The Paddle to Canada: Lake Champlain
by Robert Huszar

In the Fall of 1990, I dreamt of paddling my single Klepper from N.Y.C. to the Saint Lawrence Seaway. It seemed a relatively easy task, since the Hudson is tidal as far north as Troy and flows through the Champlain Canal, which flows into Lake Champlain, into the Richelieu, all the way to the Saint Lawrence. Additionally, the folks at N.O.A.A. assured me that at that time of the year, the winds were generally out of the South. So on the surface, everything seemed to move in my direction. But wind and water generally have plans of their own, many of which have nothing to do with the dreams of men. Consequently, I had a superbly enjoyable vacation, paddling counter to the movement of the season, and, for both a variety of good and bad reasons, halted my trip in Whitehall, NY, at the last lock of the Champlain Canal. I climbed said lock, stared longingly at said lake, and promised to return next fall. After all, I had just paddled over 200 miles, how difficult could the paltry 100 miles of Lake Champlain be? (Some folks never learn, do they?) This, then, is my encounter with the lake, or more accurately, the journal of my literary musings while waiting in my tent for the storms to clear. Next summer I'd like to tackle the Richelieu and the Saint Lawrence. After all, how difficult could they be? 

 1/Thursday 9/12. There is consistency, I thought, as I paddled my Klepper toward the last lock of the Champlain Canal. It was 5:30 and I had just gotten on the water, my boat more ridiculously overloaded than the last time. The whole day had been exasperating, and spent dealing with last minute details. I wondered if anyone was ever organized on the first day of these extravaganzas? My friend and fellow Hudson River Waterway founding member, Cynthia Mount, had driven me up from the city and was now perched on the lock above me. The massive gate had just swung shut and the water had begun to flow out. Cynthia snapped my picture as my boat dropped the fifteen feet to the next level. The gate opened, I waved goodbye, and I paddled out into Lake Champlain. As I rounded the first bend, a great blue heron soared above me, its flight smooth and without effort. I drew a deep breath in admiration; my diaphragm dropping; my lungs expanding to almost supernatural dimensions. The air was sweet and full with freedom. The moment was so pure, my frustrations faded completely away. I paddled to where the railroad trestle crosses the opening of South Bay and camped on the Vermont side. I ate my evening meal with extreme caution and a distance from my tent. This was bear country and many tall tales had flamed my fears of 'Old Ursa.' 

I spent the night organizing my gear, as coyotes howled in the distance, owls hooted in the background, and beavers crashed like fifty-pound cannon balls into the lake. 

2/Friday 9/13. The boat was heavy and slightly off trim. And I was stiff, and moving into a small northerly breeze, so the paddling was slow and laborious. I would have used the rudder to compensate, but there was no room in the boat for the foot pedals. If I could consume enough of the bulkier food stuff, I could redistribute the food bags and shift the whole load. Eureka -- I'd discovered the ultimate diet: I would eat myself back into trim. 

Paddled past Bald Mountain through the Drowned Lands and camped on a cliff overlooking Dresden; the poetry of the surrounding names like jewels on a storybook map. 

3/Saturday 9/14. It rained last night, so the morning was cool and gorgeous, the perfect spot to reconfigure the boat. Also, the down bag I borrowed had a hole in it, and if I delayed long enough with my adjustments/repairs, my solar powered Sun Shower would have ample time to heat. So I showered, fixed, and puttered; graceful in quiet reflection; enjoying the luxury of no schedule. 

Boat was better but still wasn't great. Paddled from Dresden to Benson Landing, where dusk moved faster then I did and I scrambled to find a campsite before nightfall. But the best I could find was a rocky, stone beach, with barely enough room for a tent. By that time I was exhausted, my spirits low, and too frantically hungry to build a fire. So I climbed atop a granite promontory to eat a cold supper. The sky was cloudy and about as black as you can get this side of the Milky Way. This was darkness so absolute, so infinite, that it seemed alive within its vastness. Lost in its depths, I munched a cheese and driedtomato sandwich, with a carrot and a few pieces of salami on the side. Now whenever I eat salami -- which isn't very often, except in camping situations -- I can't help think of my father. Dad finished every work day with an evening snack of cheese, chips and salami. He would come into the T.V. room, plop down exhausted in his chair, and begin sharing his treasures with us kids. So now it's thirty years later and I've evolved into a 'new age' eater. Yet here I am, getting all warm and reflective, in the dark, on a rock, with a piece of salami. Anyway, as my mood lifted, the moon suddenly became visible, dropping down from the bank of clouds, on its way to setting. The darkness was shattered, as if a crescent shaped hole was punched in the sky. Slowly, as the moon settled to the earth, its light was reflected on the water and a golden bridge of light appeared, running straight across the water, from the far western edge of the lake to the base of my solitary rock. The glow was acid spectacle and it opened me to all the fears of the past, drawing them out as an unguent and discarding them. For twenty minutes I lay on that rock, transfixed, staring, lost in an emotional catharsis that left me weak with ecstasy. If I had been a beast I would have howled, so great my elation. Then I thought of family and friends, those few who could share such a moment, and I wondered if the magic would have been lost, devoid of the isolation. Slowly, the moon sank below my range of vision; the horizon swallowed the last of the light, and night fell like a curtain. 

4/Sunday 9/15. The darkness of the prior night has bled over, eclipsing the morning. The rain fell, heavy and wild, and I remained retreated within, propped up on various stuff sacks, dry and cozy, reading, writing and musing on the integrity of my new geodesic dome. 

Toward late afternoon the rain stopped and it went from gun barrel grey to dusk to dark. Somewhere along the way I started to get depressed, and when I dug deeper, trying to analyze the whys and wherefores, I realized I was having a low grade panic attack. The enormity of my task lay before me, and there seemed a bear behind every bush. I sat alone and afraid on the rock where the night before I had such pleasure and tried to sort things out. Eventually, I came to one of those psyche traffic circles, where six lanes tried to merge simultaneously. Individually, I realized, many of my fears were petty and without merit; collectively, however, they seemed overwhelming. So I played checklist, thinking them through one by one, developing coping strategies for some, dismissing others, until, bit by bit, I had resolved myself. I went to sleep calm and refocused: I would get a fresh start in the morning. 

 5/Monday 9/16. Being a night bird, I very often find myself at odds with the solar rhythms of the world. So after falling asleep last night at the surprisingly early hour of 11, and then waking this morning at the obscenely early hour of 6, I couldn't help think that the last thirty six hours were deliberately staged by the lake to pull me over to her schedule. Whatever the cause, the effect was the same: I woke in sync with the day, and watched yesterday's storms fade with the mists of morning. Small following sea all the way to Fort Ticonderoga; but the trim and feel of the boat were perfect and we rode the waves like a Heifetz cadenza on a Brahms' concerto.

Camped across the lake at Mount Independence, right below the park. The property was overgrown and abandoned, with dense patches of runaway weeds strangling the once cultivated grounds. The single cabin was wet with rotten wood; its roof collapsed beneath the weight of neglect. As I erected my tent, the sun melted like a ball of blood and slid into the lake; the crimson hued waters casting garish shadows on the fort that loomed on the cliffs above. Twilight came restless and weird and my overactive imagination spoke of the land and waters immediately adjacent as the final resting place of too many sailors caught in the fusillade of the fort. 

I slept lightly that night and dreamt strange. 

6/Tuesday 9/17. If yesterday the lake was a concerto, then today it was Wagner with a migraine; it bellowed and swore and made every inch a struggle. At this rate, I would not reach Canada until October of '99. And on an even more tragic note, it was only day six and I was already out of Coconut Rum. 

Camped just below the Crown Point Bridge. The red, green, and yellow bridge lights twinkled in an off counterpoint to the serene, but incongruous bagpipe music that drifted across the water. A nice change from cooking to the sounds of my guttural tongue as I cursed the wood for being so wet. 

 7/Wednesday 9/18. I have been laboring under the assumption that this was a paddling trip. Now, however, I've discovered it to be an advanced seminar in boat packing. Every morning, my imaginary class has been meeting on the beach, discovering previously hidden niches just waiting to be crammed with gear. Consequently, the boat's comfort and handling has continued to improve. 

A moderate following sea pushed me with great vigor and almost a few surprises to Westport. I had originally planned on camping in Snake Den Harbor, part of Split Rock Mountain, but I noticed a marina mapped at Westport and I owed my parents a check-in call. The roast duck and White Zinfandel I enjoyed at a nearby inn were a chance bonus. 

8/Thursday 9/19. So far, with one exception, it's rained in varying degrees every night, usually clearing sometime in the a.m.. That morning, however, it was a downpour and predicated to continue for the next two days. All things considered, if I had to be stuck, Westport was the place. That evening, I had the dinner of my career: seven baby lamb chops, parsley potatoes, sauteed carrots, broccoli and zucchini, a super fresh salad, home baked bread, and, of course, White Zinfandel. Westport also had a small liquor store, where they graciously replenished my supply of Coconut Rum. 

 9/Friday 9/20. The rain had stopped and the sky was a soft pale blue. As predicted, a cold front had moved down from the mountains, pushing out the wet low pressure area with a powerfully gusting northwesterly. The dragging brake was on again and I plodded along, ducking in every cove, inlet, or bay that offered respite from the wind. I made quite a bit of milage that day, however, only a small portion of it was going North. If the surrounding countryside wasn't so awe inspiring, with its expansive vistas of far away peaks and valleys, or its close at hand granite and pine cliffs, I would have suffered quantum frustration. Instead, I was just a little frustrated and very, very slow. 

When I paddled past the point of Split Rock Mountain, I should have stopped and camped for the night. I didn't, because it was so obviously posted; (locals latter told me, if I didn't build a fire, no one would have bothered me) instead, I continued on, only to land at the Crater Club, which had so many warnings against camping, even the sand had an attitude. At that point, I was cold, wet, tired, hungry, and it was getting dark. On the far horizon, I saw what looked like a ferry. According to the map, Essex was only two and a half miles away, and they had a ferry. And since no other option presented itself, I had a swig of Coconut Rum, put on another layer, carbo-loaded and set out again. 

At around 9 pm, I arrived at the Essex Shipyard's fancy French bistro, which was packed for Friday night dinner. The crowd was dressed casually, but not as casually as I, in my grey plastic pants and orange life jacket. The staff laughed as I wondered in and proceeded with my tale. They told me to set up my tent in the yard, and pointed me in the direction of the showers. I ordered the pheasant, but when I requested my customary White Zinfandel, they recommended the French Rose, and in celebration of my trip, they were buying. Suffice to say, I settled in for the night. 

10/Saturday 9/21. More of the same, only the wind was stronger, the air was colder, and the waves were bigger, since I had entered the area where the lake expands to the size of a small sea. Topping that, my back felt twisted and pinched, making every stroke an effort. There would be no milage made today. By mid day, I had already given up and was longingly thinking of land. 

I camped that evening about 100 yards from the mouth of the Bouquet River. The beach was sand, instead of the usual pebbles and boulders, with enough wood scattered about to cook for an army. It was the coldest night so far, but I was not effected. The full moon had just risen over Vermont and the lights of Burlington danced amber in the distance. My fire purred with a sweet and almost sentient heat, and I sat still and tranquil, mesmerized by the perfection of it all, enjoying the bite of the cold. 

11/Sunday 9/22. I started the day hanging from a tree, quickly running through any positions I thought might soothe the spasms in my lower back. Afterward, feeling somewhat better, I decided not to paddle at all. During the night, the wind had come up another notch and reversed directions and I decided to sail. Now at my skill levels, I probably had no business sailing in water that heavy. Still, I'd only be using a jib and I knew enough to keep my sheets loose; besides, the prospect of making time while resting my back was too good to refuse. 

Once underway, I quickly discovered the 'tightrope' where most of humanity lives: an instant, the barest moment, strung between capsize and full speed ahead; tension and position as necessary as breath to survival. And so I proceeded, perched as it were, somewhere between thoughts of shaky vulnerability in the icy embrace of the lake and the ecstasy of speeding along on the gale. So thinking, I swept forward, wind in my wings as if some legendary bird, hesitating only when some rogue gust would slap my sail, momentarily burying my bow past the combing -- allowing the sea brief entrance. In reply, I'd lean further into space, while loosing my grasp on the shrouds, letting my sail slip free of its teetering angle. Simultaneously, as the boat righted, I'd retighten my grip, pulling myself again into the airy current. In this way, I passed Four Brothers and Willsboro Point. As I started to approach Schuyler Island, however, the occasional gust had increased in both violence and frequency, even as the wind continued to build, whipping up such a following sea that I found myself unsure whether I was surfing or sailing. I was wet and had no desire to get wetter. So with my destination three quarters obtained, I very quickly dropped my sail, shoved the lee boards wherever I could, and frantically grabbed my paddle. It was amazing how that paddle, which had felt so loathsome in my hands in the early morning, was suddenly so desirable. With paddle firmly in hand, the waves suddenly lost their menacing aspect and I surfed the remaining distance to Schuyler, where I set up camp for the night. 

12/Monday 9/23. This was the day. I had only one really big crossing left and the winds were raging from out of the south, only they were heavy with the scent of rain. What to do? Prudence demanded I stay put. I had been very adequately forewarned of the legendary Champlain storms, and their habit of dropping out of the mountains unannounced, swamping everything in their path. On the other hand, after every rain I had observed so far, each clearing was accompanied by heavy north winds, the norm at this time of year, which would make the crossing almost impossible. I was so paralyzed with indecision, I decided to hike to the far end of the island, in hopes that the southern sky would provide a clue. Nothing! Everything was grey and lifeless, with no light in sight. I returned to camp and put off a decision until after breakfast. I finished eating around 10 a.m. and had just talked myself into going, when it started to rain. I was relieved, the decision was taken from me. I climbed into my tent and tried to read, but couldn't concentrate. The rain would stop then suddenly resume in a maddeningly inconsistent way, and I kept thinking if tomorrow the winds reverse, I've lost my window of opportunity. The day drug on and I grew frustrated and restless. Somewhere around my sixth exit of the tent to check the skies, I saw a tiny glimmer of light in the south. Was it really a clearing? At that point, it didn't really matter, because I had already decided. In a frantic burst of activity, I broke camp, packed the boat, and was in the water by 2 p.m.

I haven't described the waves that day, least I be accused of exaggerating; but, in my incredulously overloaded boat, I surfed the entire 11 miles and stepped onto dry ground a little after four. As I arrived, I said a little thank you to all the spirits that helped me across, had a swallow of rum in salute, and not twenty minutes later the grey disappeared and the bluest sky I ever saw said welcome to Valcour Island. 

13/Tuesday 9/24. Waking this morning, I found that my fears of yesterday had been justified. The rains were gone and the new clearing front was strong and out of the north. So I plodded along, fighting the wind for every inch, making only slightly more distance during the whole day and early evening as I made in two hours on the previous afternoon. Still, I paddled past Crab Island, Plattsburg, and Chamberland Head. Typically, the only good campsite (that I knew of) at Treadwell Bay was now out of reach, and I was forced to abandoned those plans slightly after nightfall. Fortunately, there were numerous small islands in the area, and from a distance, they all looked hospitable. As I arrived at each in its turn, however, the posted restrictions and warnings were so dire that camping at a plague colony seemed a lesser risk. 

I had done it to myself again. It was dark, I was hungry, and my prospects were zero. On the other hand, the wind had stopped and it was an absolutely gorgeous night. A hit of Coconut Rum definitely seemed in order, so I swung my feet out of the cockpit and laid back in the boat. I sipped slowly, floating, the lake almost supernaturally calm, the stars so bright and close I could have pitched my tent on the nearest. It was a perfect moment, the thought of which made me laugh aloud. How absurd: here I was enjoying the view when I hadn't a clue where my next spot of dry land would be. I shrugged to myself, had another sip, and began to contemplate the strange glowing line I had noticed a few minutes before, that ran parallel with the horizon. It had an almost ghostly radiance and seemed to extend in both directions for several miles. It was too precise to be a natural phenomenon, and since I lacked other options, I decided to investigate.

Once I arrived at it, however, I was too close to comprehend it, and it was only after much climbing around in the dark, did I come to understand that I had been attracted by slabs of white marble, which had been strategically dumped to shorn up the slopes of a long abandoned railroad line. The slender ridge at the top was just wide enough to accommodate a tent. So I set up camp on the Vermont Line, on the northern portion of South Hero Island, right before it crosses at The Gut. Looking back, when I added up the distances spent zigzagging from island to island, it would have been wiser to keep to my original goal of Treadwell Bay. The point was moot, however, and while I doubt my current spot will ever make Conde Nast Traveler, it did posses a certain quirky and unique charm. And besides, I reasoned, it would only be for one night. 

14/Wednesday 9/25. WRONG! A new front moved in and the rain has returned with such force as to completely belie last night's perfect sky. All things considered, these are some of the most comfortable railroad tracks I've ever camped on. 
The biggest problem in paddling alone were those perpetual lapses into contemplation. For example, once, while breaking down the tent, I went from musing on why Prince Andrei had to die, to what would have happened if Nikolai had married Sonia, and then jumped to the uselessness of Joe Ben Stamper's death, which inevitably brought me round to my mortality and that of my family and friends, which of course stopped all activity as I stared into space, momentarily depressed with the finiteness of human nature. Now friends won't tolerate that stuff. They don't want to hear soliloquies on life and death, they just want you to pack the tent, so they don't die of old age while waiting. 

15/Thursday 9/26. What a day: there was a light wind from out of the south, pushing me gently along; the sky was a crystal diamond blue, with clouds as full as a child's view of heaven; and the air was warm and wispy, more summer then fall. Everything was perfect; even my back behaved. I paddled from The Gut, around the tip of North Hero, through the La Motte Passage, and was roughly paralleling the Alburg Tongue. As I rounded a small point off The Tongue, the bridge at Rouses Point was suddenly visible in the far distance. I was elated: Rouses Point was the last American settlement, which meant that the Richelieu and Canada were right below my horizon. I had made it! I remember musing that Champlain must have wanted to give me a perfect last day, when the sky suddenly began to darken and the light got weird. It was a strange combination: The wind and waves were at my back, indicating that the front was still moving in from the south. None the less, from north northwest, a huge black thunderhead was moving toward me at incredible speed, whipping up everything in its path. Could I beat it in? Did I have a choice? Either way I looked I was two miles from anything. All things being equal, I decided my present course was as good as any other, and I continued north northwest, full into its face. 

The first lightning tore the sky like a bite from a tyrannosaurs; it was followed by a blast of thunder that would have dislodged stars if any had been present. I eyed my aluminum mast nervously, a lightening rod waiting to happen. But there was nothing I could do. The flashes came quicker and closer and the wind and waves continued to build. Everything began chopping and churning about me. I paddled, smoothly, but on auto pilot, my attention focused like a laser, vacillating between the distant shore and the huge, billowing, black mass moving into position above me. 

Then the sky opened, dumping a waterfall of rain and hail, engulfing me in a torrent that eclipsed all my mortal boundaries. Everything vanished in the froth and the mist and the waves, and I was suddenly blind. I evoked the names of all I knew, both living and dead, and bent my head to the wind. Man never beats nature, I remember thinking, but she will let you slid, if you take her one wave at a time. And so I focused, keeping an imaginary bearing where I thought land to be, while keeping my eyes down, to shield them from the sting of the hail. One wave, then another, then another, till gradually, after about twenty, very-long minutes, the storm began to slacken. After which, it very quickly wound down and abruptly evaporated like a ghost in the morning. 

When I arrived at Gaines' Rouses Point Marina, I was cold and very wet. I emptied the boat, beached it, and as I was rummaging through my gear for dry clothes to change into, the biggest rainbow I had ever seen momentarily filled the sky, stretching across the border from the U.S. to Canada. I took it as a sign of good passage. I had arrived. 

16/Friday 9/27. I felt like celebrating so I took the day off. I have had many days off on this trip, all of which confined me to the tent with almost explosively forceful rain. Today would be the first dry day where I was free to roam about. I explored the town, did the laundry, sent out post cards and bought film and supplies. 

Spent the night exploring the bars and exchanging lake stories with the locals. If their stories were true only a quarter of what they could drink, then I had been very lucky. 

17/Saturday 9/28. Refreshed, recharged, resupplied and ready for the Richelieu. Unfortunately, an incredibly frigid front has moved in, with huge winds and torrential rains, grounding me again. 

18/Sunday 9/29. More of the same. Clearing predicted for Monday, along with record lows -- I knew it was a bad sign when I woke that morning to discover my canteen frozen solid -- and more rain Tuesday and Wednesday. According to the locals, it was the start of their rainy season. Lucky me. 

Cleared briefly late Sunday afternoon and I decided to make a quick run across the border. A good portion of this trip I spent trying to read the lake, and now I read that she was closing this season's chapter. If that was the case, then that short and unexpected clearing was the epilogue. So I paddled across the border, declared my purposes with Canadian Customs, and paddled back. By that point, the sun had long set and everything was dark and cold; but the paddling felt good, and the cold felt luxurious, and I wondered again if I still couldn't reach the Saint Lawrence. But even as I mused, I could see the dark outline of clouds moving swiftly from the North. They were dark and thick and already seemed full with the seeds of winter. I would leave for Manhattan tomorrow.
 
 

Robert Huszar is the author of RAINDANCE, and the founder of the Hudson River Waterway. This article is dedicated to his father, Paul, who willed him his proud and stubborn heart.

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