Champlain Islands | VermontFreshwater Pearls
One thing’s for sure: There’s weather here. Enfolded in the bright white clouds that scud like sails across the sky, casting shadows over Lake Champlain. In the heavy sunlight penetrating this year’s peonies, burnishing them from within. And in the rain that’s been pelting nonstop as we edge our way north past Burlington, Vermont, on I-89 and veer west onto Route 2, that slender byway stringing the Champlain Islands together like fishing wire.
Where does it come from?
Here at the upper part of the lake, a weather front might slide off the Adirondacks on one side, or Vermont’s Green Mountains on the other. It might steal down from Canada, crossing the border without papers, in the middle of the night. Maybe it starts deeper in New England, at the southern tip of this 120-mile-long body of water, building momentum as it pushes along the surface of the largest lake east of the Great Lakes and the sixth-largest freshwater lake in the country.
The windshield wipers beat a steady rhythm. We splash over the first causeway, onto South Hero Island. That’s the thing about rain: You have to slow down.
And, at the same time, something is rising.
Out there, where we can’t quite see them yet, islands lift out of the gray water, like ancient, lumbering sea turtles. The names of the Champlain Islands intermingle with those of their towns: South Hero, Grand Isle, North Hero, Isle La Motte, and Alburgh (technically a peninsula, but always counted nonetheless). Silhouettes of barn silos emerge and retreat as we slice through mist, and green humps of hills grow and recede. Small twisters spiral off the tires of a pickup truck barreling by. It’s positively antediluvian. The sort of day when you might see Champ–Lake Champlain’s version of the Loch Ness monster–raise its head and turn to stare.
We’re somewhere mysterious–anything can happen.
The waters swirling around the Champlain Islands can be deep–up to 400 feet in some places, deeper than a regulation football field is long. Thousands of years ago, the lake was part of the Champlain Sea, which was in turn connected to the Atlantic. Champ may be mythological, but Chazy Fossil Reef, on one of these islands, is not. It’s a time-traveling map, set in stone, filled with evidence of creatures that existed 480 million years ago. The ground you’re standing on literally started out in Zimbabwe, before it up and migrated to Vermont.
Ahead, the fields of South Hero spread out, broad and wide, like picnic blankets placed end to end. More-recent history weaves into the story, too, sometimes with a bit of Colonial ego. Legend has it that in the late 1700s, North and South Hero were named for Vermont’s famous Green Mountain Boys, Ethan and Ira Allen–by request of Ethan.
Meanwhile, it’s centuries later, coming up on noontime. Farms glide by, and a bright blue-metal roof gleams in the distance–St. Joseph’s Church. Suddenly the darkness seems less dark. Tents rise up around the base of the church, and it looks like a medieval fair, but it’s actually the weekly Saturday Farmers’ Market in Grand Isle. These folks have grit, as well as products that highlight the islands’ abundance of diversity: Slowfire Bakery bread, Thistle Meadows jam, fresh veggies from Savage Gardens, and Grand Isle Pasta. I swear the clouds are lifting.
“Try the maple walnut–better known as Vermont’s vanilla,” suggests Island Homemade Ice Cream owner Gary Sundberg, a former Verizon engineer. Like Ben and Jerry, those two other well-known Vermonters, Gary took the Penn State “Cow to Cone” ice-cream manufacturing course. Working closely with neighboring farmers, he recalls the day when one of them had a surplus of extra-large cantaloupes. “We made an awesome cantaloupe sorbet and sold it to all of the island restaurants,” he says gleefully. “Sometimes it works out; sometimes it’s a giveaway.”