When Mary arrived at our house at 8AM Saturday, we were in typical pre-trip disorganization mode. Piles of clothing, gear, maps and tools covered the floor, and Mikes bike was in the stand with a severely out-of-true wheel.
It was July
and we were setting out for a tour around Lake Champlain. If we could
get Mikes wheel round again, it would be his first bike tour. Mary
and I had toured all over the world and with each adventure found we loved
cycling more than anything.
The three of us consider Lake Champlain our home turf, but we were happy to have the Lake Champlain Bikeways as or guide. The route would take us as far north as Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, and as far south as Whitehall, NY. We had four days to complete the trek, and rain was predicted for at least the first two. Itd be a good introduction to the joys of cycling for Mike.
Loading up BOB
Bike touring is a unique pursuit. It is a sport where the good things in life are: 1) moderate weather with a tail wind, 2) friendly general stores with clean bathrooms, 3) food, and 4) not sitting on anything that vaguely remotely feels like a saddle when you arent pedaling.
We struck out on #1 early in the trip. In West Milton the predicted storm struck and we were deluged with rain that filled our shoes in less than five minutes. We pumped our pedals hard to keep warm. The rain stopped suddenly and the pavement was instantly steaming. We lifted our eyes from the road to find ourselves in South Hero.
Ive driven through South Hero many times, but have never strayed far from Route 2. The Champlain Bikeways route offers alternatives, and despite many miles still to pedal that day, we opted for the variation that took us as near the lake and as far from traffic as possible.
We pedaled dirt and paved roads bordered with brick and stone houses, admired roadside sculptures ranging from beautiful to bizarre, and inhaled the perfume of gardens in full summer glory. We stopped at Snowfarm Vineyard for snacks, and an especially heavy bottle of wine we carried for two days.
Our border crossing was uneventful, and we pedaled hard on one of the flattest rides in the east, pushing hard to stay ahead of encroaching rain clouds. We spun past vast fields of Roundup Ready soybeans and corn, back into civilization and up our first hill of the day, the bridge over the Richelieu River.
The bridge had its own bike path, which descended to the canal path and took us directly to Auberge Harris. We were the guests of Madame Boutin, owner of the Auberge and one of the principle forces behind the 12 mile long canal recreation path between Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Chambly.
After 90 miles on the bike we dragged ourselves exhausted into the hotel. We were led to an impressive interior patio, a bike storage area outfitted with aluminum racks. We stashed our bikes next to those of other cycling guests and Madames 14 rental bikes.
To say Auberge Harris is cyclist-friendly is a gross understatement. Madame Boutin loves cyclists and would prefer if all her guests traveled by two wheels instead of four. She bubbled with stories, regional history and genuine love of her work, alternating between French and English, and greeting each newly arrived guest without missing a beat. She was disappointed we limped in too late for a tour of Fort Chambly, but immediately gave us the keys to her personal van and shooed us out the door to a local restaurant for a pasta dinner.
We slept soundly in Madames firm beds and left St. Jean after a full breakfast at the Auberge, headed for Essex, NY.
Getting back on the bike the second day is never a pleasant experience. Our butts were chaffed and aching, and our bodies stiff. It was Sunday morning and there was little traffic, but the traffic there was didnt seem to share Madame Boutins love of cyclists. A consistent headwind and a flat tire compounded our misery. A few miles before the border, where there is an excellent bathroom in the duty free shop, conditions improved.
We pedaled along Lake Champlain through more flat farmland. Acquaintances on a day trip from Burlington passed us and shouted hellos as they raced by to catch the ferry back to Vermont.
On our second day of long miles, with BOB in tow, we werent moving that fast. Actually we were moving quite slow. By Plattsburgh, we had only covered 50 of our 90 scheduled miles. It was 4 pm and we needed to find a bike shop to repair a loose hub.
With the help of a gas station attendant we re-routed ourselves through downtown Plattsburgh. Maui North had the hub tightened in minutes, returned $20 that fell out of my bike shorts in the bathroom, and put us back on the road. Unfortunately, we only made it across the street to the Co-op for meal number six.
The amount of food your body wants when bike touring, especially the first few days, is impressive. We began with Madame Boutins filling breakfast, progressed to a snack of bread, cheese and fruit, ate more cheese with bread and tomato, chowed on energy bars, gulped GU, downed a second full lunch and ice cream at the Co-op, refueled with more power foods, and finished the day off with a huge dinner.
After our coop stop, BOB and I made a concerted effort to get some miles under our belt. Drafting off Mike and pulling Mary, whose legs and stomach were both fighting for her blood, BOB and I schlepped over increasingly rolling terrain, pounding out twenty miles in an hour to arrive at Ausable Chasm.
The Chasms natural beauty is guarded by tourist concessions that have erected 20-foot high chain link fences along its borders. We couldnt have gone in if we wanted to because the concessions were closed. We renamed the site Awful Chasm, and I turned BOB over to Mary. She was feeling fresh until we rounded the corner and were faced with hills I struggled to get up without weight on my bike. Mary tackled them like a champ.
We had agreed to push on towards our friend Toms house, but we were afraid wed eat him out of house and home if we arrived without food. We loaded up at a small general store advertising fresh pies. BOB took on two pounds of spaghetti, two glass jars of spaghetti sauce, a head of lettuce, bread and butter, a cherry pie, bananas and fresh-picked blueberries.
Shortly after our eighth meal, and around 6:30PM, we arrived at Toms house smelly and tired. He and Luana were happy to see even though we did eat them out of house and home while exchanging adventure stories. Mike, Mary and I talked about the scenery, border crossings and our butts, while Tom recounted tales of traveling in India and Southeast Asia, pulling native instruments from his walls to accompany his stories. He shared an impressive collection of items he had found in the walls of houses during his 20 years in Essex, ranging from nostalgic to useful to morbid. Tom had either lived in or worked on every house in town.
Flat Road Ahead?
Day three we woke to the smell of Toms famous omelets, English muffins and fruit salad. The ferry to Charlotte beckoned, but we forged on. Tom swore it was flat between Essex and Westport, NY, and sent us on our way.
Any time a non-cyclist tells you the road is flat, theyre wrong. Whether they just didnt notice it was hilly or they prefer not to worry you before you get there, dont believe them. The Essex-Westport stretch was beautiful, historic and there were consistently huge rollers that took concentration and effort to climb.
We passed thirteen bike-touring Boy Scouts waiting at the top of one roller for their troop master dads, who were pushing loaded bikes up the hill a half mile behind. The kids looked like they were having fun. The jury was out on the dads.
Westport to Whitehall was a blur. We had good lake views, but the acrid stench and spewing smoke of the International Paper plant outside Ticonderoga made the whole area feel dirty and polluted. Though the route followed smaller roads wherever possible, we were frequently pedaling in the median with trucks cruising by in the lane next to us.
Though it must have been impressive in its heyday, Whitehall is a classic candidate for urban revitalization. Grandiose brick buildings line the canal, though many storefronts appear vacant, and some are boarded up. The birthplace of the US Navy, Whitehall is not a thriving metropolis, but has pockets of activity. Champlain Bikeways recommends a stop at Whitehalls Skenesborough Museum, but once again, we arrived late and left early. Boaters touring Lake Champlain visit Whitehall in droves, overnighting in marinas before heading north.
Ray and Linda Faville own the Lock 12 Marina, as well as the Finch & Chubb Inn and Restaurant and two stores. They were kind enough to offer us accommodations. Ray says hes seen quite an increase in bikers coming through Whitehall in the past few years, so many that he and Linda have just invested in a fleet of rental bikes. Many cyclists biking around Lake Champlain start and end in Whitehall (Amtrak stops there). Most cyclists starting north cross the Lake north of Ticonderoga at the Crown Point Bridge and skip Whitehall all together.
After the afternoons uninspiring ride, I wondered if we too should have crossed back to Vermont at the Crown Point Bridge, but the ride north through Vermont the next morning captured the flavor of our state so well, it was definitely worth the highway riding.
on pavement and dirt, through typically well-kept and unkempt Vermont
farms. We had breathtaking lake views, and stopped in several tiny Vermont
villages where the post office was still in the general store. The landscape
has a different feel in Vermont. Its a little greener, and has a
little more luster.
Biking the complete circumference of Lake Champlain made me appreciate our western border more than ever, and it refreshed my connection with my home state. Not only was it beautiful, but it reminded me why I live here.
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