In My Element The Isles of Lake Champlain
Islands have always been my priority. If I could, I would just travel from one island to another world-over, settling in each for a while, hopefully with a wonderful partner. Tropical islands, desert islands, cold windswept islands – they all have a call on my spirit. Having a bad sense of direction and liking simplicity, islands are also easier to handle in terms of size and manageability. You can always walk along a coast, there is usually a loop road around the island, a limited number of roads crisscrossing it, and a limited number of facilities, simplifying decisions.
So, looking at the map in landlocked Lazy Lions, I realized there is an interesting-looking topography at the border between Vermont and New York State, a promising conjunction of water and land – the Islands of Lake Champlain. Going there will alleviate the irksome sense that I haven’t seen enough of Vermont, and will give me a needed respite before venturing on a new mountain range.
The Weight of History
The first encounter with the lake was auspicious. Following the hard drive on the 89, my eyes washed over the mysterious beauty unfolding on the side of the road. Water plants were creating interesting patterns above the wavelets. Driving on a highway, it was hard to really look or take photos, though. When I finally found a spot to stop, the view was a bit less spectacular, but still awesome. Especially thrilling was the part where the lake was stretching on both sides of the road – the causeway.
At my parking spot there was a strange plaque that proved to me, again, how little I knew about the places I was visiting. As boring as history lessons might seem, when you get to a new place and know nothing about why and how it came to be the way you find it, you are in an intellectual handicap. The independent Republic of Vermont? What are we talking about?
I asked Google for help and found out that Vermont’s liberal tradition is as old as the 18th century at least, when a self-declared Republic had already abolished slavery within its boundaries. The republic tried to avoid land claims from both the British colony of Quebec and the American states of NH and NY. Unsurprisingly, New Yorkers refused to recognize the jurisdiction. The surprise was, though, that some Vermonters would opt to secede even today.
There was an attempt on Vermont’s part to join Quebec. The French name for the lake, Champlain, is a historical hint for the French connection. Champlain was an illustrious French explorer and settler who basically settled Vermont. The name of the state is itself French, meaning “Green Mountain”. In 1791, Vermont officially joined the U.S. as the 14th state.
When in Cape Breton I learned that there was a French colony called Acadia, and that some of today’s population of the Cape, especially on the western side, see themselves as descendants of the Acadians. In Anne of Green Gables bookstore in PEI, I saw a book decrying a deportation of the Acadians. That event took place in 1755-1764 as a result of the British-French 7-year war in its American “theatre of operation”. American Indian allies of the French were also deported. On Isle la Motte I met an originally French Canadian or Acadian who was carrying a lot of historical and cultural resentment. Understanding engenders compassion.
Knowing how people judge Israel based on fact-less propaganda (e.g. here and here), I admit to my overall ignorance in this case and in others, and try to humbly catch up a bit. In many ways, the image of European powers fighting over chunks of the New World does not conjure much compassion or empathy by itself. Yet, when looking closer, it gets clear that the Acadians were mostly farmers and fishermen, thrown out of land they, by then, considered their own. Morality in history is an untidy issue.
The Lake has History, too
With my interest aroused about the origin of the strange lake, I found out it was a remnant of a huge sea, again named after the same renown French explorer, The Champlain Sea. Under the ancient Champlain Sea were submerged the three future major cities of Quebec, Montreal and Ottawa, as well as parts of NYS and Vermont.
That sea was continuous with the Atlantic Ocean via the equally strange St. Lawrence “river” of today. All that is a relic from the 2-km thick glaciers that covered the entire area under the last Ice Age. The ice sheet physically prevented the Atlantic from pouring into the St. Lawrence and Ottawa deep valleys, but as the glaciers started to recede, water poured in to form the Sea. At its peak, the sea was 150 meters above today’s level.
When the land rebounded from the weight of the ice, it rose again and the sea that was formed previously became landlocked. Interestingly, some saltwater fish like salmon got trapped and had to adapt to the gradually freshening waters. Fossilized whales were found near Montreal and Ottawa.
Grand Isle State Park Campground
This is my new perch on Grand Isle Campground. Grand Isle is one of the five main Lake Champlain islands. After verifying it wasn’t going to rain, I erected the tent, then set down to reorganize my stuff. Weather emergency clothing like gloves, jacket, sweaters and raingear were all put in an easy-to-reach small suitcase on top. All other clothing, as well as books, maps, brochures and other items that were not relevant anymore, were bundled in the big suitacase underneath. Accessibility is key.
Once settled, true to custom, I took a walk along the beach. It was a bit hard to access, as the so-called lean-tos were located all along the cliffs overlooking the lake. A lean-to helps protect your tent from the weather, but is still open. The only way to get down to the lake was to walk all the way around the campsites to the beach on its northern side. On the way I passed the seemingly non-functional Nature Center, as well as a nice lookout a bit off the road.
On this first walk heading south, I glimpsed an interesting geology and biology – layered shales with hardy trees meandering their roots to survive on barren rocks:
Fairies on Beach, Dogs on Land
Walking along the beach by Grand Isle Campground I met a wondrous young couple, who have just moved to Vermont from one of the big cities. The girl was extraordinarily beautiful, with an open face, blue eyes and a graceful figure. In her hand she carried a small “boat” made of birch bark with twigs, a kids’ fairy project. She was working with children and was also an expert on nature and birds. After a painful deliberation over the birch boat, she nonetheless decided to sacrifice it for fire making (there’s oil in the bark). Walking back I found more fairy samples:
Back at the campground I re-assembled my gas stove. The same grains and lentils, the same tea and chocolate.
Earlier in the campground I met a very nice and very shy guy, divorced, about 50, walking his dog. He helped me find my way around. There were two “loops” in the campground, which made it a bit confusing. He spoke very excitedly and very quickly about the “to do” things on the islands, elaborating about a church down at La Motte where you can see a full size Jesus, about a bicycle trail that crosses all the isles, and about the Ironwood Trail, starting here at the camp, that he said he walks almost daily with the dog. He also played music and sang. I gave him my tent “address”, wondering if we could make some music together, or at least walk the Ironwood.
He came to visit in the evening and we talked, but did not set a clear time and place to meet for the walk. Since I could not find him in the morning, I set out on my own anyway. Perhaps I scared him – he’d never been abroad, except once in Canada, and here I was, this weird world traveler. I liked him, his shyness was appealing, but probably counter-indicative…
I found it curious how many of the campers seemed to have never left the campground. Most seemed perfectly content to just “get away” from whatever it was their regular lives, rather than to “get to”, explore novelty. They established a comfortable routine in the campground, walked their dogs (the kids were back in school, family holidays were over by now, and most people were older). They seemed content to spend most of their time in their respective campground territories, sitting on chairs or at the picnic tables during the day, making fires at night to keep warm, cooking. One woman was reading novels.
With my psychological makeup and the Israeli spirit I was always antsy to see “more”, so when the guy did not show up, I drove all the way north to Isle La Motte. I thought that would be a good start, as by driving across all the islands I’d get to know better where I wanted to spend more time. It proved to be a very good idea.
The Tree - Encounter with Spirit
At night, as I was waiting for my cellphone to charge in the bathroom’s outlet, I sat by the huge tree nearby. The moon shone through the tree top, the Big Deeper tried to reveal itself to its north, and the “trees entity” connected to what earth is, what air is. The awesome strength of the tree above ground, and its power below ground overwhelmed me. I felt my smallness intensely, but also my ability to feel the grandeur of Nature around and inside me. I saw how mighty trees melt back down to Earth in the forests. Termites, fungi, rain do their work, and the tree gradually become indistinguishable from soil. But as long as it stands, connecting air, sun and ground, there’s nothing like it. “And the human is but a tree of the field.”
Staying for a few more days at Grand isle Campground I took my time, and the next day I investigated Isle La Motte, one of the most rewarding experience on this trip.