As we made our way up the Hudson River, we mused that if only half the accolades we’d heard about cruising Lake Champlain were true, it would be worth our trek from the Chesapeake Bay.
Over the years we had met cruisers who had raved about the lake’s clean water, breathtaking backdrop of mountains, and limitless anchorages. We had traveled up the Chesapeake, down Delaware Bay, north up the Atlantic Coast with a layover at Atlantic City, and then on to New York Harbor. Telling nods from cruisers we had met along the way had confirmed everything we’d heard, so we continued north as fast as we could, looking forward to a scenic trip within easy cruising reach of our home port of St. Michaels, Maryland. It’s about 150 miles toWaterford, New York, the start of the Champlain Canal, from New York Harbor, which begins with the hustle and bustle of the Battery, followed by the beauty of New Jersey’s Palisades. It didn’t take us long to discover that the Hudson has a strong current. We cruise at 7-1/2 knots, so when the GPS said we were making 5-1/2 over the bottom as we passed under the GeorgeWashington Bridge, we knew it would be a long day. Moving over to the shallower water alongshore bought us another knot of speed, but until the tide changed, we had plenty of time to enjoy the scenery.
Freighters passed us, but there seemed to be more traffic on the railroads running along the two shorelines than on the water. As we cruised along at a relaxed pace, we crossed tacks with Half Moon, a replica of the Dutch ship sailed by Henry Hudson. Our first stop was Croton-on-Hudson, a small village whose topography includes a plateau rising 600 feet above the river. The next day we caught the current and went all the way to Catskill, New York. There, we unstepped our 22-foot mast so we would be able to pass under the lowest fixed bridge on the Champlain Canal, which has a 17-foot clearance.
We passed through the Federal Lock at Troy and then stopped to reprovision at the Waterford Harbor Visitor Center, where there’s no charge for dockage for up to two nights. The harbor, operated by the New York State Canal System, is a crossroads for cruisers heading west on the Erie Canal or north to the Champlain Canal.
NEW FRIENDS, NEW DESTINATIONS
Once in the 64-mile Champlain Canal, we paid $17 for a two-day pass to take us up and then down the 11 locks, which average about 15 feet of lift or drop. There are ropes, poles, and cables attached to the lock walls, making it easy to negotiate using a midship cleat on the deck. We keep a line attached to the cleat with a tail of about 6 feet, and when we reach a pole or cable on the lock wall, one of us wraps the line around it and secures it back on the cleat. As the water in the lock rises or falls, the line slides up or down the cable or pipe. We each man a boathook at the bow and stern and watch as the line moves to make sure it doesn’t get caught on anything.
We stopped between Locks 2 and 3 at the free dock in Mechanicville, which provides water, electricity, and pumpout and is just a short walk to town. We were surprised when the mayor of the town stopped by to welcome boaters at the dock. Near Fort Edward, we saw folks working on the massive General Electric PCB dredging project. Excavators on deck barges were digging up contaminated sediment from the bottom of the river and loading it onto large hopper barges to be transported for treatment.
A few hours later, just before passing through the last lock at Whitehall’s free dock, we met our friends Bob and Nancy, who cruise aboard Winsome and who first sold us on the idea of cruising Lake Champlain for the summer. These seasoned cruisers go north every summer and rave about the lake, so we were happy to follow in their wake. We transited the last lock, tied up at the Lock 12 Marina, at the southernmost end of the lake, and restepped our mast. We were ready to cruise the lake.
Just 20 miles north of Whitehall, we passed Fort Ticonderoga, on the New York side with the Adirondacks in the background. The southern end of the lake is narrow and river-like until it begins to broaden at Port Henry and then opens up north of Essex, New York. Our destination was Vergennes, 50 miles north on the Vermont side. This charming city, Vermont’s oldest, had been highly recommended by Sherry, a solo skipper aboard a restored Grand Banks 32 named Puff whom we had met in Catskill.
We turned into Otter Creek just shy of Porter Bay and followed it for 8 miles until we rounded the last bend, which opened up into a protected harbor by a waterfall. Since the town docks were filled, we anchored with other boats in front of the falls. As the sun went down, lights on the falls illuminated, making for a magical, if not noisy, setting. The Vergennes city dock was free (for two days), but we were unsure of the protocol of who gets space as it opens up, and we had been the last to arrive. So Gene dinghied over to Splash II, a Montreal cruiser, to inquire. He met Micheline and Pierre, who said they would head to the dock first and hail us, letting us know when to come. Soon after, they caught our lines. It was a nice reminder of how easy it is to make friends with other cruisers—the language of boating translates the same in English and French.
As more boats arrived, Gene and Pierre got them hooked to power by jury-rigging a splitter, multiple power cords, and adapters. Winsome motored in, and then Tim and Carol, whom we’d met in the canal, aboard Entre Nous. The docks were full, so we invited them to raft up. That night, everyone gathered for a “docktail party” at the picnic tables in the park. Some of us got cleaned up and headed to the Black Sheep Bistro for dinner, while those with kids aboard had pizza delivered.
The next morning, several of us walked a few blocks uphill into town and met for breakfast at the 3 Squares Café. That afternoon, while everyone was busy messing around with their boats, all progress stopped when we heard the familiar jingle of a Mr. Ding-a-Ling ice cream truck. In a matter of minutes we were all slurping on cones and popsicles. Gene and Micheline sat at a picnic table with her laptop, trying get access to our network so she could use our printer. Gene’s a tech-head, but he was stymied by all the French words on the screen. Fortunately, Micheline is also fluent in English, and they got everything working.
Many of the cruisers we met on Lake Champlain were Canadian, and it’s no wonder, given the lake’s proximity to Montreal. We learned that the Canadian construction and manufacturing industries shut down for last the two weeks in July, so we saw many a stern bearing the red-and-white ensign with the iconic red maple leaf.
Our intention had been to spend a month on Lake Champlain, cruising up the eastern shore and returning along the western side, but we quickly learned that we could easily crisscross the lake because of the short distances. We anchored a lot, so we based our destinations on the direction of the wind. To navigate we used our GPS, of course, but we continually referred to Cruising Guide to the Hudson River, Lake Champlain & the St. Lawrence River by Alan and Susan McKibben and Lake Champlain Atlas of Navigational Charts by R.W. Vogel (you’ll find more about both publications at www.lakechamplainpub.com).
CITY DELIGHTS, REMOTE SIGHTS
As we became familiar with the lake, we saw how ferry transportation is an integral element of the region, providing service at the north, central, and southern parts of the lake. On our way to Burlington, Vermont, we ducked into Shelburne Bay to anchor in the protection of Allen Hill. As we passed the Shelburne Shipyard, we had to grab our binoculars to confirm what we saw: a huge car ferry on a marine railway. Obviously, theses ferries need maintenance, and this must be the place.
At the Burlington Community Boathouse, a profusion of daylilies in the waterfront park lined the shore near the marina. A well-run staff of college kids hustled boats in and out of the floating docks with skill and ease. The downtown park is an idyllic setting, with a walking and biking trail along the lakeshore, and it’s just minutes from a thriving city overlooking the lake. The park is the center of boating activities; car ferries and cruise boats come and go. We took the free shuttle bus into the city and found a large farmer’s market offering an amazing array of fresh produce, prepared foods, jewelry, and artwork. We also visited the Church Street Marketplace, a closed-off city street with more than 100 vendors and specialty shops. We snooped around some of the shops and picked up some more provisions at the City Market, then walked back to the marina.
That night we enjoyed live music played by a band at a restaurant along the waterfront—so much so that we danced in the cockpit when they started playing oldies. We laughed when we saw that we weren’t alone. One couple was on their foredeck doing the same thing, and another up on their bridge slow-dancing under the starry sky.
We had a slip reservation for only one night because the boathouse was booked for the Dragon Boat Festival, so we moved to the mooring field for a few days. Burlington encourages boaters to come and pick up a mooring for the day without paying, something we learned after we noticed several boats leaving at 5 p.m. What a novel idea, we joked: encouraging cruisers to visit and not pay.
We enjoyed several more days in Burlington and toured the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center, which sits on the waterfront. We read the words of the native people of the region at the “Indigenous Expressions” exhibit, and we watched kids of all ages get blown away in the Category One Hurricane Simulator, part of “Wind: Power and Play.”
With our city fix behind us, we set off for Burton Island State Park, taking a 30-mile run north to the cut between North and South Hero Islands called The Gut. The Grand Isle Bridge opens to the Inland Sea, with the state park due west of St. Albans, Vermont. The park is accessible only by boat, making it an idyllic spot for cruisers, as well as campers, who arrive daily on the ferry. We tied to a floating dock just inside the harbor overlooking the lake, where there’s a pebble beach for swimmers. In the morning we sat at picnic tables there, enjoying our coffee and watching the day unfold.
It seemed to us that most of the boaters who came into the harbor had been here before. Once they’d secured their docklines, they brought out collapsible canopies, chairs, and tables and set them up near their boats and around fire pits. Burton Island clearly is a family place, with kids of all ages swimming on the beach and riding bicycles on the trails. In the morning at the breakfast bar, we noticed picnic tables full of kids with big brothers or sisters in charge of their little siblings. We wondered who enjoyed it more—the kids going out to breakfast on their own, or the parents who were sleeping in.
We followed a 2-mile walking trail to the southern tip of the island, lush with fields of goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace. Remote campsites were tucked away off the foliage-lined trails. At the tip of the island, we sat on a bench and marveled at the wide waters of the Inland Sea, with Vermont’s rolling hills in the background. Across the water, on tiny Ball Island, we saw a dock and a charming cottage that reminded us of the island rock houses we had seen on Georgian Bay’s small-craft route.
‘WEST COAST’ CRUISING
From Burton Island it was only a 12-mile run across the lake to Deep Bay. To the southwest we saw a massive wind farm with vanes high atop the Adirondacks in Plattsburgh, New York. The wind was predicted to kick up for a few days, so we were happy to grab a mooring. The protected harbor of Deep Bay is operated by Point Au Roche State Park, and we gladly handed over the $17 mooring fee to the harbormaster, who even collected garbage bags.
In chatting with local cruisers, we learned that our late-July arrival had been perfectly timed. Everyone we met said the weather until then had been cold and rainy—apparently, summer was just getting started. While we had a few days of rain during our cruise, the thermometer always reached the mid-70s or 80º. Even the nights were warm, but not muggy, making for ideal sleeping conditions with the hatches open.
Another recommended destination was Malletts Bay, an area called Vermont’s “west coast,” so we made the 20-mile run from Deep Bay in somewhat lumpy seas. A cut in a causeway that holds an old railroad bed leads into a wide bay lined with waterfront homes and summer cottages, then beyond Marble Island is the inner bay. We needed to pump out, reprovision, and do some laundry, so we headed to Champlain Marina, which had been recommended by cruisers we’d met at Burton Island. (Cruising guides are great, but nothing beats a personal recommendation.) The marina had nice, clean facilities and was an easy walk to a general store with groceries, a hardware store (something we never pass up), and a bakery and restaurant.
A short jaunt away, we ducked into a lovely protected anchorage near Red Rock Point and stayed a few days, enjoying the warm weather and calm waters. As we left Malletts Bay and headed back into the lake, we saw a large pontoon boat operating as a bike ferry, transporting cyclists across the causeway cut.
From the entrance to Mallets Bay, it was a two-hour ride across the lake to Valcour Island, New York, a popular anchorage with Bluff Point on its western shore and Spoon Bay and Sloop Cove to the east. Also a state park, the island is accessible only by boat and features campsites and trails. We found an idyllic anchorage at Willsboro Bay, just a few miles south. A few homes and a huge marina line the western shore, but to the east you’re surrounded by high granite cliffs that make you feel like you’re in a fjord. The chart showed water 50–150 feet deep on that side; we anchored in 10 feet at the base of the bay with several other boats. Wherever we were on the lake, the British-racing-green waters seemed to match the pines lining the rocky shore.
Throughout our cruise, we were intrigued by Lake Champlain’s role in our country’s early history. During the Revolutionary War, Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold surprised the British at Fort Ticonderoga, forcing them to surrender. We also learned that exactly 400 years before our visit, Samuel de Champlain had sailed up the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City and claimed the region and lake, so, in 2009, several places on Lake Champlain were holding quadricentennial celebrations. Similar festivities were being held on the Hudson River to mark Henry Hudson’s 1609 crossing of the Atlantic on a Dutch ship, after which he claimed the river as his namesake and established New Amsterdam (a.k.a. New York).
Our last week on Lake Champlain, we headed south, setting a course for Essex, New York, a charming summer resort town on the western shore. We got a slip at the Essex Shipyard and were greeted by slip holders who caught our lines and helped us into a tight spot. A short walk uphill to the main street in town, we found a few shops and a deli that had everything we needed, including a Sunday newspaper. The main activity was a few blocks north, near the ferry dock at the Old Dock House. There, we sipped cold beer and sampled sandwiches while watching cars and bikers peel off the ferry.
We met up with Winsome, spending our last night at anchor between Garden and Cedar Islands in Converse Bay. From there we had an hour’s run to the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vergennes, where we picked up a mooring near Philadelphia II, a replica of a 1776 gunboat. The museum is next to the Basin Harbor Club, a lovely resort on the banks of the lake. Fran and Bob from North Carolina, whom we had met earlier in our trip, were on a mooring there aboard Jolie Blond, and we met them for lunch at the club’s Red Mill restaurant after touring the museum.
Our final stop on the lake was Westport, New York, another quaint summer resort. We picked up some fresh produce at a farmer’s market and stopped at the Bessboro Shop, one of the nicest shops we visited on our cruise. (Westport originally was named “Bessboro,” after the town founder’s wife.) Before we left, we unstepped our mast so we would be ready to traverse the canal system at Whitehall.
As we headed home, we marveled at the beauty of Lake Champlain and the bounty of its wonderful anchorages, all short distances apart. We agreed that everything we had heard about cruising the lake was true. It’s no wonder Lake Champlain is on so many cruisers’ “not to be missed” list.