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Island Hopping on Lake Champlain

Forget boating, bring your bike!

By Sheila Ascroft

Cycling by Lake ChamplainBeing by the water makes me feel good. Biking by the water makes me feel even better! If you yearn for watery companion too, then I have some great routes for you –the Champlain Islands.

Lake Champlain is a big, beautiful freshwater lake nestled between the Adirondacks of New York and Vermont’s Green Mountains. It is a haven not just for boats, but also bikes.

“The Islands” extend like a ragged finger southward through the centre of the lake. Hiving off the Alburg, VT, peninsula, which actually runs into Quebec, are North Hero, South Hero and  Isle La Motte islands plus several smaller ones. The Islands offer great biking along quiet back roads following the indented rocky shoreline, astonishing vistas where water mingles with sky, trolling fishing boats and speedy sailing boats, quaint towns, historic sites and  several state parks for camping.

The only catch of cycling beside a big lake is the wind, depending on its direction and strength; the ride could be fast and fun, or demandingly head strong. Or better yet, you might get a calm day. The route is pretty much flat with gently rolling hills that don’t require a granny gear.

You can ride around the islands by bridge, causeway and ferry. I opted for the north loop of about 100 km in mid-June before the high tourist season. My plan was to camp a second night at Cumberland Bay State Park and then ride the south loop the next day (it rained and I bailed early, but see below for details.)

North Island Loop

Even though it was overcast and humid, I felt a frisson of starting out on a fresh new route. I cycled from the state park along a well-paved bike path paralleling the road to the ferry, The trip took about 12 minutes and cost $4.75 US one way (for up-to-date info: www.ferries.com).

Off the ferry at Gordon Landing, I chose to take the West Shore Road as indicated by the small green and white Champlain Bikeway signs rather than follow #314 into Grand Isle village. Before I knew it, I’d met a friendly local who offered to take my picture by the lake. Her equally amiable greyhound joined in. The road was as close to the water as you could get without getting wet. Water, trees, little islands, shore birds, cabins, cottages, expensive year-round homes became the norm as I pedalled around curves and over little hills. The road linked out to the main island road, VT Rte 2, which has a paved shoulder all the way and is in good condition. I crossed my first (and probably only) drawbridge onto North Hero Island.

North Hero, the village, was founded in 1788 by American Revolutionary War “heroes” from Ethan and Ira Allen’s famed Green Mountain Boys. They also were given South Hero Island.

I stopped at the Hero’s Welcome General Store in North Hero, More importantly, there is a bakery! Bike rentals are available at Allenholm Farm on Grand Isle (www.allenholm.com/bikes.html) or at three Burlington shops, Local Motion, North Star Cyclery and Skirack, if you don’t want to bring your own bike.

Refreshed, I headed north, crossed a small no-name causeway where North Hero Island became very skinny before burgeoning into another landmass. I could see more islands to the east – Hen Island, Dameas Island, Butler Island, and Knight and Woods islands, which are state parks. In the distance were Ethan Allen’s Green Mountains, although with the gray skies they looked purple.

Coming off the North Hero bridge to South Alburg, which is a finger of land that drops from Quebec into the middle of Lake Champlain, I turned west on Rte 129 to West Shore Road so I could tour Isle La Motte (about 16 km loop). There’s little shoulder on these country roads, but unless you’re there during the peak of summer, the roads are not too busy.

Lake Champlain drawbridgeAnother island in the chain, Isle La Motte is famous for being site of Samuel de Champlain’s encampment in 1609 (there’s a statue  of course). All the little towns have street flags celebrating the 400th anniversary of his coming. Isle La Motte, which can only be accessed from the Alburg peninsula, is also famous for the world’s oldest coral reef – not that I saw it – and for the “black marble” limestone once quarried here, and for St. Anne’s Shrine, the site of the old French fort built in 1666, which is thought to be the oldest European settlement in Vermont. Enough history. Cyclists are allowed to swim at St. Anne’s sandy beach.

I returned to West Shore Road and headed north again to Alburg, then went east on Rte 2 to the final bridge to Rouses Point, NY. If I’d had the will, I could have turned west instead and crossed the bridge go onto “mainland” Vermont and Saint Albans (you can ride south along that shoreline back to ferry at Grand Isle.) As I pedalled over the bridge to the New York side, I noticed the infamous Fort Blunder (aka Fort Montgomery – it was built by the Americans on the Canadian side of the border – eventually the border was readjusted and it’s back on U.S. soil.)

Rouses Point, once a thriving border community, is showing a lot of wear and tear. Still, there are some glorious mansions facing the lake. I picked out the massive breakwater, which prevents ice from the spring breakup damaging the town. I kept cycling south on NY Rte 9B until Coopersville where I turned east onto another ubiquitous shore road, this one Lake Shore Road I could actually see across the water to Isle La Motte, where I’d been only hours before. I now pedalled into a slight headwind as I went south to Point au Roche Road. There, I turned onto Rte 9 and within a few klicks was back to my starting point at Cumberland Head. Depending on your personal meanderings, it’s about a 100-km loop. Rte 9 and 9B have a designated paved shoulder for bikes most of the way, although some sections just have signs suggesting vehicles “share the road.” There can be some traffic, but nothing like Ottawa’s roads!

South Island Loop

Even though I did not ride it, I’ve driven by car around the 100-km south loop. From the Grand Isle ferry, you take West Shore Road south (turn onto Lakeview Road so you don’t miss some of the castles built by a Swiss gardener) before connecting Rte 2 and the bridge over to “mainland” Vermont at Sand Bar State Park and then head south to Burlington. (Be warned: it can be very dicey on this road during the peak summer times and there is not always a shoulder). Another ferry links Burlington, VT to Port Kent, NY (www.ferries.com). It takes about 85 minutes and costs $5.95 US one-way). Back on the New York side, it is only about 25 km north on Rte 9 to reach Plattsburgh. A much safer and more relaxing route from south Hero Island is the “island line” – see sidebar.

Lake ChamplainIt’s your choice whether to do just the one south loop or combine it with the north route into a figure 8. Although there are no more islands, cyclists can even add a third loop further south to Charlotte, VT ferry to Essex, NY and then ride back north, again along Rte 9. It simply depends on how much time and energy you have to spend – and what the weather is like.

Diehards can even head further south in New York o the famous Fort Ticonderoga, take the ferry to Larabee’s Point in Shoreham, VT, and ride back north to Burlington. For a longer loop, there is a bridge crossing at Crown Point, NY to Chimney Point, Vt. The official end of the Lake Champlain Bikeways is at Whitehall, NY, where you can cross over to Vermont and return north to the Burlington ferry.

Officially, the whole Champlain Islands Bikeways includes the major loop through New York and Vermont around the 195 km long Lake Champlain. The 584-km loop actually includes the Richelieu River north to Chambly, Quebec.

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