Once Off-Limits, Burlington’s Rock Point Is Gradually Welcoming the Public | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Once Off-Limits, Burlington’s Rock Point Is Gradually Welcoming the Public


Published May 22, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.

Rock Point land steward Tyler Pastorok feeding a sheep - COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • Rock Point land steward Tyler Pastorok feeding a sheep

For all its stunning scenery, Burlington's Rock Point seldom draws a crowd of visitors. It's not advertising the fact that the public can glimpse the peninsula's rare plants or hike the trails that wind around shoreline cliffs on Lake Champlain. The parking lot is intentionally small, forcing people to come early or trek in by using the Burlington bike path, which runs through the property. Experiencing Rock Point's beauty takes effort, which is perhaps why you can spend an entire morning there and not see another soul.

Long off-limits to casual visitors, the oasis of green in the city's New North End has slowly opened up in recent years. Visitors can now traverse two miles of improved trails or attend workshops on maple sugaring and beekeeping. This spring, Rock Point is renovating its modest conference center to make space for Burlington High School's alternative programs, creating a long-term home for public school students alongside a private boarding school that has existed on the property for decades.

The stewards of Rock Point say they're trying to share the land while maintaining the sense of sanctuary that's long made it a special place. It's a delicate balancing act, one they hope to pull off by helping visitors to feel connected to, and appreciate, the land.

"It's an experiment," said Kelly Kimball, executive director of Rock Point Commons, the nonprofit that manages the property. "It's exciting to be a part of it at this stage as we figure this out."

Rock Point juts into the lake just north of the city's North Beach. Its high cliffs are a geologic marvel, clearly displaying the 400-million-year-old Champlain Thrust Fault, in which a thick band of ancient rock lies on top of younger rock. Since the 1850s, the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont has owned the 130-acre property, which includes open fields as well as the wooded point. The diocesan bishop still lives on the land and, most of the year, so do the 30 students who attend the private Rock Point School, designed for kids who don't fit into the traditional education system. In 2015, the diocese created Rock Point Commons to manage the grounds, which host a community garden, outdoor chapel and a few bare-bones rental cabins.

Bordered by the city-owned Arms Forest to the northeast, Rock Point connects with both the bike path and the Burlington Wildway Trail, which runs from the city's New North End to Winooski. Much of the property was closed to the public until five years ago, although college students had nevertheless made jumping from Rock Point's cliffs a rite of passage. Not only have people died on the cliffs but getting to them meant trampling on rare plants such as the harsh sunflower, which is on the state's list of threatened species.

In 2019, the diocese worked with the Lake Champlain Land Trust and other partners to conserve nearly 100 acres and then upgrade trails with boardwalks, kiosks and fencing. Walkers are now welcomed (and encouraged to give a $2 donation for a day pass.) There's no official tally, but Rock Point's stewards say visitation has increased since the trails were improved.

Opening up the space has put more strain on its caretakers, who pick up trash and remind hikers to keep their dogs leashed. They can't prevent all misbehavior — an unknown person, for example, sawed off the branches of a 200-year-old cedar tree. Rock Point's trail steward program is helping. Trained volunteers patrol the site, using an app to report problems.

Students visiting Rock Point - COURTESY OF ROCK POINT COMMONS
  • Courtesy Of Rock Point Commons
  • Students visiting Rock Point

Ecological concerns were paramount when Rock Point Commons considered whether to let the high school open classrooms there. The OnTop program, which serves 30 students with emotional and behavioral challenges, has been using the property's conference center since 2020, when Burlington High School's Institute Road building closed after the discovery of toxic chemicals. In 2023, the district proposed merging OnTop with its other alternative program, Horizons, and locating the consolidated program in new classroom space at Rock Point, more than tripling the students on the property, from 30 to 100. After lengthy discussions about whether the growing student census would threaten its conservation efforts, the diocese agreed to the plan.

One afternoon earlier this month, heavy trucks bumped along the dirt roads to Rock Point's conference center, where the classrooms are under construction. The district will pay for the $4.5 million project through lease payments over the next 15 years. A ribbon cutting is planned for September. Next school year, students will learn about Rock Point's natural history while being able to experience it.

Bobby Riley, the programs' principal, said this "project-based learning" will help students who struggle in a typical classroom.

"In its very nature, that environment is therapeutic," Riley said of Rock Point. "We're going to be two minutes from the [new] high school but feel like we're a million miles away."

As it grows, Rock Point Commons is promoting that same ethos with programs that bring people closer to the land. Students there have tapped maple trees for years, but for the first time last spring, the nonprofit invited the public to help. They boiled 30 gallons of syrup, though Kimball, the director, was quick to say that maximizing production was never the point.

"Maybe you live in a condo, and you don't have a sugar shack," she said. "Even if you come and do it a couple of times, it's really special to be able to participate in that type of work."

The idea of a shared harvest appeals to Tyler Pastorok, Rock Point's land steward and programs coordinator, who's involved in the mutual aid group Food Not Bombs. Rock Point donates some of its produce to the group, which distributes the goods via the "People's Fridge," a volunteer-run pantry on Hungerford Terrace. Pastorok and another staffer led the sugaring program, and this fall they'll teach the art of cider making using apples from Rock Point's orchards. A beekeeping class is also on the calendar.

"This is, and has been, a homestead," Pastorok said. "There's a lot of land here. We can share it rather than producing a product and selling it."

This month, livestock were added to the mix. The nonprofit has harnessed the appetites of five sheep, including two fuzzy lambs, to trim the abundant grass in place of gas-powered lawn mowers. A volunteer shepherd will tend the flock, and students studying animal science at the University of Vermont will offer checkups.

At the end of the season, the sheep will be slaughtered for a community feast — news that startled some preschool students whose class is based at Rock Point. But to Kimball and Pastorok, the program is a chance to teach the next generation about the land's bounty and why it should be protected.

For now, the experiment seems to be working. Since rerouting the trails away from the cliffs a few years back, Rock Point's caretakers have noticed ferns and wildflowers cropping up where there were once well-worn pathways. The forest is regenerating.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Urban Oasis | Once off-limits, Burlington's Rock Point is gradually welcoming the public"

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