We've been planning a trip to Lake Champlain, the largest lake in the US after the great lakes, and the site of several key naval battles during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, for several months, and all our preparation paid off with an amazing 5 day long camping trip on this enormous lake that borders New York, Vermont, and Quebec.
We joined the Lake Champlain Committee and received our Lake Champlain Paddler's Trail Guide, which is an indispensable resource if you're going to kayak or canoe camp on the lake. Two area residents have also written an outstanding guide, which we discovered in a Burlington, VT EMS after we completed our trip, which is another must-have: "A Kayakers Guide to Lake Champlain" by Cathy Frank and Margy Holden. The LCPT Guide is great to have, but the writers seem dead-set on making the campsites as hard to find as possible. The Rhino and I found the descriptions of the sites to be useful, but the directions almost useless. The map chips attached to each campsite description have a huge black arrow pointing to the campsite(s), but the problem is that the pointer is so huge that the campsite could be anywhere. LCPT signs are tiny, well hidden, and nearly impossible to find. No grids are given. Nautical charts are an absolute must for this area not only to find campsites, but to see where you can land and where the water will be rough.
Our trip began at the Champlain Bridge Marina where we parked, offloaded our boats and pushed a seemingly unending supply of dry bags into the hatches of our kayaks after camping the previous night at DAR State Park. The area is fairly remote and dominated by farms and dairies. For this trip we used our hard shells, so my wife was paddling the Tempest 170 and I was paddling my NDK Explorer, in anticipation of many landing on Champlain's rocky shores and rough waters.
Lake Champlain, like most large lakes, is known for highly variable weather that can produce challenging wave conditions. Having a VHF radio that can access NOAA weather and wind predictions is a must-have; to be safe, it would be best to plan one wind day (a non-paddling day) for every 4 paddling days. Our plan for the first day was to paddle approximately 20 miles from the Marina, near Crown Point, to the Kingsland Bay campsite, at the edge of where the lake opens up to ocean-like vistas.
The lake was calm as we left and we were immediately treated to views of the Adirondack Mountains on the New York side of the lake. In the southern areas, the New York side of the lake is almost completely undeveloped because of the steep, rocky shores, whereas the Vermont side is dominated by private residences. Because of the volatility of the lake, it's best to identify potential landing areas every 3-5 miles along your route.
Our first stop on this leg was Button Island, a small island a few hundred meters from the shores of Button Bay State Park. We landed on the rocky shores and clambered up an old wall to a clearing above the shores of the island. It appeared that the island had been the location for some major fortifications, probably during the period of the War of 1812 or thereabouts. After a quick break there we continued on our way and had beautiful views of water-carved cliffs, shallow-rooted trees hanging precariously from high cliffs, and barely another boat in site. The lake is nearly devoid of boat traffic during the week, and this left us with the lake almost to ourselves.
Upon reaching Kingsland Bay, we spent more than an hour trying to use the LCPT Guide to find the campsite. After landing on the Ferrisburg town beach, repeatedly walking around the beautifully manicured grounds of the Kingsland Bay State Park, and paddling in circles around the bay, we eventually found the 2 inch by 2 inch blue and green Paddler's Trail sign pinned to a low-hanging tree, hidden behind several branches. The campsite was actually quite beautiful and we beached the kayaks on a rock shelf and walked up to a cleared area with a table beneath a tall stand of cedars. There is one drawback: the campsite is located along a waterfront trail that sees some foot and bike traffic, but for the most part, it is nicely hidden.
We camped the night and set off the next morning for a 20 mile paddle to Schuyler Island. This is a primitive area on the New York side in the widest area of the lake, which feels like the ocean; there are times that we couldn't see land ahead of us. To break up the paddle we stopped at Beggs Park, in the town of Essex, which has a cobble peach, pier, and port-a-john. Two large ferries ply the waters between the New York and Vermont sides of the lake here, so one has to be alert.
A slight breeze had already managed to stir up the lake and as we left Beggs Park we surfed the swells at up to 10 miles and hour until the wind increased, and then shifted, making the last 7 miles a very tiring exercise in bracing and sweep stroking as we pushed on through increasingly large waves that began breaking on top of each other.
After landing at the first accessible area on Schuyler Island, we moved to take advantage of some small clearings and set up for the night. We could see Burlington about 8 miles away, framed by the Green Mountains, and the full moon lit the area brightly throughout the night.
By the next morning the lake was glassy smooth and we set off for another 20 mile paddle to circumnavigate Valcour Island, another primitive camping area. Valcour was the site of an important naval battle during the Revolutionary War and was important later during the Battle of Plattsburg during the War of 1812. As we rounded Schuyler, we found that the Western side of the island was much better suited to camping, with cobble vice rock beaches and less dense vegetation.
As the weekend approached more and more boaters appeared on the water; the lake is almost empty during the week, but during the weekends, there are literally hundreds of power boats and sailboats plying the waters. Valcour is intensely popular, and prior to doing our circumnavigation we set up camp to claim a site, although the spot we had chosen was inaccessible to anything other than a paddlecraft.
Our circumnavigation was beautiful; Valcour has numerous protected bays, miles of trails, an old lighthouse and great views of the lake and Grand Isle across the water. That night the wind built steadily until it had churned the lake into a mass of whitecaps the next day; although we could have handled the paddle, we decided to wait out the wind for a day since we were planning on paddling more than 40 miles all the way back to our start point. We spent our day off wandering the island and discovering that every rock on Valcour Island is literally packed with fossils, since Lake Champlain had formerly been a shallow, warm sea.
We began our trip back with a night paddle, set up our running lights, and pushed off into a still churning lake. Although it had been several hours, the lake still had 4-5 foot swells and an offshore breeze was creating confused waters with breaking waves coming from three directions. We stopped briefly at Schuyler before heading into the broadest part of the lake again, where the wind whipped up a rear quartering sea of large swells that proved difficult to surf due to the fact that they were nearly on top of each other and coming at bad angle.
We used each bay to provide some shelter from the waves and made a stop at Noblewood Park, which is easy to find since it is a large sandbar that stretches into the lake. After a longer stop at Beggs Park to rest, we paddled the last 28 of our 43 mile paddle in the lower lake, where conditions became glassy smooth and we were able to cruise at a steady 5 miles an hour while enjoying the scenery until we landed right after sunset.
Overall, Lake Champlain is both beautiful and challenging. During the weekdays especially it provides a feeling of remoteness and adventure that can be hard to find on an inland body of water. The vistas are often oceanlike, and the weather is highly variable; although Lake Champlain is not Lake Superior in November, there are many ships at the bottom of the lake (some of them fairly recent) that attest to the power of the wind and weather on such a large body of water. This lake can provide an amazing paddling trip with proper planning and preparation. We intend to return in order to paddle the northern reaches, and perhaps follow it to the River Richelieu, and then on the the Saint Lawrence River.
Wilderness Systems Tempest 170, NDK Explorer
VT parks charge about $13 a night for camping when they're open. NY primitive sights are free
We launched from the Champlain Bridge Marina,
7724 Vt. Rt. 17W
Addison, Vermont 05491
Lake Champlain Paddler's Trail Guide, A Kayakers Guide to Lake Champlain by Cathy Frank and Margy Holden. Nautical charts are highly recommended.