After checking the forecast, we decided not to cross Lake Champlain on Wednesday, July 6. The forecast called for severe thunderstorms, hail, up to 20 mile an hour winds and 1- to 2-foot waves. When you're crossing the nation's sixth biggest lake in a canoe, those aren't ideal conditions.
For me, Lake Champlain was the biggest mental challenge of the trip. I was concerned about hitting rough seas and wanted to play it safe. When you're in a canoe, the lake can be intimidating, especially when you look across the water at its wider points and struggle to see the other side.
Luckily, Jacob and I had a place to wait out the storms on Cumberland Head at our friends Todd Fuchs and Emily Pleger's home. But waiting out intermittent thunderstorms is kind of a tough thing to do when you're hoping to travel from New York to Maine. You don't want to lose any time sitting around.
Mike Lynch stands on the Cumberland Head shoreline prior to crossing Lake Champlain on July 7. Many paddlers consider crossing Lake Champlain one of the biggest challenges of the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail, which goes from Old Forge to Fort Kent, Maine.
(Photo — Jacob Resneck)
Much of this particular day, it was difficult to look at the water and see that it was relatively calm. We could've been paddling on it, but we didn't want to take a chance of getting caught on the water when one of the severe storms came barreling through. We would have been putting our lives in the hands of God and playing with fate by leaving on a day such as this. By the afternoon, we felt pretty smart for not hitting the water when a nasty thunder and lightning storm came through the area, kicking up monster waves that would have tossed us around.
Luckily, after a day of rest, the forecast for Thursday was pretty mild. There were no storms on the horizon, the winds were to be less than 10 miles per hour and the waves under a foot high. We decided to wake up early and make our way to the other side.
I awoke that day shortly after 5 a.m. and checked the water. There were some waves, but it was definitely calm enough to paddle. Like we had done the previous few days, we made a makeshift sprayskirt out of black contractor-grade garbage bags. I had decided to not invest in a spray skirt prior to the trip because we would only need one for a few days. The plastic bags with some duct tape would do the trick, keeping any waves from splashing over the gunnels.
Intent on Fort Kent
This is the fourth in a series of dispatches from Enterprise outdoors writer Mike Lynch as he paddles the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Old Forge to Fort Kent, Maine. The articles will appear on the Outdoors page every Saturday until the completion of the journey.
A little before 7 a.m., we finally got on the water. The waves on Cumberland Bay were actually a little bigger than I would have liked so early in the morning. They were easily manageable, but I hoped that when we got into the more open water, they wouldn't increase in size.
Luckily, when we turned the corner at the end of Cumberland Head, we were greeted by a very calm surface. We paddled north up the shoreline and once we were out of the path of the ferries, we turned our boat east and headed to the other side. Although Lake Champlain is 12 miles across at its widest point, there is only a 2-mile stretch between Cumberland Head and the shoreline of South Hero Island.
For the first three-quarters of the journey, the waves were minimal. But by the time we got within a quarter-mile of the South Hero Island shoreline, they increased in size. The wind was also coming from the north and slightly west and was causing the waves to hit the side of the canoe.
We pointed the boat southeast and rode the waves into shore for a little while. When I felt we were close enough, I yelled to Jacob that we would be making a sharp turn left. Within moments, we were heading north up the lake, the South Hero Shoreline within a quarter-mile to our right.
Heading up the lake, the waves increased in size and several times the bow caught some air, splashing as it hit the water. But as we paddled up the lake, I never felt in danger of tipping. The large waves actually made the ride fun, although the wind did slow us down a bit.
The waves were definitely bigger than the 1-footers predicted for the day. The key to staying in control was to stay focused and keep the canoe headed into the waves. If we had been turned to the side, we could have been swamped.
After heading north for a couple of miles, we stopped at the smaller of the two Sister Islands and had some snacks and a celebratory beer. Jacob also ate some potted meat given to him as a joke gift prior to the trip. I only had one serving of it because it smelled like dog food.
After leaving the small Sister Island, we continued north. We passed the larger Sister Island and then, when I felt it was appropriate, we turned the boat in a southeasterly direction and headed into a bay called The Gut between South Hero Island and North Hero Island. Once in The Gut, the water was calm. As we paddled along, a large fish surfaced and boats passed us by.
After going under the Route 2 drawbridge, we once again headed north. Sheltered from the northwestern winds, the paddling got much easier from this point.
As we made our way up the shoreline, I noticed the after-effects from this spring's flooding. Many of the stairs down to the lake were damaged, and there was evidence of erosion on some of the steeper slopes. In a few spots, carpenters hammered away, doing repairs.
Our destination this day was North Hero State Park in Vermont, where we arrived just before dark. Our only other stop that day was in the small village of North Hero, where they had great soft serve ice cream.
Shortly after arriving at the state park, we encountered an interesting man named Doug Chapman. Chapman, who sported a Harvard hat, was pulling an inflatable kayak down the road. He had biked from Montreal, toting his fold-up kayak, and was headed to Boston to meet up with some people.
After talking to him for a bit, we hatched a plan to cross together in the morning. It was about a mile to Clark Point. From there, we would paddle up the lake to the mouth of the Missisquoi River, where there was a heron rookery. We would then head upstream on a long journey into Canada. Chapman was going to pull his kayak on his bike for a while and then put his boat in the river and paddle to the rookery.
As it turned out, we didn't wind up meeting Chapman. We got word from other kayakers that he was looking for us but we couldn't wait around. We had to continue upriver.
By midday, we arrived in Swanton, the first of many little sleepy towns on the Missisquoi. Tired of being in the sun, we laid under a tree for a few hours. Then late that afternoon, we headed back into the water.
Although we were headed upstream, the current was pretty mellow and it was easy going. The sun, though, was wearing us out. A little less than a mile upstream, we decided to paddle on the right side of the river, where large maple trees were providing some shade.
It wasn't long after we crossed and were enjoying the cooler confines that I heard a loud cracking noise. Moments later, a large maple slowly crashed into the water 100 feet ahead of us.
As we paddled past the tree, a man who had come out of a nearby house yelled to us.
"That would have been some bad luck," he said, inferring that the tree could have fallen on top of us.