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TRIP REPORT: Bicycle tour around Lake Champlain

June 5, 2012 - Morgan Ryan
The idea for taking a bike trip around Lake Champlain was conceived on a cold winter evening after a long Sunday of watching football. Bike around Lake Champlain? Sure, why not? Sounded like a good idea at the time. I always wanted to do something like that anyway. It was something that Pete Evans had been wanting to do for some time too.

Of course I overlooked a couple important details before I agreed to go on the trip. First of all, I had never ridden a bike longer than 50 miles at a time and this would include several long rides on consecutive days for a total of 300 miles over five days. Then there was the fact that I had no bike touring equipment whatsoever.

Minor details.

Pete and I spent parts of the winter and spring getting our bikes ready for the trip. For me, that meant attaching a cargo rack and buying panniers to hang off the back. Pete decided that he wanted to go the trailer route. He bought a single-wheel BOB that attaches through the hub of the rear wheel.

Still neither of us had done anything like this before, but at least we had the right equipment now. We were just going to go for it and see what happened.

So off we went - Pete on his Surly Long Haul Trucker and me on my Specialized Tri Sport. Here’s how the trip turned out.


Day 1

Thursday, May 31

West Chazy, NY to Burlington, Vt.

Total miles: 84.38

Pedal time: 6:18:36

Average speed: 13.3 mph

Maximum speed: 32.1 mph

The first leg of the trip was driving from Saranac Lake to our start/finish point at this beautiful farmhouse in West Chazy. We were in the car and on the road by 6 a.m.

The cows in the barn weren’t too thrilled to be woken up by a couple of strangers, but they dived right into their breakfast as we tinkered with our bikes getting ready to set off. The sight (and smell) of livestock would be a common occurrence for much of the rest of the trip.

We were on our bikes and rolling toward the lake by 8 a.m. The roads were nearly empty and flat as a pancake as we passed by several farming operations, including Chazy Orchards which claims to be the largest McIntosh apple orchard in the world. If only the whole trip could have been on roads this flat.

We saw the lake for the first time not far from Chazy Landing, where we joined up with the official Champlain Bikeway trail that we planned to follow for the next five days. Pete said the directions would be pretty simple from here: just keep the lake on our right and we should be in good shape.

After about 10 miles of riding along the lake and King Bay, we pulled into the border village of Rouses Point.

From here we had to choose whether to cross the bridge into Vermont or keep heading north to Canada. Crossing the border would add 11 miles to what was already promising to be a long first day, but it also meant that we would circle the northernmost tip of Lake Champlain at the point where it meets the Richelieu River.

We went for it. What’s a pittily 11 miles on a trip like this anyway, right? Plus it was fun going through the border checkpoint on a bicycle. It was my first time out of the U.S. in a long time.

The roads were a little rough in Canada, but we reached this bridge over the Richelieu and got a nice look at the top of Lake Champlain.

Our stay in Canada was short and soon after we were back in our native country traveling south through the Hero islands. During this stretch, we passed a large group on a guided bicycle trip. They were going north and planned to circle Lake Champlain in seven days. Not sure how they ended up making out, but we never did run into them again on our trip.

After cruising over the causeway that connects the islands to the mainland, the traffic started to get quite heavy. Not surprisingly, the traffic increased the closer we got to Burlington. It didn’t help that it was 4 p.m. and prime rush hour time.

We were pretty happy to eventually find our way through the suburbs and onto the Burlington Bikeway. This is the pedestrian bridge that spans the Winooski River, not far from where we planned to camp for the night.

We set up camp at North Beach Campground, which is about 1.5 miles from the waterfront in downtown Burlington. We couldn’t have asked for a better location. The price wasn’t too bad either, especially compared to the $300-plus quote we got from the Hilton in town.

After showering and unloading our gear, we set off on bikes for Church Street to celebrate the completion of our big first day. It was by far the longest either of us had ever ridden and completing that distance gave us confidence that this trip was actually going to be doable.


Day 2

Friday, June 1

Burlington, Vt. to Orwell, Vt.

Total miles: 73.52

Pedal time: 6:14:06

Average speed: 11.7 mph

Maximum speed: 37.1 mph

We were back on the bike path by 7:30 in the morning, ready to take on the second leg of the journey. The Burlington waterfront was very peaceful as we looked over at the Adirondack Mountains across the lake. I felt like I could have sat there all day just watching the runners and bikers pass by.

Once again, navigating through the Burlington suburbs and trying to stay on our intended route was slightly difficult at times. Eventually, though, we made our way through that boondoggle and things started to open up.

The views from Spear St. were particularly impressive, with the Adirondack High Peaks in full view across the lake and the Green Mountains of Vermont towering in the other direction.

We stopped for breakfast in the quaint town of Shelburne. We were kind of looking for a greasy ham-and-eggs type of breakfast, but had to settle for granola and yogurt instead. Hmm, not sure if this is a Vermont thing or not, but there sure weren’t any greasy spoon diners that we saw.

A couple different people stopped to ask about our trip as we sat in the sun on the front steps of the café. They were genuinely excited for us and said how jealous they were that they weren't doing the same thing. Very friendly little town.

From there, the route took us back toward the lake. We passed through more rolling farmland on the way to Lake Road where we came upon the Holmes Creek covered bridge. A sign on the bridge said that it was built around 1870 and at 41 feet long is the shortest covered highway bridge in use in New England.

“The Holmes family operated a successful apple orchard just southwest of the bridge in the late 1800s. This orchard purported to be the largest in New England, shipping apples to distant places. At the point of land west of the bridge are submerged pilings of a long pier where boats docked to load the fruit.”

The rolling terrain in this area is pretty much exactly what I pictured a bike trip in Vermont would look like. We passed wineries, historic homes and mile after mile of idyllic countryside.

This is one of the many osprey nests we saw during the trip. This one wasn’t quite as happy to see us as we were to see her.

Our next stop was Vergennes for lunch. Again, we were thinking the greasier the better. Visions of bacon cheeseburgers danced in my head for the last 15 miles before lunch. Wasn't happening in this town though. I ended up with a wonderful turkey panini, accompanied by a fresh side salad sprinkled with balsamic dressing. Oh well, I guess I’d just have to wait till we got back to New York for a truly greasy meal.

After lunch, we were back on the road riding through more bucolic Vermont countryside. We made our way back toward the lakefront and not long after the bridge to New York at Chimney Point, the pavement came to an end. According to this New York Times article, Vermont had 8,000 miles of unpaved roads and 6,000 miles of paved roads in the whole state in 1996.

The going can get quite slow on some of these hilly, unpaved roads, especially in spots where the gravel is loose and deep and on a steep grade.

At around 5 o’clock we arrived at our destination for the day in Orwell. Pete arranged for us to stay at the Buckswood Bed & Breakfast, which advertises itself with the slogan “small in number of guest rooms, large in country hospitality.”

We were greeted by Bob and Linda Martin, two of the friendliest people I think I have ever met. After showering and getting settled into our rooms, we convened on the porch for cocktails and conversation. Bob gave us a quick overview of some of the history of the area, most of which goes back to the French and Indian and the Revolutionary wars. Many of the most important battles took place within about 30 miles of where we sat in this house that was built in the 1800s.

We had a lovely dinner of pork chops, twice-baked potatoes and corn on the cob. Strawberry shortcake for dessert. The Martins made us feel right at home. It was like visiting family members who you haven’t seen in a while. I can’t say enough about how comfortable they made us feel. An absolutely incredible experience.


Day 3

Saturday, June 2

Orwell, Vt. To Ticonderoga, NY

Total miles: 53.5

Pedal time: 4:47:12

Average speed: 11.1 mph

Maximum speed: 35.8 mph

The weather forecasts for Saturday did not look good. 100 percent chance of rain and moderately high winds. Much of the East Coast was being hit by the same weather pattern and there wasn’t much chance of it staying down south. We knew this was going to be a good test of just how well our gear would hold up under wet conditions.

Sure enough, not long after we pushed off from the Martins house, the rain started to fall. We had to make a route decision early in the day. We could either follow the Champlain Bikeway route on unpaved roads or take the paved Route 22A that runs parallel. Remembering how tough it was riding on the unpaved section the day before and knowing that it was going to be pouring rain much of the time, we decided to go for the paved surface and cut over to Whitehall from Hydeville.

Somewhere along the way on Route 22A, we had the only negative interaction of the entire trip. As we were slowly climbing a long uphill section, some jerk threw a full gallon of water out their car window and hit me right on the leg. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. We had been commenting much of the trip how bike friendly Vermont was and how courteous the drivers were to cyclists. Then I get bombed by a gallon water jug? What’s up with that?

It was a direct hit on my left leg, but it definitely could have been worse. What if the jug hit me in the face? What if I was going 30 miles an hour and the jug knocked me off my bike and over a guardrail? Believe me, I explored just about every worst case scenario that could have happened as I rode along. Not cool.

But anyway, the only thing to do was keep on keeping on. Luckily there was no damage to my bike and we still had a lot of long, hard miles ahead of us on this day. After turning west in Hydeville, we took a series of hilly backroads heading toward Whitehall.

The firehouse whistle blew as we rolled into Whitehall right at noon. The locks of the town marked the southernmost point of our trip around the lake and from here it would be all northern travel on the west side of the lake.

This was also the beginning of what we knew was going to be one of the toughest stretches of the route as the road we were on (Route 22) passed over the mountainous area between Lake Champlain and Lake George. The highlight of this section was the dreaded Dresden Hill that climbs for miles and miles before finally reaching its height before rolling downward toward Ticonderoga.

We had planned to eat lunch in Whitehall, but none of the potential eateries were going to be open until after 2 o’clock. An energy bar would have to do until we could find a place to eat. After 8 miles of mostly uphill riding in a cold rain, we came upon a dry oasis in the hills: the annual Dresden Fire Hall chicken barbecue dinner. It was a gift from heaven. We stopped for half-chicken dinners with cookies, brownies and cupcakes for dessert. That would make it much easier to climb this monstrous Dresden Hill that still loomed in front of us.

As we chowed down on an amazing barbecue lunch, a few people told us just how long the hill climbs. Oh well, at least we had a solid meal in us and we had a chance to dry off a little bit.

After lunch it was up and up and up - is this thing ever going to end? - Dresden. Just over the top, the route took us to a valley on Lower Road that’s about as close to paradise as I can imagine. Here’s Pete having a talk with a young horse in the valley.

We spent the night at the Best Western in Ticonderoga. It was worth the few extra bucks to be able to sit in the hotel hot tub for a while after dinner.

As the crow flies we traveled about 10 miles from where we had started that morning in Orwell. But, of course, we took the long way through the mountains to scoop up the southern portion of the lake.


Day 4

Sunday, June 3

Ticonderoga, NY to Keeseville, NY

Total miles: 62.67

Pedal time: 5:01:13

Average speed: 12.4 mph

Maximum speed: 41.3 mph

We got a bit of a later start on Sunday, not getting on the road till 9:30 or so. I guess the midnight hot tub soaking slowed us down just a tad.

This day was a little different than the previous three because we now had a spotter. My friend Ed Burke met us in Ticonderoga on Saturday night and he became our scout for Sunday’s ride. He would drive ahead of us in his car and meet us in the next town. By the time we arrived, he knew all the potential places to get something to eat or drink. He even bought us milkshakes at our first stop of the day in Port Henry.

Ed also took some awesome photos of us in action out on the road. Here are a few:

It was another day of rolling hills, but it was somehow made easier by the fact that the end of the trip was within sight. We were kind of conflicted about getting into the last day because that would mean the trip was coming to an end.

We tried to take some time to savor the experience because after the next short day, the trip would be over.

By the end of the day though, we were just soaked. All day long we saw that it had been raining across the lake in Vermont. Just south of Keeseville, the storm had moved to the middle of the lake. Not long after that, it was right on top of us.

In Keeseville, we had to decide whether to ride the extra 7 miles or so to the Ausable Point campground or just get a cheap motel room in the village. A thunderclap right when we were pondering the question sealed the deal for me and it wasn’t long before we were checking into the Villa Motel on Route 9. Any question as to whether or not that was the right decision was answered after a night of drenching rain.

The campground did seem quite nice though, with Valcour Island across the way. I’ll have to come back some other time.


Day 5

Monday, June 4

Keeseville, NY to West Chazy, NY

Total miles: 27.78

Pedal time: 2:10:56

Average speed: 12.6 mph

Maximum speed: 30.8 mph

About a mile from our hotel, we crossed the bridge over the Ausable Chasm.

This was the flattest and shortest day of our trip around Lake Champlain, but it also turned out to be the windiest day of our trip. Not that it mattered much to us since we were flying high knowing how little was left of this great bike ride.

We stopped in Plattsburgh for breakfast and stumbled upon Red’s Diner, which was in its second day of operation. The wait staff was very enthusiastic and friendly and we had huge breakfasts - steak and eggs for me and The Crunk for Pete. We had a good ol’ time hanging out at Red’s with only 10 miles to go to complete the trip.

It seemed appropriate to make a stop at the Samuel Champlain monument on the way out of town.


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