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Slow Boats

A water "trail" on Lake Chamlpain earns paddler points


Published April 14, 2004 at 4:00 a.m.

Any day now, the season's first paddlers will begin slicing through Lake Champlain, eager to get a head start on the canoe and kayak season. With 600 miles of shoreline, the lake offers myriad ways to answer the call of nature. But what happens when that other nature calls, or a yoke breaks, or a sudden squall threatens from the west? Finding rest stops can be tricky. There are no road signs on the water.

Thanks to a water trail still in development, the shoreline provides an increasing number of paddler-friendly places: campsites and landings identified by small placards marked with a great blue heron. Next month, a new guidebook will give the latest beta on accessible bays, beaches and islands -- including a secret destination reserved exclusively for canoeists and kayakers.

Like Vermont's other famous trails -- the Long and the Catamount -- The Lake Champlain Paddlers' Trail aims to preserve and share an invaluable natural resource that's unique to Vermont. The project is the brainchild of the Lake Champlain Committee, which weaves together recreational rights and environmental awareness in a mission to keep the muck out of the country's sixth largest body of fresh water.

"The trail is a tangible symbol for the water-quality advocacy that we do because the trail can't exist without good water quality," says LCC executive director Lori Fisher. "Paddlers have the water inches from their elbows, and aren't going to want to paddle here if they are going through degraded water, or trying to get their boat up on slimy rocks."

Founded in 1963 to halt dirty tankers and commercial shipping routes, the LCC began to recognize that more traffic on the lake -- specifically low-impact and human-powered traffic -- could actually help keep its waters clean. "One of the concerns we had is that over time, the low-impact human powered-uses can get displaced by louder, noisier, faster-moving, more polluting craft," says Fisher.

"And it's not to say that we're anti-powerboats. We're not. But paddlers often don't claim space or territory in a really physical way, such as with the footprint of a marina or anchored space."

In 1988, the group hooked up with the Green Mountain Club --Fisher is married to its executive director, Ben Rose -- to sponsor an end-to-end paddle. The outing inspired the idea to create a network of campsites, landings and loos along the lake.

But it was hardly as simple as tacking up a few signs and drawing a map. Private landowners are always resistant to lending their shores. "We wanted to be really careful in ensuring that we were going to protect that opportunity for low-impact uses and human-powered watercraft but that it wasn't going to exploit the resource," says Fisher. "Even in green tourism, if you are overusing the resource you are not really promoting any good."

LCC spent years examining similar water-trail systems, like the one along the coast of Maine. After years of public meetings, consultations with Vermont and New York state land-management agencies and implementation studies, it opened the trail in 1996 with six sites in the northern part of the lake that could be used for camping or day use. Waste management was a major concern, so Fisher worked with the GMC to develop plans for composting lavatories at the sites. She and her husband "got to inspect outhouses together," Fisher explains.

Pretty soon, a few LCC landowners stepped up to the plate. Carl Reidel and Jean Richardson of Ferrisburgh offered up a prime piece of lakefront, Five Mile Point, just north of Fort Ticonderoga. Sheltered by a stand of enormous white oaks, the peninsula has smooth landing and launching places leading up to a carpet of pine needles and maple leaves that make it perfect for camping. Anglers and ATVers have trespassed on the site for years, often leaving piles of trash behind.

For that reason, Reidel and Richardson were at first hesitant to host paddlers on their property. They agreed to share their spot with canoeists and kayakers in hopes that the non-motorized crowd will prove to be better company.

"They've been wonderful ambassadors for the trail," Fisher says of the couple. "Typically we put word out that if people are aware of private land or have shoreline to share to please get in touch with us. So far pretty much everybody has come to us. We have a number of sites in the works that are more long-term."

Today, some 30 sites are scattered along both sides of the lake, from its southernmost point in skinny East Creek Bay to Highgate Cliffs on the Quebec border. Distances between them range from short hops --it's easy paddling in clusters of campsites on the shoreline near Westport --to endurance stretches of 20 miles or more.

Either way, non-motorized boats provide the best means of discovering Lake Champlain. Beyond the chugging ferries, Jetskis and the sailing regattas there's an avian world populated by kingfishers, herons, Gyrfalcons and golden eagles. Yes, there are mills and factories here and there, but also landscapes straight from the Hudson River School. On a calm day, the lake is a smooth sheet stretched taut between the Adirondack and Green Mountains while the shoreline offers plateaus and cliffs, deserted beaches and dairy farms spilling down hills and there's no better way to see a sunset.

Islands break up long lake crossings --and on a rough day offer shelter that's overlooked by dock-bound boaters. More civilized sustenance can be found at lakeside watering holes in Burlington, Colchester and Essex, New York.

"This is not wilderness, but in some parts it's quite wild," says Bill Bartlett, a Hyde Park resident and executive officer of the Vermont Water Resources Board who paddled the lake end-to-end, solo, in 2001. "You feel like you're in a place unchanged since Samuel Champlain came through, 400 years ago. You get a great sense of history, and a great sense of space."

Despite the sport's recent growth spurt -- membership in the kayak-friendly American Canoe Association has jumped from 5000 to 50,000 in the last 10 years -- paddlers aren't playing bumper boats on Lake Champlain. This is due, in part, to protection efforts by LCC, which tries to strike a balance between accessibility and exclusivity to protect the Paddlers' Trail from those who might abuse it. Signs along the route are discreet confirmations, rather than neon arrows pointing to rest stops.

Rather than disseminating its maps, "chartlets" and travel tips over the Internet, the LCC publishes the annual Lake Champlain Guidebook & Stewardship Manual. It's free with a membership of $40 or more -- and well worth the cost. Sure, anyone can hop in a boat and set out for a night on the lake, but the guidebook offers insider advice on campsites, wildlife, poison ivy, and, yes, privies. It also turns paddlers into lake stewards.

"It's how we, and many water-trail systems in the country, fund our work," says Fisher. "It also protects these agreements that we have between public and private landowners because every year things go out of date, things move on and off of the trail system, things close down."

The 2004 guidebook will contain information on the new paddlers-only campsite. The location is under wraps for now, but promises to reward canoeists and kayakers who've long been elbowed out of first-come, first-served campsites by swifter sailboats and powerboats. Hint: It's not $8.3 million Shelburne Point.

Eventually, LCC aims to find sites every eight to 10 miles. Stringing together so many spots is an ambitious goal, continually challenged by land sales and liability laws; New York does not protect owners from swimming or camping-related incidents. "There's very much a go-slow process," says Fisher. "You need to go point to point and take those opportunities as they arise."

Going slow also turns out to be the ideal way to view Vermont from the water. "This is something that anybody with a basic level of physical fitness can do," says Bartlett, who went from bottom to top, 134 miles, in seven days. "I wasn't trying to set any speed records, but just to be alone and see the lake at a human pace."