Lake Willoughby sits in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, its southern end wedged spectacularly between a pair of shaggy, slouchy mountains that flank the lake like bookends. Mountains have the merit of always adding grandeur to a landscape, and when mixed with a shimmering expanse of water, the whole scene can approach the sublime. The lake nearly took my breath away when I first saw it; soon after, I pulled off the road and began hiking up Mount Pisgah’s north trail.
The trail winds upward through an open forest of maples and beeches and crosses a couple of small streams. In about an hour’s time, I found myself huffing out atop sheer cliffs. From there, I looked west over the encasing hills, then on to the serrated teeth of the distant Adirondacks, with verdant farmland in between. The lake was far below, the surface laced with the white tendrils of north winds. Also below were a pair of hawks and, for a vertiginous moment, a small white airplane.
I spent the better part of a morning more or less just sitting on the ledges. Mount Pisgah’s cliffs are a spectacular spot, like being in a 19th-century painting of New England’s wilds (well, if you ignore the airplane). But although it was undeniably sublime, wild still seemed elusive here.
Except for the very tip, where there’s a campground and a small marina, the south end of the lake is part of a state park; other than a road along the eastern shore, there’s little sign of development. But the lake doglegs toward the north, and summer homes and cottages line the shore densely here, all peering down at the wild end of the lake as if watching a staged show. What’s more, the lake lacks islands and has a relatively straight shoreline–the work of industrious glaciers–so you can’t be out on the water and hide from view, which to my mind is a big part of getting into the wild.
On a wild lake, you should have flashes of momentary panic, wondering where you are: where the river outlet is, what cove you’re looking at, and whether that piece of land is a point or an island. I love Lake Willoughby. It’s beautiful and sublime. But it’s been tamed. I headed east.
Barton Area Chamber of Commerce 802-239-4147; centerofthekingdom.com/recreation/lake_willoughby_vermont.html