Champlain Islands | VermontFreshwater Pearls
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.”
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.”