Bicycling Lake Champlain
Sunday, August 20, 2000
Tonight, I emerged from our tent at Ausable Chasm KOA Kampground wearing - well - imagine this:
... and I was comfortable. This was not an "I'm on vacation" or "Nobody I know is going to see me" sort of outburst. This was just the right thing to be wearing on an unseasonably cool Adirondack night as the sun was about to set and the mosquitoes were rising. I was not ashamed or embarrassed. In fact, I only noted the absurdity of this outfit as an afterthought. I proclaimed my victory from society to Jeff, and he was quick to point out that this is not much better fashion than he can usually expect from me. True enough - but I really relish the freedom of bike touring. It's sort of a freedom from caring about the usual conventions of our lives. It is not that it is without worry or concerns - it is just different worries and concerns. Out here, my mind strays towards food, warmth, and how many miles my legs have in them. In "my real world," it's office politics, social commitments, what to wear, and the usual array of things that must be done. And so, at the beginning of our trip - I find myself ready to embrace this bike tour around Lake Champlain with my body and soul.
Monday, August 21, 2000
We started today's ride tracking north along the New York side of Lake Champlain. We are primarily taking roads recommended in the Lake Champlain Bikeways maps, which were a real bargain and appear to be very helpful. With not a cloud in the sky, we pedaled through the somewhat sad feeling town of Plattsburgh. Plattsburgh features a possibly defunct (or at least, underutilized) Air Force base, some basic amenities, and few restaurants. The town had a ghost-town sort of aura and we couldn't help wondering about its more prosperous past and its uncertain future.
After Plattsburgh, we followed the lake north as we rode through countless dairy farms (with all the appropriate and expected olfactory delight) and the quality of the roads improved. Less traffic, more shoulder, better paved. For the most part, the roads are what we Pennsylvania folk would term "flat." With long, gently graded rises and falls. The biggest hills we encountered were man-made highway overpasses. If we had to chose a scapegoat for today's ride, it would be the wind, which was often in our face. We kept a slow but steady pace, and enjoyed the views of the lake and the countryside.
The very rural roads we were traveling didn't offer anything in the way of lunch stops. We were both hungry and a little cranky with the realization that even little "burger stands" could not stay in business out here. Hollow shells and signs remained, but those we saw were closed down. In fact, the only businesses we passed were marinas and marine supply stores - which appear to be able to survive in large numbers. Eventually, we reached the city of Rouses point, where a local suggested "Old Thyme" cafe, which was just the diner food we had in mind. The cute, old-time, but original decor and good simple food fueled our bodies and spirits nicely for our remaining miles. We walked through the very small town and then mounted our bikes and headed north again.
In sight of the Canadian border, we turned east and rode over the bike-friendly bridge into Vermont instead. From there, it was a short ride to Goose Point campground where we made camp next to a friendly family of bike tourists from New Hampshire who were doing a similar loop, but in the other direction. We discussed our routes, bike touring in general, the opaque campground water (bleach laden), and the campground showers which sported a little more slime and a few more used band-aids than I'm comfortable with. Other than that, the pleasant weather, the level grassy campsites along the lake, and the simple exhaustion of a long ride made everything seem like a paradise.
Tuesday, August 22, 2000
Paradoxically, we can ride more miles on a bike tour - carrying all our gear and for days without rest - than we can at home. On weekdays at home, we ride in the evening and are limited by daylight. On weekends, we can ride longer but other obligations always seem to be looming in the background.. And so, there is a tendency to ride shorter and faster. Not so much to "get it over with" as to make sure we leave time in our schedules for other things.
In the bike touring world, our commitments are usually only to get into town early enough to secure a campsite, cook dinner and see the local sights (if any) before sunset. There is no real pressure to ride fast because, well, it's just not going to happen. our bikes, with food, clothing, tools, and camping gear are quite hefty. Our legs seems to instinctively know that they will have more endurance if they don't max out on power. And besides, the point of this journey really is in getting there not being there. So, we ride slow and steady - in a low gear, and stopping often to enjoy whatever we see. It is different from riding at home.
Today's ride tracked south through Grand Isle, which is actually a series of several small islands in northern Lake Champlain. The towns - scarce as they were - clearly catered more to tourists than those we'd been through in New York. In North Hero (Named by Ethan Allen, for Ethan Allen as a pat on the back for his Revolutionary War efforts) we stopped at "Hero's Welcome" for breakfast. As we were locking our bikes outside of this general store and cafe, the owner (or, maybe just an employee) gave us such a sneer and leer in telling us only what we could NOT do, that we decided to take our business elsewhere.
We snacked from our panniers, and traveled on down the road and soon found ourselves near Camp Skyland - a campground that took us in one late night seven years prior even though they were full. We remembered it was beautiful and lakefront and friendly. We'd discussed "Unique" Pretzels with them - which are a Pennsylvania delicacy that they'd had shipped to them a few times their son who was attending Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. In planning our trip, we considered bringing them a bag, but we didn't. Carrying a bag of pretzels is pure folly for a bike tour. And now, as we stood at the turnoff for Camp Skyland, we decided not even to go there. It was too early to stop. We continued south to Burlington.
After crossing the bridge to mainland Vermont, the roads became hillier and more urban. The hills were not tremendous as much as they were constant. The traffic was mostly courteous, but we already missed the serenity of the islands.
We navigated towards town and eventually got on the 9 mile Burlington Bike path which follows the shoreline across the city and through downtown. A few miles down the path is the North Beach campground where we stopped and secured a nice, grassy spot near the beach before walking downtown for the evening.
Wednesday, August 23, 2000
Yesterday started out cold and overcast and grew warm and clear by day's end. Today started out the same way but by the time we rode into town for breakfast, it was raining hard.
Because we'd pushed on yesterday and gotten to Burlington early, we had planned on taking a day off the bikes today. Unfortunately, the rain made walking through town and casually cycling (without packs, etc) the outskirts much less attractive. So, we rode the bus, did laundry, and discussed contingency plans if the rain continues (or, actually, even if it's nice weather, we're still undecided on where we're heading).
Burlington is a really fun town with interesting folks and lots of shops (of course, we're not buying anything because we don't want to carry it.) The town has changed some since my sister, Karen, was a student at the University of Vermont. Church Street which is a pedestrian mall closed to traffic is still the spiritual center of town, but it has been taken over by trendy national stores instead of local ones. Ben and Jerry's has moved from their original location slightly out of the center of town - into a downtown location. But the freaks remain. Hippies, Yuppies looking like Hippies, and people that may be punks, homeless, or students. It takes all kinds. We're sure we look pretty funky ourselves. Despite there being plenty to see and do, we're both anxious to hit the road again tomorrow.
Thursday, August 24, 2000
Owing to a series of bad omens including weather and broken gear, we opted for the short "bail out" route today. After a really great breakfast at an outdoor cafe on Church Street, we rode the ferry across the lake from Burlington, VT back to NY near where our car was waiting. After a short ride to our car, we spent the afternoon hiking and rafting through Ausable Chasm.
The Chasm (which is in my mind a canyon - I couldn't tell you the difference) is spectacularly shaped by time and the force of water to display a variety of neat sights and rock formations. Perhaps the most interesting thing about it, however, is the damage done on a 70 degree day in January of 1996 when melting Adirondack snow and ice flooded the canyon to over 50 feet its usual level. Rushing water and large chunks of ice destroyed bridges, walkways, stairs, and a huge ski-lift like pulley-thing used to retrieve boats at the end of the boat ride (now a raft ride). This resort-attraction that was built-up in the late 1800s was now littered with masses of twisted steel girders and suspension steel attached to nothing. It will no doubt take this privately owned attraction a long time to recover, and I find myself hoping that they do so with respect to the natural wonder of the place. In the meantime, we were amused to discover that the rafts are being lifted from the water and up the canyon walls by means of a Ford station wagon at the top. The car has a long, heavy rope attached to the front end, and they back up the car to raise the raft. Not so high tech, but maybe these neat rocks and rushing water don't want to be any more built up, either.
Back at camp, we mixed up some mexican macaroni for dinner. Before we left home, I prepared the seasonings and dried veggies so all we needed to do was add pasta and water. Our eyes watered from the first bite of this fiery concoction, and although we stoically tried to eat it all, the quarts of water that accompanied it were not enough to ease our pain. In hindsight (now that I'm home and typing this), I know that a bag of "dried red bell peppers" that I'd bought at a farmer's market were absolutely hot peppers. I'd used a large handful of them thinking they were sweet. Ooops.
Friday, August 25, 2000
Today is kind of a salvation day. A last day to ride. We've done sadly little riding for a proclaimed bike tour. We started by driving to Crown Point and the Champlain Bridge. This bridge is one of the few places to cross the Lake without taking a ferry. We crossed to the Vermont side of the lake, parked our car at a really large and grassy campsite at the lakefront DAR state park and campground (I was glad I asked, DAR stands for Daughters of the American Revolution), and rode our bikes north along the lake then east towards the town of Vergennes (city actually - they bill themselves as Vermont's oldest city and also the smallest). We had lunch at a cute cafe on the main street and discussed where we might ride next. When Jeff discovered that Middleberry had a Ben and Jerry's Scoop Shop, I got his vote for the longer route and we headed south toward Middleberry. The roads were wonderful and rural and just hilly enough to be interesting. Although they all reeked of cow we had a wonderful ride. In Middleberry, we got some ice cream (actually, I had sorbet) and walked around the adorable town for about an hour. Then back on our bikes towards the campground.
The sky was wonderfully clear and the air was dry and not at all humid. Without realizing it, we'd become somewhat dehydrated. When we saw a busy (and well stocked) general store, we turned in and quaffed large quantities of Gatorade while watching the locals buy their groceries for the weekend. Stiffly, we eventually got up and back on our bikes. Turning the corner from the store towards the campground, was a huge downhill span and in the distance the lake was visible. We knew it was an easy ride from here. We let loose.