Tag Archives: outdoors

Two Very Different Sides of Lake Champlain

Lake Champlain is America’s sixth largest freshwater lake, and was once a hot spot of colonial military activity. Amid bear carving shops, ski resorts, and cafes serving fluffy flapjacks with thick bacon are forts and other nods to the region’s colonial past. Could 18th century northeastern Americans settling here have predicted that the lake would one day divide neighbors? To the west of Lake Champlain is the Adirondack Mountains, with 6.1 million acres of protected, rugged landscape where barely anything consistently grows. To the east is Vermont, the very name itself conjuring up images of gentle, undulating shades of green, a pastoral Eden where so much is not just grown but grown thoughtfully and sustainably, that early 21st century buzzword. Both sides are abundantly beautiful, yet so different it’s surprising they share the same body of water.

Last week, we vacationed on both sides, canoeing and swimming in Saranac Lake, biking and strolling through giant sculptures in downtown Stowe. Through it all I read Bill McKibben’s book “Wandering Home” which talks about his three-week trek across the region. As a guy who owns houses on both sides, he offered probably one of the best points of view.

We fantasize about owning property on either side of the lake. New Yorkers often talk about their summer vacations in the context of how long it took them to wind down. We talk about our summer vacations in the context of re-entry and how difficult it always is. Since buying our charming, small house down the road from McMansion country in the frenetic Jersey burbs, we have lamented about sawing the house from its foundation, freeing it from Governor Chris Christie’s jurisdiction, and hoisting it on to a truck bound north to the Champlain Valley.

Do people know that point when a vacation becomes a calling? I’m not sure I do. We scanned real estate listings around Mirror Lake in the Adirondacks. The Adirondacks is where people tough out harsh, long winters and jagged roads. I’ve done that before. It’s where people hike, bike, and ski. I’ve done that, too. Being in the Adirondacks inspires you to strap on snowshoes and go for a 10-mile walk just to reconnect with the world. The Adirondacks is brawny, among the last areas in the northeastern United States, with some exceptions along coastal Maine, that still feel wild. We nearly ran out of gas along Route 3 in the mountains, assuming, the way suburban people do, that another town with a gas station lay just ahead. After 10 miles of waiting for that next gas station, we pulled over and were told by a postal worker we were 16 miles from any gas pump. What was between us and the next gas station? More hills leading to more mountains.

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Cross Lake Champlain and enter a different universe, small white churches connected to winding country roads. Green, rolling farmland. Horses grazing. Charm is law in Vermont. The mountains calm down on this side of the lake, and the land yields more to farmers. Entrepreneurship thrives here, with many living off the land because the land allows for so much more. It’s artisanal this and handcrafted that. Ice cream made with milk squeezed from cows gnawing on grass just up the street. Just being in Vermont makes you feel more civic-minded and greener. You feel compelled to buy an antique churn and start making your own butter. You feel more accountable about where and how you spend your money.

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Thankfully, no one impulsively put a deposit down on a vacation property last week, though sometimes I like to look at the bank account and contemplate crunching the math. Even if we didn’t get to visit as often as we’d like, just “owning” a little blue jagged chunk of the Adirondacks or a soft, fertile, green chunk of Vermont would result in a permanent smile on my face. I laugh easily, but knowing our rural oasis up north awaited, well, that would be bliss.

Flying High Over the Adirondacks

My husband and I are frequently up by 6 am; he works out at 5:30 am. So why the hell would we wake up voluntarily at 5:45 am, fumble through the cold and pitch dark and drive 10 miles from our hotel? Here’s why:

The Adirondack Balloon Festival in Glen Falls, New York, was held over the fall equinox, and gave me the chance for a last summer swim in Lake George followed by a hot cup of coffee on a crisp newborn fall day. I thought it would be a fun, inexpensive weekend jaunt and maybe we’d catch a little fall color up north. On our drive up we spotted fall color and witnessed a meteor falling. That was a first.

I had never been to a balloon festival and the one time Mike and I tried to ride a balloon in Napa Valley 13 years ago, the flight was cancelled due to wind. Weather interfered again, as it often does, this time with rain. I was worried the weekend was going to be a total washout. We were upstate, wandering about, getting soaked, occasionally enjoying leaves and lake, but I really wanted balloons. We returned to Floyd Bennett Memorial Airport at 6:30 am Sunday morning, the final day of the festival, hoping weather and wind would oblige.

Nature delivered! We stood on a muddy field while pilots and crews dragged hot air balloons all around us. Balloons snored and panted while being pumped with air. They lay partially deflated on one side against the cool grass like giant, lazy, loyal dogs. Then suddenly, the balloons were nudged and completely vertical. Time to get up–literally. Pilots fired up, hopped into their baskets, and took off. And the whole process only took a few minutes for each balloon. Once afloat over the field, they glided across the Adirondacks while sun filled the sky. Now that’s worth getting out of bed ridiculously early.

The balloon festival lasts three days with music, games, crafts and other activities, so families can certainly make a full weekend out of it. This year marked the festival’s 40th anniversary. The balloon festival accounted for an hour of our weekend. We watched that glorious Sunday morning flight of the balloons until they were far adrift in the clouds, just a pattern of polka dots on a pink and gray feathery swath of sky.

So how else did we spend the time? We explored. We hiked. We walked around downtown. We checked out to see if there were any ghosts haunting Fort William Henry, where we overheard a cashier complaining of eerie footsteps and the sound of men moving about even though she was alone in the shop. I also mentioned my “where did summer go” plunge into Lake George where I actually grabbed a few short laps on a 56-degree day. The air was chilly, but the water was still warm from the summer sun.

We dined twice at Flapjack Pete’s in downtown Lake George; the restaurant’s cinnamon-flavored butter and creative uses of antlers in its decor made it worth the second trip (plus the service was awesome, the bacon was sublime–and plentiful, too plentiful–and the flapjacks were spot-on!). The breakfasts are indeed colossal. To quote my daughter, “bacon is a sometimes food.” Just sometimes I eat too much of it. I strongly recommend following any time at Flapjack Pete’s with a brisk hike in the Adirondacks to undo the cardiovascular damage. Or kayak Lake George–the beaches and hotel grounds were littered with colorful kayaks resting on their sides, like tired hot air balloons.

Downtown Lake George is quite cute, and there are plenty of tchotchke shops, arcades, and fast food joints on the main drag. You can picture Polaroid shots of families spending their summers there. The downtown area and surrounding hotels and motels looked a bit frozen in the 1960s, faded signage still luring visitors. It’s like this beautiful, serene, heavenly slice of natural wonder–Lake George and the Adirondack Mountains–with a big plastic snow globe in the middle. I wasn’t expecting upscale and I’m not even sure what upscale means anymore since it’s a word that has been about as watered-down as ‘luxury,’ but I was surprised to encounter such a dated, plastic feel to a place. It felt like picking up an old toy, this artificiality tucked in the mountains.

I also noticed a dearth of nature’s influences on the restaurants there. When strolling the main street, we found plenty of eateries that would serve us fried cheese and the usual middle-America fare, but no one was dishing up any garden-to-table cuisine despite flyers for farmers’ markets everywhere.

This intrigued me, and in a way, struck me as very different from Vermont, which was spitting distance from the border. Vermont, who fights Wal-Mart; Vermont which is home to the one of the nation’s only Institute for Artisan Cheese (no fried cheese there!); Vermont, which makes it easier for its residents to live up to its agricultural war cry “Buy Local. Buy Vermont.” My husband’s response was that farm-to-table dining is considered upscale, but this isn’t true. Farm-to-table dining is common sense in the era of industrialized Big Food. Farm-to-table is a return to simply eating what was grown nearby; you grew it, you cleaned it, you cooked it, you ate it, and you canned, jellied, froze whatever leftover bounty the garden offered (yes, we had a garden growing up).

Again, this was only observational–lots of flyers promoting area farmers’ market, but farm fresh wasn’t anywhere on the menus where we tried to eat. We did visit the Glens Falls Farmers’ Market at the South Street Pavilion and I bought some organic zucchini I later shredded and baked into bread. I thought a farmers market would’ve been a great idea at the balloon festival. Watch dozens of hot air balloons of all shapes and colors take off, grab some fresh zucchini to go. Feel connected to sky and earth all in one place.