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.”
The day brightens even more with a stop at Grand Isle Art Works. When Ellen Thompson and her husband, Jim Holzschuh, took over the ramshackle building just off Route 2, even the farmhouse doors were missing. Today, the gallery/café overflows with Vermont arts and crafts, including Anne Zolotas’ haunting driftwood horse sculptures, colorful fish flying against an orange wall, and yarn from Ellen’s Angora goats. “The only way you make a living here is through ingenuity,” Ellen observes. “Anne, the driftwood artist, cooks at Pan’s Pizza [on South Hero], teaches riding, and is on the local rescue squad. She’s a force of nature. But everyone here does more than one thing.”
As the day winds down, we speed toward Canada, stopping short of the border at the northernmost B&B in the Champlain Islands, Ransom Bay Inn & Restaurant in Alburgh. Our plan is to start at the top of the islands and work our way south for the next few days. On this rainy night, Loraine and Richard Walker, both former IBMers, infuse their 1795 stone inn with a warmth reserved for soapstone. Homemade strawberry-rhubarb pie helps ease the chill, too. Although “the croissants give me goose bumps,” comments a guest from Montreal, as she turns to her companion to translate. “How do you say ‘croissants’ in English?” Fortunately, we know exactly what she means. The next morning we have French toast made with Loraine’s croissants dipped in cornflakes, topped with a wallop of fresh creme and local syrup, which sets a high bar for comfort food. La French radio plays in the background.
This far north, it’s a waste of a passport not to follow pastoral Route 225 and cross into Quebec, 5 miles away. For the thrill of a border crossing, you can drive away with the best slice of cheese this side of France. “Take your first right turn,” the border guard directs us, down a rural lane to Fromagerie Kaiser, in Noyan. Set amid pastures and silos, this destination hops with fromage aficionados. There’s a deliciously smelly L’Empereur Léger … And then, miraculously, on Sunday, the land is washed clean.
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.”
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