Sunday, May 24, 2015

Paddling: Lake Champlain Squalls

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt had been six years since our first major adventure in our solo canoes, surviving Hurricane Isabel while crossing Little Tupper Lake. My five Adirondack canoe buddies and I (we call ourselves the Isabel-6 because of the Little Tupper trip) are dedicated to going on anniversary paddles every year since then, primarily in the Adirondacks, on occasion in Northern Vermont. We also like to call ourselves OWOW – Older Women of the Water (in 2010, our ages ranged from 72 to 86).

The fall of 2010 we decided to try Lake Champlain from the Vermont side.

A couple of years before, we’d spent a lovely day in May on the Missisquoi River in Vermont, paddling downriver to Lake Champlain, then back upriver to our launching site at Louie’s Landing. The mouth of the Missisquoi becomes a delta as it empties into Lake Champlain near the Quebec border, a site to behold in the spring as Great Blue Herons nest in the trees in the Delta.

We decided to try a circular route this year by entering the river from the Delta on Lake Champlain. At least Marcia and I decided while the others, except for Monique, reluctantly followed into the unknown. Monique is always up for a new challenge.

The six of us launched our solo canoes on Charcoal Creek, a two-mile paddle to the Lake, after leaving cars at Louie’s Landing, the launching site we’d used on our previous trip on the Missisquoi River. The maps illustrated a route from Charcoal Creek, across a Lake Champlain bay to the Missisquoi River Delta, and upriver to Louie’s Landing.

During the first hour, while paddling the Creek on the clear, calm water, the sun revealed itself through dispersant clouds.

We quickly ate lunch at a sandy point where the Creek meets the Lake, concerned as the afternoon was upon us, becoming aware that once we ventured into Lake Champlain there may be limited places to stop. After again studying the map and sizing up the distance to the mouth of the Missisquoi River, we left the point and reveled in a delightful 30-minute paddle along the shore of the Lake.

I became anxious as I watched clouds accumulate over the Adirondack Mountains to the West. The wind started picking up as a squall swept across the Lake. Whitecaps slapped against the sides of our canoes, pushing us into the reeds, soaking our clothes. I joined Marcia as we held on to the wooden frame of a duck blind on the edge of the reeds. “Let’s wait here for the others,” Marcia said, which we did, with difficulty. It took all my strength to keep my solo canoe wedged to the frame without becoming filled with water as the wind and waves continued to bombard us. There was no other place to stop – the lake-shore looked close, but I knew that a few hundred yards of reeds and marsh were between solid land and us.

The squalls subsided, we regrouped, and paddled along the shore until we found what we wanted to believe was the mouth of the Missisquoi River. Exhausted, cold, and wet, our minds clouded with the contentment of being in a protected area, we tried not to notice that the current was minimal and the terrain did not match the clues on the maps. After paddling for a while, then questioning whether, indeed, we had found the River, Marcia asked, “What do you think?” “There’s about a 30% chance this meets the River,” I said. Marcia replied, “I’d estimate 10%.”

After much deliberation, the group decided to return to the Lake. It turns out that this outlet did connect with the River. Possibly more detailed maps would have led us to this conclusion and given us the confidence to continue on the outlet to the River, rather than to put ourselves in danger once again on the Lake.

After about 30 minutes back on the Lake a new squall attacked us, repeating its violence, stronger than ever. I again became anxious, worried that it was getting late and we would not be able to find the mouth of the River. I rejected going back to the luncheon spot on the sandy beach. I considered the possibility of paddling across the Lake to the New York side, as the shore seemed pretty close. Neither alternative seemed possible or feasible.

I wondered if there was cell phone coverage so we could call the Coast Guard (There wasn’t.) I tried not to think about the consequences if anyone tipped over.

Thankfully, the rain stopped and the wind subsided. It became difficult to marshal the boats in one place as by now the height of the reeds made it almost impossible to see one another. Yelling greetings over the tall grasses helped us to regroup – “Hey, Lorraine here,” I yelled. “Jeri and I are right near you,” Gail answered. After successfully finding each other, Marcia, Monique, Jeri and Gail went ahead scouting for the mouth of the river. I stayed behind, concerned about Ruth as she was shivering.

Ruth has a streak of independence, but thankfully showed some vulnerability that day. “I’m really cold and wonder if I have hypothermia,” she said. “Here, I have this extra fleece jacket you can wear. And take off that cotton shirt!” I ordered as we paddled our boats towards each other. We all well know that cotton is the worst thing you can wear if there is any chance of becoming wet and cold. Sometimes we don’t do what is prudent.

River Takout at Louie's Landing(1)Then Ruth and I heard Marcia yelling, “Here is the mouth!” We kept shouting to each other over the height of the reeds, celebrating that we were safe. Once together in the protection of the Delta, I wanted to hug everyone to congratulate us for overcoming another harrowing experience, except people in six separate solo canoes cannot safely join together and hug. Instead we offered: “I have some nuts here if anyone is hungry.” “Here is some water.” “Do you want an extra jacket?” – making sure all had enough warm clothes, water, and food. Monique proudly continued on her way in her short sleeve shirt – ignoring our concerns that she might be cold. I thought, she’s a tough one.

“What a great time – this was more challenging than Isabel,” Jeri shouted, comparing our adventure on Little Tupper Lake in the hurricane six years before.

It took us another two hours to go up the River to reach our automobiles at Louie’s Landing. Hard work but we knew we were safe.

The sun returned to greet us at our destination. The six of us sighed with relief when we beached our canoes after this six-hour paddle on Lake Champlain and the Missisquoi River. We celebrated our grit, vowing to minimize risks the next time.

Photo below of the river take out at Louie’s Landing (photo by Jeri Wright).

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Lorraine Duvall

Award winning author Lorraine Duvall writes of her paddling adventures in the book, In Praise of Quiet Waters: Finding Solitude and Adventure in the Wild Adirondacks. Some experiences from her memoir, And I Know Too Much to Pretend, led her to research a woman’s commune north of Warrensburg, resulting in the 2019 book, Finding A Woman’s Place: The story of a 1970s feminist collective in the Adirondacks. Duvall lives in Keene and is on the board of Protect the Adirondacks.




4 Responses

  1. David St.Onge says:

    You are an inspiration. I am glad that Isabel did not discourage a great tradition. keep paddling.

  2. stan says:

    I’m glad you all survived your adventure. Lake Champlain is surprisingly dangerous because of the quick weather shifts.
    Your mention of the Coast Guard made me wonder if there is a site where I can see a record of their rescues, like the ones the Rangers do in the ADK. I would guess that water emergencies are less frequent, but more dangerous than those on land, but I don’t really know.
    Praise God that you managed without their services. Keep on paddling.

  3. Susan Gaffney says:

    I wonder: Was anyone wearing life jackets?

  4. Sandra Weber Sandra Weber says:

    OWOW! Amazing grit, indeed. Keep paddling.

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