At nearly 125 miles long and 14 miles at its widest point, Lake Champlain stretches from the Canadian border to the mouth of the Hudson River. Most of us may spend a day or two on it. A few may have motored or sailed the length of it. A few years back, a group of 13 teenagers rowed the length of it in 14 days.
Their journey by rowboat was the latest leg of a 600-mile circumnavigation of Vermont’s wilder places by way of cross-country ski, canoe, longboat and mountain bike. The trip was organized and led by Kroka Expeditions, an experiential learning school based in southern New Hampshire that emphasizes wilderness adventure and community living with the practice of traditional and indigenous skills.
In the deep of winter, the students began preparations: calculating distances on maps, weighing and bagging food, practicing telemark turns and crafting tools to carry with them. In early February they departed from their home base wearing anoraks they had stitched themselves and carrying packs heavy with a winter’s worth of gear plus food.
They trekked north on the Catamount Trail from the Massachusetts border up the spine of the Green Mountains. In early April, they reached Sky Meadow, a retreat center in Greensboro Bend in the Northeast Kingdom. There, they left their skis behind and prepared for the long journey by paddle ahead of them, starting out by canoeing the Lamoille for five days to where the river feeds into Lake Champlain, close to Burlington.
Along the way, students documented their experiences in journals and on a group blog. We’ve edited that blog and share it here.
This edited selection of student Rachel Hemond’s blog posts follows their spring, 2015 journey from Greensboro Bend on the Lamoille River to Lake Champlain. In Grand Isle, the group traded their canoes for rowboats and began a two-week trip south to the locks at Whitehall, N.Y.
It is late May and there is a new sweetness to the air as the winds bring the smells of treetops and flowers in bloom. Once again, we walk barefoot, last year’s leaves soft as a whisper on the soles of our feet. Spring brings with it freedom.
The change of seasons also brings a change in our way of life. No more skis and snowshoes; instead we take to the rushing waters of the Lamoille River by canoe. Starting in the headwaters, we spend a day learning the basics of paddling, before plunging headfirst into the freezing rapids, and for some of us, that plunge is literal. This is a terrifying, exhilarating journey by whitewater, demanding a primal skill that hones awareness to a razor’s edge, throwing each rock, riffle, and hole into sharp relief.
But even on the days when we flip a half dozen times, we easily right overturned canoes and return to the warmth of our base at Sky Meadow to dry wetsuits, hang clothes by the stove, and wring the river water out of ourselves.
Finally ready for our journey, we paddle down the Lamoille toward Lake Champlain. Our five days on the river are long but relaxed. As we float past big stretches of open farmland and tracts of dense trees, we see the world coming back to life; our path is marked by shouts of “GREEN” whenever a particularly vibrant patch of grass is sighted.
Then at last, we see Lake Champlain, the seemingly endless water extending before us.
We start our Lake Champlain expedition on Grand Isle, sleeping on the eastern shore at Grand Isle State Park. The rowboats arrive around lunch the next day, but to call them such does not do them justice. Our boats, Saint Ayles skiffs (the Perseverance and the Resilience) and a pilot gig (the American Shad) have been built by other high school students, enrolled in the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s program for kids who struggle in a traditional school setting.
I take charge of the white and blue Resilience; Cat takes the navy and red Perseverance, and Jamie the yellow and blue American Shad. As captains, we are in charge of keeping our crafts shipshape by coiling ropes, checking oars and pins, loading and unloading, and singing the boats ashore with the Norwegian songs that one of our teacher, Emily Turner, has taught us. With anywhere from six to fifteen people on a boat, we will be able to lift the heavy hull clear of the high water mark each night and set her on shore, safe from the winds and waves.
Our path is somewhat roundabout as we row first north on the Inland Sea to Burton Island State Park to spend the night before swinging through “the gut” between North and South Hero out to the broad lake. From there, it is a long paddle to Valcour Island on the New York side of the lake, a rock-rimmed island that is part of the Adirondack State Park system.
There we stay for a three-day layover, learning about the 1776 Battle of Valcour Island while sitting on the shore where it happened. The days here truly feel like heaven; swimming in the frigid water, wandering the trails on the uninhabited 895-acre island, and learning the history of the land and lake. Nights are spent sleeping under the stars in one of the park’s campsites. Some of us begin to rise early. Sunrise finds a scattering of silent figures, perched on rocks and in trees, watching the light creep across the water to our land.
From Valcour we row south, spending a night at Law Island, a public campsite just off the Colchester causeway. On the island we find ramps, wild onions that we learn you can eat. Leaving early the next morning, we set off down the Vermont coast to Rock Point School, a non-traditional boarding school, set on the lakefront just north of Burlington that has invited us to stay the night.
The instant we are all settled into the chapel where they let us sleep, the rain pours down. Rock Point marks the first time we have been around another group of people our own age.
Too soon it is time to leave but as we reach the beach where we left our boats we realize a new challenge: Covering the lake is a blanket of opaque white fog as far as the eye can see (which wasn’t more than 200 yards). But after taking a compass bearing to our next campsite, we set off nonetheless, the shore swiftly disappearing.
The world is reduced, softened and encircled by the shifting whiteness. The other boats, which we had carefully kept in view, become ghosts of themselves. The clacking oarlocks and the murmur of voices are markers in the clouds come to earth. Soon the wind picks up and the fog lifts, but those moments of quiet remain engraved in my memory.
We reach Shelburne Farms around lunchtime and are greeted by Marshall Webb. Webb has preserved his family’s vast historic estate and its stunning 1,400-acre working farm, by turning it into an inn and educational institution. We have been given special permission to visit and camp and, after quickly setting camp, we set off to explore. We find homes that look like castles, endless fields of the greenest grass, and herds of Brown Swiss cows ranging on the land. On our return to camp, we found that the wind has picked up so much that it forces us inland to shelter behind a stand of trees. The next day we have math class and earn our keep by on the farm by pulling invasive garlic mustard.
From there, it is a 16-mile row south to Barn Rock on the New York side. We have a strong tailwind and make good time, getting there in daylight and make camp in a tiny site not far from the Palisades cliffs. The next day, we row across the deep narrow lake to the Basin Harbor Resort and the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. There we take in the museum exhibits and clean artifacts such as old glass, musket balls and pottery so that they can be preserved. That night, we find our way back across the lake to camp at Barn Rock and prepare for the next adventure… a 36-hour fasting solo.
For the solos we are sent out from Barn Rock and disperse along the trails of the 3,700-acre Split Rock Mountain Wild Forest that stretches the cliff-lined New York coast. We have nothing but the clothes on our backs and sleeping bags. For the next two days we each find ourselves wrapped in our own contemplations. We come back with stories and a new sense of ourselves.
When the fast is done, our teachers greet us with a wonderful feast and we set off once more to Crown Point, located 12 miles south. We leave as the sun sets, rowing into the gathering darkness. Affixing headlamps to bow and stern, we slip silently through inky waters that reflect the stars. We reach our camp at Five Miles Point very late, and simply set out our sleeping bags and fall into a deep sleep.
The next day brings us to Fort Ticonderoga. Unlike the crumbling barracks of Crown Point, a key fort in the Revolutionary War, Ticonderoga has been fully preserved. Actors, dressed in 18th century period costumes put on reenactments and share with us the history of the area.
We row most of the following day, fighting a headwind. Nonetheless, spirits are high as the sky clears and the sun shines down on us, encouraging us to slow down and appreciate the osprey nests in the bays, and the marsh grasses at the edges the lake where it narrows nearly to a river. Camp is set on a piece of private land the owner has permitted us to use. We find we have free time, so five of us take out one of the boats and swim, relishing the feeling of cold water and hot sun.
The next morning, we set off into a slight headwind, rowing hard until we reach the lock at Whitehall, which spills us into the canal and the end of our water journey. From here, the last leg of the journey is across the southern hills of Vermont and back to our base in New Hampshire. We will continue by mountain bike homeward. Our days on the lake are done.