Carving the Commute: Crossing Lake Champlain in Winter | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice


Carving the Commute: Crossing Lake Champlain in Winter


Published March 5, 2014 at 4:00 a.m.

  • Courtesy of Alicia Freese

Lake Champlain is frozen all the way across for the first time since 2007. But that hasn't stopped two boats from traversing it, all day, every day.

The Lake Champlain Transportation Company operates three ferry crossings, two of which now stay open year-round. The ice-breaking boat that plies the waters between Grand Isle and Plattsburgh runs 24/7. The southern crossing, between Charlotte and Essex, N.Y., departs Vermont hourly from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Before 1998, this route was seasonal, but with a few exceptions, LCT has kept it operational through the winter, easing travel for commuters who use the boat to get to and from work.

Last Wednesday, seven cars maneuvered onto the ferry in Charlotte. Sitting inside them, the passengers likely heard the sound of the vessel's steel bow crunching through ice as the ferry pulled away from the dock.

Up in the boat's pilothouse, classical music was playing. Lea Coggio, of Richmond, was at the helm on what turned out to be a windy, overcast, 20-degree day. She sported a black knit cap, white turtleneck, a black sweater adorned with four gold captain's stripes on each shoulder and a pair of Ray-Bans to protect against the ice's glare.

The ferry company employs about 30 captains; Coggio is one of six women who hold that title. Her sister happens to be married to Capt. Richard Phillips of pirate-capture fame, but five days before the couple was caught on camera at the Oscars, Coggio was too intent on ice conditions and boat anatomy to rehash her brother-in-law's adventures.

"He's gotten his share of media attention already," she said with a laugh.

During the summer, two boats work the Charlotte crossing at one time, transporting 600 passengers a day, according to Coggio's estimate. In the winter, one boat shuttles between 100 and 200, she said. Built in 1953, the vessel is one year older than she is.

Coggio guided the ferry toward a channel of open water — roughly 100 feet wide with ice on either side — between Vermont and New York. Leaving the Charlotte shore, it plowed through the frozen fragments that had accumulated around the dock — what Coggio calls "cocktail ice."

Steering one of two wagon-wheel-size helms, she was eager to clarify some misconceptions: First, the United States Coast Guard does not carve out this channel for the ferry; second, "There are no true ice breakers on this lake."

"True ice breakers" are boats with bows capable of cutting through frozen surfaces or engines that can act as ice-smashing hammers. The boat that connects Grand Isle and Plattsburgh is equipped with a bubbler to prevent ice buildup. But the 95-ton Essex-Charlotte ferry, confusingly called the Grand Isle, has none of those accoutrements.

How does the modest boat clear a path for itself? It fends off ice simply by traveling back and forth in the same liquid strait. The ferry does have a strong piece of steel called a "skeg" that prevents ice from interfering with the rudder, and it can cast aside frozen chunks using its prop wash.

Some mornings, the first run is an ice-breaking one, and the pilot has to pivot and wiggle the ferry in its slip to break free from ice that's formed around it overnight. But Coggio downplays the inconvenience, saying the process takes 30 minutes, max.

Lea Coggio in the pilothouse - COURTESY OF ALICIA FREESE
  • courtesy of Alicia Freese
  • Lea Coggio in the pilothouse

Winter water travel does have its rewards. A brisk walk to the boat's stern reveals plenty of wildlife in the ferry's wake.

Hundreds of ducks — hooded mergansers, mallards and common goldeneyes — are camped out in the channel this winter, drawn to the open water. When the boat approaches, they take flight en masse; after it passes, they cluster again in the after-churn. Coggio describes herself as a novice birder, but she's got her ducks down. She keeps a birding book and a pair of binoculars in the cramped pilothouse.

Late in the afternoon, she spotted an eagle — a black smudge in the distance, sitting on the ice with shoulders hunched.

Coggio got her captain's license in 1992, a process that entails spending at least 365 days on a boat and passing a written test. Prior to that, she worked exclusively as a deckhand for LCT and, before that, spent eight years at a bank.

Plainspoken and practical, Coggio said, "Yeah, they'll snag a duck," explaining the eagle's predatory habits. But talking "articulated tug and barges" and "honeycombed ice," she sounded downright poetic.

Waterfowl and their predators account for those passengers with tripods and telephoto lenses on deck during midday voyages. But on the early morning and evening trips, commuters dominate. The 25-minute trip costs $9.50 each way, if you're bringing a car.

Lori Myers, a graphic designer for Ben & Jerry's, lives in Burlington, but she grew up across the lake in Westport, N.Y., and still has family there. Going back and forth gets pricey, Myers notes, but she's grateful for the service. When the Charlotte-Essex ferry used to shut down for the winter, Myers recalled, "It always kind of felt like this wall went up between Vermont and New York."

Gretel Schueller lives in Essex, N.Y., and works in Shelburne as a news editor for EatingWell magazine. She takes the ferry each day. So does her husband, Todd Goff, a lieutenant colonel in the Vermont National Guard, who's been making the commute for more than a decade.

In September, their 7-year-old son, Alexander, also started making the trek. Alexander is one of a handful of children who cross the lake for school — he's a first-grader at the Lake Champlain Waldorf School in Shelburne. The first ferry of the day isn't quite early enough to deliver him on time, but Schueller said his teachers have been forgiving.

As far as commutes go, it's hard to beat, Schueller said, citing "gorgeous sunsets," "really cool birds" — and the occasional, unexpected, big-wave car wash. But, she added, "When you do it day in and day out, it kind of loses its magic."

Not so for Coggio. Unlike her two brothers and brother-in-law, Coggio didn't pursue lucrative deep-sea work, in part because she's prone to seasickness. The sunrises and sunsets alone are enough to keep the three-mile crossing from getting old, she said.

And there's always something new to see. Last week, Coggio watched a black-backed gull bully an osprey out of its fish. This Sunday, she guided a disoriented duck back to where it and this ship pilot belong: on the lake.

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