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Champlain coast delights kayakers

Palisades high point of trip

By Judy Wolf, Explorer Correspondent

It is a balmy weekend, and my husband and I have a free Saturday. Not ones for letting a vivid autumn day go to waste, we’ve decided to spend it paddling a pair of 16-foot plastic sea kayaks along one of the more spectacular waterborne day trips in the Adirondack region: the stretch of Lake Champlain between Westport and Essex.

Adirondack MapAfter strapping our dog, a border collie named Indie, into a bright-yellow life vest and coaxing him into the rear compartment of Andrew’s boat, we slide our kayaks down the public launch in Westport and into the tranquil waters of Northwest Bay. Fog obscures the horizon. Somewhere beyond us is Vermont. “We may actually need this compass,” says Andrew, happy with his deck-mounted toy.

“Or we could follow the coast,” I point out. Not to be deterred, he fiddles with the chart and takes a bearing before paddling off.

Pointing our kayaks north, we head toward the Palisades, considered by many to be the most stunning section on the lake. Overhead, shrouded by mist, Canada geese honk their migration harmonies. Before us, a small gathering of mergansers speeds to a safe distance, leaving wedge-shaped ripples in their wake.

As we leave the bay, I notice zebra mussels coating the shallow rock beneath our boats. Despite the threat they pose to the ecosystem, municipal water supplies and historical underwater shipwrecks, the colony strikes me as remarkably beautiful: delicate-looking striped shells are arrayed in graceful and random patterns beneath the flickering surface of the lake.

Our paddle blades cut through billows of algae bloom, a solemn reminder that our everyday actions—even those as seemingly trivial as our choice of dish detergent—have far-reaching consequences. Andrew informs me that stormwater runoff from neighboring towns and farmland carries high levels of phosphorus into the lake, profoundly altering the ecosystem and resulting in this sinuous cloud of blue-green cells. Toxic at high levels, the algae growth is one of the reasons Essex Beach, where we plan to stop for lunch, has been closed.

The tang of fallen leaves infuses the air, drawing us forward. Our progress is punctuated by the splash of rising trout. We explore the wrinkled shoreline along Hunter Bay, Partridge and Rock harbors, then look up in amazement as the sun begins to burn through the fog, revealing a sheer rock cliff on our left. Three goldeneyes dive for fish at its base.

Andrew and the dog paddle closer, suddenly dwarfed by the immensity of the precipice, anorthosite (a granitelike igneous rock) more than a billion years old. Ahead of us, near Split Rock Mountain, the lake was carved by glaciers to its maximum depth—more than 400 feet—and then covered in seawater for 2,500 years. Beluga whales once swam here. An 11,000-year-old whale skeleton was unearthed in 1849 near Charlotte, Vermont—directly across the lake from where we will finish our outing.

Sun reflections dapple the rock face lining the lake. Trees adorned in autumn hues crown pewter-colored cliffs like blazing jewels: ruby, topaz, fire opal. An osprey soars along the shoreline and, landing in a dead tree high overhead, folds its wings to survey the scene.

On the southern tip of Snake Den Harbor we stop for a snack at a spot maintained by the Lake Champlain Committee, which is working to create a Paddlers’ Trail with sites—indicated by small blue markers— every eight miles along the lake. From a small rocky beach, a short trail leads abruptly uphill, then jogs left at a fork and makes a hairpin turn onto the ledge above the beach. A clearing affords a dramatic view east and south along the lake and a lovely excuse for stretching one’s legs.

By the time we set off again, motorboats have begun to make an appearance. This time Indie sits in the back hatch of my boat, nose moving constantly as he tests the breeze. In the near distance, clusters of sailboats stand out against an azure sky decorated with streaks of cirrus.

The next three miles provide ample opportunity to explore coves and harbors, as we move in and out of pockets filled with warm sun. At Split Rock—a huge, fractured boulder attached to shore by a tenuous spit of land—we pass what once marked the boundary between New France and New England. Just south of Split Rock stands a skeletal steel tower and a lighthouse made of blue limestone, built in 1867 to guide ships through the Narrows. The steel tower held the light from 1928 until 2003, when the original lighthouse was recalled to active duty.

Around the point, two sets of beaches beckon alluringly. This stretch of land, however, is owned by people who enjoy their privacy, so we continue along the shoreline for another mile. At the Essex Town Beach, we chat with locals whose boats lie sheltered on the shore. Having driven a single car, we had left a bicycle locked to a tree for use as our shuttle vehicle.

After a leisurely lunch, Andrew changes clothes and pedals south for 7.7 miles over hilly terrain while I load up the dog and paddle another 2.5 miles north to the hamlet of Essex. Passing quaint beach cottages and rolling countryside, I paddle steadily over rippling water. The lake is more than 120 miles long and up to 12 miles wide in places, ample fetch on windy days to build significant swells, enough (especially with a headwind) to make for a challenging—and possibly even dangerous—day. On this calm afternoon, however, the sun glistens dreamily.

Behind me, the dog has fallen asleep, his chin resting on the edge of the hatch, pillowed by his life vest. The rhythm of my paddling is even and meditative. The public landing at the tip of Beggs Park provides a quiet place to beach the boat. I await my ride at the Old Dock House Restaurant, where patrons can watch the ferries shuttle back and forth across the lake to Vermont.

Essex itself begs to be explored. This old-world hamlet predates the Civil War and comprises about 150 buildings, all on the National Register of Historic Places. Founded in 1765, this prosperous shipbuilding, quarrying and mining town faded into obscurity when the switch from canalto rail-based transportation left this enchanting place in a time capsule.

Map by Nancy Bernstein

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