, and the way it weaves in and around the lives of island folk?