Endgame: Riding the Watershed

Tibetan Buddhists make ritual circumambulations of holy mountains. Vermonters ritually ride the infinite routes around Lake Champlain. 

By Leath Tonino

My first outing, on a muggy summer morning, takes me south along Addison County’s mostly straight, flat roads. I cross Little Otter Creek where it rushes and froths through a gorge and beneath a bridge. I pass an osprey’s bulky stick-nest set atop a telephone pole, twisting on my seat to glimpse wings lifting, the bird curving away through a cloud-mottled sky.

The blacktop is smooth, then rough, then smooth, sometimes patterned by muddy tractor tires, sometimes clean. I weave through traffic in downtown Vergennes, traverse vast hayfields, sing howdies to chomping cows, wipe sweat from my eyes with the back of a hand. Green-and-white signs depicting a bicycle lead me on: more fields, a sleepy village, a red barn fading to gray. Somewhere nearby but out of sight, the valley’s low wet heart beats and beats.

Five days later—days of work and driving and computers and not enough outdoors—I’m on it again, this time up north. My pal Sean meets me at Oakledge Park in Burlington and off we go, chitchatting, swerving, and joking. The bike path is crowded but pleasant, a slalom course of dogs and joggers and other riders, some on mountain bikes, some on road bikes, some on cruisers. Streets and brick buildings spill down the hill to the waterfront. Sailboats in the harbor rock on their moorings, their rigging tinkling. The path becomes the Causeway, an old raised railroad bed arcing across the mouth of the Inland Sea to dead-end at the Cut, a gap just shy of South Hero that allows boat passage to the broad lake. From mid-June through Columbus Day a pontoon barge known as the “bike ferry” motors riders across the Cut for a nominal fee. Not Sean and I, not today. A light rain comes and goes, falling in screens, and we turn around.

Another week, another ride, another 20, 30, 40 or 50 miles. I’m more of a walker, really, more comfortable bushwhacking in boots than rolling on rims, but when summer rises out of mud season’s slop and squishy weather, rises vibrant and inviting, I do find myself drawn back to the Champlain Bikeway. The route is like a line of music, a melody played over and over again by different instruments. A swim, a maple cremee, a fox in a vegetable garden, a short steep hill, a quart of fresh-picked strawberries, a Revolutionary War fort, a paved road, a dirt road, a family of four riding straight at me, helmets shiny—the variations are endless, the textures always changing.

The 363-mile bikeway marks an oval around Lake Champlain and makes me think of the Ouroboros, the mythological snake that eats its own tail, symbol of eternal renewal. A journey commences in Shelburne, Vt., or Crown Point, N.Y., or Sabrevois, Quebec, or Panton, Vt., or Ausable, N.Y., or anywhere between. You can bike to Whitehall, where Wood Creek flows in from the south, or you can bike to Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, where the Richelieu River flows northward to the St. Lawrence. As with the snake, neither of these are true beginnings or endings. The lake eats its own tail, pulling water from the hills that pull water from the sky, returning it to the oceans and the air only to be filled with it again. Picture a wheel endlessly rotating. Water cycle. Bicycle. Lots of cycles here.

I haven’t pedaled the entire bikeway; I haven’t even come close. Champlain Bikeways has 35 subloops, each with a name and character all its own, veer from the principal route to form a thousand-mile network. “Rebel’s Retreat” sets working farms against an Adirondack backdrop. “A Trail to Two Beaches” inscribes a figure eight with a state park at either end. Some folks spend a single afternoon exploring, while others bike from B&B to B&B as part of an organized tour, a hired van shuttling clean clothes and toiletries to each night’s destination. Ferries cross the lake at Shoreham, Charlotte, Burlington, and Grand Isle, lending even greater flexibility to route design.

I can imagine living in a different time and a different culture, one where it would be unremarkable to speak of Lake Champlain as a god or deity. One hundred twenty miles long, 12 miles wide, 580 miles of crinkled coast—the lake is big, powerful to behold; it shapes the earth and the lives of those who dwell in its basin. Eighty-one fish species slip through dark depths and sun-shot shallows. Three hundred eighteen species of birds hunt liquid surfaces, roost on overhanging trees, nest in marshes, visit during migration.

The Tibetan Buddhists make ritual circumambulations of holy mountains: Kailash, Lapchi, Kawa Karpo. To circumcycle Lake Champlain is to cross 31 major tributaries and dozens of smaller streams draining an 8,234-square-mile watershed. It’s to become the ring on a 6.8-trillion-gallon bathtub holding drinking water for some 200,000 people. Whether riders on the bikeway think of it this way or not, to circumcycle the lake is to wrap oneself around the low wet center, to hug that softly beating heart.

Another week, another outing, another bikeway. Here I am, alone, riding into haze and humidity, my ears full with the drone of insects in tall grass and the whir of tires against the road. What began as an easy meander has become a hunched, huffing grind—the pleasure of the pain of pushing hard. Fence posts blur. An osprey cuts a cloud. The lake, ah, the lake is only a mile or two away; I can practically taste it, smell it, feel it around me. My bike leaned against a tree or laid on smooth blue stones at the water’s edge, I’ll swim a hundred strokes, another hundred, a hundred more. I don’t wear Spandex shorts when I ride—I wear a bathing suit. If you ask me, it’s eminently sensible.

Leath Tonino is a writer from Ferrisburgh. This piece is excerpted from The Animal One Thousand Miles Long, a collection of his outdoorsy essays, due out this September.