All photos/art by Corey Hendrickson
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.”
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?
But all of this is still to come in the days ahead, plus a final night at the lovely Ferry Watch Inn, on the west shore of Grand Isle, with views to the Adirondacks. Unlivable when Troy and Janet Wert first bought the place in 1997, the proof of their hard work is everywhere: in the soaring barn they restored, beam by beam; in Janet’s gardens that hide fossils or trail along the water. The story of their labor, and love, is one we’ll hear over and over on these islands.
The sparkling B&B sits on a spectacular bluff overlooking the ferry, which crosses about every 15 minutes at this time of year. We’ll ride it, in a day or two, across this deep and unknowable Lake Champlain, simply for the thrill of turning around and chugging back. The wind behind us, the islands ahead of us, and fathoms of water below.
When You Go: Visit champlainislands.com for an overview of dining and lodging, attractions, events, and activities. And for detailed information on the venues noted in boldface in our story, go to: YankeeMagazine.com/more