Friday, June 22, 2007

Vermont's Lake Champlain Islands ride

The ride starts at the upper right in Philipsburg, Quebec
Red Dots: today's ride (counterclockwise loop)
Blue dots: scenic diversions & Isle Lamotte

Riding South on Lake Champlain Islands - the Green Mountains in background

Vermont is know for it's quiet country roads and entertaining hills --the Green Mountains -- and these add up to pure cycling fun.

But did you know that Vermont is a shoreline state also? It shares the large Lake Champlain with New York and Quebec. Nestled between the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains, it's a scenic lake without equal in the east.

The northern part of the lake contain what are known as the "Lake Champlain Islands." These islands have a beautiful road running north to south, with a good quality paved shoulder the entire distance. Today we ride the Lake Champlain islands, with a return segment going north along the shore on the mainland.

In order to have the best views, we ride these islands in a south direction. The best views are when you are looking southeast.

Ride variations: You could also do this ride starting from Rouses Point in New York state, just across the Canadian border from Lacolle Quebec. (It would be a much closer start to Montreal). Also, although we are doing a loop ride on the islands and the mainland, you could do an out and back of the islands only, and even just ride around one or two of the islands for a much shorter ride. Isle La Motte is one such little island ride whose complete excellence makes it one of the choicest little rides I have ever done. (Link to CFM's Isle Lamotte ride from last summer.)

Other route information
The Lake Champlain basin is an excellent location for cycling. The organization Lake Champlain Bikeways has been developing cycling routes, maps, and road signs all around this lake. Please visit their website for more information and many online maps (pdf). (link) Highly recommended! Here is the link to their Lake Champlain Islands booklet (download)

Saving Baie Mississiquoi Bay

Our starting point is in Phillipsburg Quebec, three kilometres from the US border. It is on the the Missisquoi Bay part of Lake Champlain. This bay has recently been suffering the severe environmental problem of the nasty and toxic Algae Bloom.

Toxic Algae has been in the news quite a lot lately. More and more lakes in prime vacation country are too polluted to even touch the water. Baie Missisquoi has had this problem longer than most. The problem is caused by a combination of overuse by cottagers (poor sewage sanitation and removal of shoreline vegetation that serves the useful function of filtering out the pollutants before they get in the lake), and farm fertilizer runoff (farm fields need a buffer zone at the edges to block the free-flow of fertilizer into streams and rivers).

This picture identifies some simple things anyone (that's you) can do to help restore our lakes back to normal, by which I mean full of clean, safe, fun water.

Some simple steps to save our lakes

One long-term problem with the Baie Missisquoi bay is that the natural flow of watershed drainage was blocked by the Alburg bridge in Vermont - a causeway/bridge that all but totally choked off the basin's natural drainage. After many decades the evidence was finally impossible to ignore (the water had turned blue-green and was toxic to humans, and smelled stinkypoo) so Quebec and Vermont agreed to take actions, and Vermont is building a new above-water Alburg bridge and is removing the old causeway that blocked the bay's drainage.

In a strange but happy coincidence, the old bay-choking causeway was being removed the day of our ride. For more information on Lake Champlain, please visit Burlington's Echo Science Center, whose focus is the Lake Champlain basin. Here are some of my Google videos from the Echo Center visit last summer: Biology for kids, Sturgeon tank, and Turtle underwater.

Restoring Missisquoi Bay by removing the old Alburg bridge

Removing the bay-choking causeway

On the Bikes

We parked across the street from the municipal dock in Philipsburg, Quebec, a mere 3 km from the US-Canada border. There is a depanneur located here.

We got on the Rt 133 and went south a short distance to the US-Canada border and the US Customs at Highgate Springs.

I have been crossing the border a few times already this year, but usually it's on a quiet peaceful country road in the middle of nowhere. Today we cross at a huge US Customs, and on the other side of the border is a US Interstate highway. The Quebec side is divided highway but not Autoroute. But since this is the principle road-link between Quebec and Burlington/northwest Vermont. Translation: this customs is busy, and BIG!

We got in line with the cars. Once we are on the other side (in America) we start riding, and we discover we like riding on an Interstate. We take the first exit, so our Interstate ride is over almost as soon as it begins.

We head to Highgate Springs, then south to Swanton, where we turn west to cross the top of the lake to reach the islands. This is a busy highway but it has a good quality paved road shoulder. We are still very close to the Canada border. This takes us across the new bridge between Alburg and Swanton, across the inlet to Mississiquoi Bay.

Here's a link to some very unusual history of Swanton and Alburg.

Now we are heading south on Rt 2. We will ride this excellent highway all the way south across the islands until we return to the mainland.

We have now two great things: a tailwind, and great views of the numerous Vermont mountains. We average in the mid-30s (km/h) all the way continuously down this section. I had been promised flat (after two rides of "hills-only" I was keen on some flats to recuperate). I don't think we stopped anywhere on the islands - only when we off the islands at the southern end of the ride did I notice my feet were standing on the ground again.

Anyway I was hoping for a relaxed easy-flats recovery ride. Hoping, for something quite unlike todays reality! At this pace I wasn't recuperating. I normally climb even the steepest climbs with a heart rate of 140-145, but today I was holding this rate for the hour+ ride all the way south across all the islands. Also, it wasn't table-top level flat either. In other words, I got sandbagged (or is a little self-deception is a dangerous thing?).

I had waited until the ride was well underway to cautiously ask how long this ride was expected to be. Around 150 km Pierre said. Woowee, that's quite a long ride. I was up for it and after I communicated that I understood that the ride had no bail-out options (yesterdays Mont-Tremblant-area ride had multiple options in the make-the-ride-shorter department) we rode pretty much nonstop for the next three hours through some of the nicest bike riding in the east.

Riding south on the Islands - Tailwind and "faux plats"

Anyway, this southwards Island leg of the ride went well, I was riding comfortably at maximum, and the road surface and views were both excellent.

I hoped I had enough reserve left at the halfway point when we regained the mainland and had the hills of Vermont to contend with. We were now across the last causeway, and turned off the highway to quiet country roads. I couldn't help but notice this little road went uphill, steeply uphill! Aieee!

The map directions were a bit vague for this tiny-country-roads section, so here's a map of the inland section. The route we took has the Red Dots, but the Blue Dots was our original plan - it was the shortest route back north.

Now were in the Vermont that we know and love: roads that wind through the trees and forests and open farmland, with the road winding up and down and around the hills - almost always on excellent road surfaces. (There was one short unpaved section)

Eventually we reached our first rest stop at St-Albans Bay - after 3+ hours of riding I needed a break. There were many good rest stops along the villages of the Islands, but our plan was more to ride than do "stop-and-sightseeing" on the Islands segment of the ride.

This rest stop was well earned. There was a convenience store and a municipal dock and a lakeside park to sit and recover our breath. There were also some state parks withing a mile further north along our lakeside route. In fact, there were a dozen state parks along the islands, a fact to remember for lazier rides.

View from St-Albans Bay - rain clouds to the south

From this stop it was straight north on the back-to-the-border segment. Next stop was Swanton and then Highgate Springs. (If you were doing a USA-only ride, you would skip this return-to-Canada section)

Riding NW Vermont flats - catching the good draft

After Highgate Springs we ride uphill to the Interstate entrance and the US-Canada border and Customs.

On I-89 approaching the Canadian border, with US Customs at left

We waited in line and passed back top Canada. After riding the last three kilometres we dropped down off the Rt 133 into Philipsburg and a few seconds later we off the bikes. The ride was over! We had a lot of saddle time time today, and as much as it was a pleasure to ride in such beautiful settings, it was also quite a pleasure to get off the saddle.

In a few minutes our bikes were put away, we bought some beverages at the depanneur next door, and walked across the street to the municipal dock. We could now sit in the sun, look out over the water, and relax in the late afternoon sun.

The dock at Philipsburg- the perfect post-ride relaxation spot.

Philipsburg from the air - Municipal dock and Rt 133 visible


The Vermont Lake Champlain Islands ride is one of the classics of the northeast.

This was my first ride in a few years with my friend Pierre from Bromont. We've been friends since we met the first day of Cegep-we had residence rooms across the hall from each other. Later on we both got good bikes and have enjoyed the great cycling of Quebec's Eastern Townships and the mountains of Vermont. These rides usually involved him taking me on some epic Vermont ride adventure, so I wasn't surprised that today's ride was both long, hard, and incredibly scenic. Thanks Pierre!
Ride stats:

Riding time: 5 hours
Distance: 143 km (90 miles)
Avg Speed: 28.8 km/h (18 mph)

Lake Champlain Bikeways

The Lake Champlain basin is an excellent location for cycling. The organization Lake Champlain Bikeways has been developing cycling routes, maps, and road signs all around this lake. Please visit their website for more information and many online maps (pdf). (link) Highly recommended!


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