Endless Discovery: Lake Champlain

Lake Champlain offers yachtsmen a refreshing alternative to cruising Down East.

Lake Champlain

The sun sets on boats moored off Westport Marina’s breakwater. In the distance are Vermont’s Green Mountains.George Sass Sr.

Summer cruising along New England’s coast has been a tradition of ours for years. A decade ago, however, during my family’s Great Loop adventure, we discovered an alternative to the cool coastal waters of New England. Instead of heading up New York’s East River and east through Long Island Sound, we steered north for a picturesque 160-mile cruise up the Hudson River to Troy, New York. Here we entered Champlain Canal to begin our exploration of Lake Champlain, the sixth-largest freshwater lake in the United States.

Anxious, but prepared, we entered our very first lock at Troy — the entrance to the 64-mile Champlain Canal — and we began our 96-foot ascent to Lake Champlain transiting 12 locks. Speed limits of 10 mph (8.7 knots) and lock delays make it difficult to transit the canal in one day, so we stopped at the charming, friendly Schuyler Yacht Basin, using it as a base to visit historic Saratoga Springs by car. Transiting the locks was easier than we had anticipated. A 17-foot height limit requires sailboats to unstep their masts at Troy.

Between June and November of 2011, a huge dredging project to remove PCB-contaminated sediment was conducted in the canal as part of a 200-mile Hudson River cleanup initiative. While recreational navigation was not interrupted, it's worth going to www.hudsondredgingdata.com or www.champlaincanal.org for the latest updates.

Before reaching the clean waters of Lake Champlain, yachtsmen must take every precaution to prevent the discharge of marine sewage. Fortunately, most marinas have pump-out facilities, and a number of public parks provide self-service pump-out stations.

Running north and south for 120 miles and stretching 10 miles across at its widest point, Lake Champlain lies between Vermont’s Green Mountains to the east and New York’s Adirondacks to the west. The mountain scenery is spectacular, and the waters run deep with most hazards well marked. When the winds blow, wave height can reach four feet or more, but protected harbors and anchorages are usually just a few miles apart.

Memories of our 2002 Lake Champlain cruise brought us back this past summer with our trailerable C-Dory Tomcat. After launching at the town ramp in Westport, New York, we took a slip at nearby Westport Marina, a small, full-service marina complete with a restaurant on the premises. Owned and operated by the Carroll family, it offers top-notch, friendly service.

Larry Carroll showed us the high-water marks from early spring, when the lake reached a height of four feet above flood level, the highest ever recorded. By midsummer, however, most marinas and waterfront restaurants had reopened and were enjoying a healthy recovery.

The town of Westport, 50 miles north of Champlain Canal, is a favorite place for yachtsmen to stop. An Amtrak station makes it convenient for changing crew, and the resort town of Lake Placid is 30 miles away by car. Above the marina a large town green with an outdoor stage offers summer concerts and spectacular views of Vermont’s Green Mountains.

From Westport we made the 10-mile crossing to Charlotte, Vermont, returning to Point Bay Marina, where we stayed 10 years ago. The well-maintained marina with its floating docks, ship’s store and clean facilities is nestled in a cozy wooded setting on the southeast side of Thompson’s Point. The surrounding scene is quintessential Vermont, with rolling hills, green forests, working farms, country stores and covered bridges.

Heading north, we ran into 25-knot head winds and four-foot seas, so we dropped the hook on the north side of Thompson’s Point in Converse Bay and waited for conditions to improve. With lots of room to anchor and wind protection from every direction, Converse Bay is an ideal place to hide from foul weather.

High on our list of favorite places to return to was Valcour Island, 30 miles north of Charlotte on the New York side of the lake. Designated a state primitive area by New York, this uninhabited treasure boasts seven miles of hiking trails, five protected anchorages and a history of Revolutionary naval warfare starring Benedict Arnold. The best spots to anchor are crowded on weekends, so plan your visit for midweek. And follow your charts carefully, as there are underwater ledges that can ruin your day.

Our recent cruise also included stops in Plattsburgh and Essex, New York, and Burton Island State Park, Malletts Bay, Shelburne and Burlington, Vermont. After tying up at Shelburne Shipyard, we hiked three miles to Shelburne Farms, a 1,400-acre dairy farm. Taking a guided tour, we were introduced to the farm animals (my wife bravely milked a cow), and we learned how cheese was made. Best of all, we left the farm store with a variety of award-winning cheddars.

After more than a week of secluded anchorages and charming villages, we were ready for some city life. Downtown Burlington, two miles from Shelburne Shipyard, was just the ticket. Its art galleries, gift shops, cafes, street performers and fine restaurants, combined with the energetic atmosphere of a college town, make this small city one of our favorites. A slip at the Community Boathouse put us within walking distance of all the action.

The short distances between New York and Vermont shores, a variety of charming towns and villages, and the abundance of scenic anchorages provide endless opportunities for discovery. We can’t wait to return.

EATS, DRINKS AND BOAT SLIPS
Best Full-Service Marinas: The Westport Marina is family owned and operated and offers friendly, helpful service. Its Galley Restaurant offers casual breakfast, lunch and dinner. The amiable, professional staff of the Shelburne Shipyard can handle just about any kind of repair, and its ship's store is well stocked.

Good Eats and Drink: The Old Dock Restaurant in Essex, New York, offers casual, waterfront dining overlooking the Charlotte-Essex ferry dock. It's a good "fish 'n' chips" kind of place. Slips are available for those who arrive by boat. Essex Provisions and More (518-963-4690), located above the marina on Main Street, offers fresh pastries, fantastic sandwiches, tasty snacks and prepared dinners to go. Leunig's Bistro in downtown Burlington was a change of pace from the casual places we had dined. There's good French food and decent service, but it's a little pricey and noisy. Local friends highly recommend Trattoria Delia for excellent Italian cuisine.