RUNNING ALONG THE SHORES OF AN INLAND SEA
By Kevin Macneil Brown
(This article originally appeared, in slightly different form, in NEW ENGLAND RUNNER magazine)
My first running encounter with the Lake Champlain waterfront in Burlington, Vermont nearly fifteen years ago was, well, painful. The final miles of the Vermont City Marathon followed the Bikeway here along the shoreline of Appletree and Burlington Bays, taking in stunning lake and mountain vistas. But in my bonked, wiped-out, crashed-the-wall condition, I could barely register all that majestic beauty. Somehow, though, I knew I’d have to come back, to explore this shoreline under more relaxed circumstances. As it turns out, repeat excursions have opened up a runner’s paradise that also happens to be rich in scenery, nature, and the traces of a thrilling maritime history.
And running doesn’t get much better than it does this breezy, sunny morning, after lake fog has lifted to reveal clear blue waters and wrap-around mountains. Lake Champlain stretches south to north for 120 miles, from southern Vermont to Canada, with the high, craggy Adirondack country of New York at its western border, the long ridgeline of the highest Green Mountains of Vermont a few miles inland to the east.
I’m drinking all of this in as I run on a narrow dirt trail beside the paved bike path. The Bikeway runs through two towns and covers more than 12 miles, from its start at Oakledge Park in Burlington to its terminus at the end of the Colchester Causeway, and there are plenty of additional side trails and detours possible. Each mile, each turn along the shore, seems to offer a new perspective: a moving meditation on mountains, water, and open sky.
And on history, too. This now-peaceful lake was once the “northwest coast” of New England, a waterway crucial not only to settlement and commerce, but also invasion and war. For generations, Abenaki and Iroquois Indians lived near and traveled on these waters, fishing and hunting the islands, shores, and open waters. Samuel de Champlain showed up in 1609, down from New France (Canada) on a voyage of exploration. Champlain, a fairly reasonable and temperate fellow by most accounts, commented in his journal on the beauty of the mountain-ringed lake and its many green islands. But he was also the first European to use deadly force in this region: he made friends with his northern Indian guides, and joined them in a raid against the Iroquois to the south, putting his gun to work in the killing of enemy warriors.
The next two centuries saw more war and bloodshed on Lake Champlain, including the first naval battle in our country’s history, when Benedict Arnold led a roughhewn, out-gunned, and out-numbered fleet against the British in the waters off Valcour Island in October of 1776. Though the patriots lost the battle, they staved off a British advance from the north, buying time for the nascent American Revolution. Not far from the site of that battle--well north and west, by water, of where I’m running today--cannon thundered and blood flowed again in 1814 at Plattsburgh Bay. The big guns could be heard across the lake here in Burlington that September day; That night every bell in the city rang out at the news of British defeat and American victory.
Running past the glittering boats moored in the harbor, I’m reminded of these deadly battles by the arresting sight of the Lake Champlain Navy Memorial. Rising from the center of a carved stone compass is a statue of a man known as the Lone Sailor, duffel bag beside him, eyes toward the lake and the mountainous horizon. I can’t help but stop for a silent moment, remembering the struggles of the past and giving thanks that we’ve found more pacific uses for Lake Champlain these days: the sails that fill the horizon here today might offer adventure, but not war.
The Burlington waterfront is well-traveled by cyclists, rollerbladers, walkers, and runners. And heading either north or south along the Bikeway offers sights worth seeing. To the north, the sands of North Beach and Leddy Park offer a chance for some rare Vermont beach running. An arching bridge over the wide mouth of the Winooski river spans a view of waters and wetlands rich with birdlife: heron, sandpiper, osprey; the ever-present skeins of canada geese and long-necked, shadow-black cormorants.
Just past this lush Winooski River delta, after a short run through a lakeside neighborhood and a pleasant stretch that follows a tree-shaded stretch of trail (in the town of Colchester now), comes the gem of the Bikeway. The Colchester Causeway is an abandoned railroad bed, built on white marble boulders, that curves, open and exposed, for more than two miles out into the lake. Running on this narrow path, surrounded by the blue-green lake, is pure exhilaration: a liminal journey as close to running on water as I have ever experienced. On calm days, waves lap at the stone causeway gently. On windy days, the waves crash and break with some force, adding a few thrills to the day’s run. At the end of the causeway, a short channel--the Cut, as locals call it-- allows for boat traffic, and Vermont’s Grand Isle beckons from the other side. (A bike ferry runs across the Cut on August weekends, and extended ferry service is planned for the future.)
But for today’s run I’m heading south. I stride past the busy harbor and waterfront: Perkins’s Pier, with its array of moored fiberglass and wooden craft sparkling in the sun; the Burlington ferry dock, where the car-ferry VALCOUR is just heading out for New York across the lake, blowing her deep-toned horn.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that a waterway so active with shipping has seen its share of wrecks, that the lake floor is littered with hundreds of lost vessels. One of them, the GENERAL BUTLER, lies submerged just inside the breakwater right here in the harbor, in 40 feet of water. Carrying a heavy load of quarried marble, the schooner went down in 1876, when a winter gale slammed it into the stone breakwater. Those aboard leaped onto the breakwater, and were rescued, shivering, from their brutally windswept and wave-battered sanctuary. Today, the sunken schooner is a Mecca for wreck divers; a silent ghost, preserved in cold, clear water beneath the hulls of the living boats that pass above her.
Within minutes, I pass the railyards and the ancient bridge at the inlet to the dark and eerie-looking Pine Street Barge Canal, where faint traces still remain of how this city must have looked and felt and smelled during the 1800s. Back then, Burlington was a thriving port in the lumber trade, a rough- and- ready terminal for the shipping and storage of acres and acres of felled and sawn northern forest. The working waterfront has a different face now, of course, catering to tourists, boaters, and outdoors enthusiasts rather than loggers and canal-barge captains.
After a while I find ways to vary the terrain beneath my feet: I jump off the path and run along rock seawalls; I dig my shoes into loose sand on a short stretch of urban beach scattered with driftwood hurdles at water’s edge. All the while I feast my senses on the sweeping bay views before, behind, and around me, on the variety of people who use this path every day.
My urge for off-road running is satisfied, if only briefly, by the rocky, rooted trail up into the cliffs at Oakledge Park. Here, I might be forgiven for thinking I’m at the seashore somewhere in northern Maine as I run on shaded, pine-needle-cushioned trails, or leap from rock to rock while waves break, wetting my shoes. At times, the narrow trail comes dangerously close to the exposed red sandstone cliffs. It’s a sheer drop into the lake from here, and I have to balance my greed for the amazing maritime view with a more pressing need to focus on the slippery, wet rock beneath my feet.
Out there in the lake below, between Shelburne Point and pine-clad Juniper Island, sits a massive rock that in Western Abenaki tradition is considered the most important feature on Lake Champlain. Odzihozo-- Rock Dunder to the “English” -- is the creator/transformer in Western Abenaki cosmology. After he created the world--and, most importantly, Lake Champlain-- he shaped himself into this rock, where he could rest for eternity and forever admire his work.
Time after time, as I run along the edges of Burlington Bay, I find myself looking toward Odzihozo; as if to get my bearings; as if to get myself centered somehow within the huge sweep of history and landscape this shoreline reveals. Perhaps it’s fitting that an ancient creator deity would be ever-present, yet ever-changing: appearing slightly different from day to day, from hour to hour and with each shift in the light, the weather, the angle of view.
Leaving the shade of the cliffs, I turn around and head north for a few miles. By now the sun is high and the day is hotter. I watch the silver wakes of boats limn the deep blue water. By now I’m sweating hard, and ready for refreshment. At North Beach I take a quick swim, then rent a kayak for an hour’s paddle out around Lone Rock Point to Apple Tree Bay. After that, it’s time for a lunch of energy bar and sports drink, and some time spent basking in the sun.
Burlington Bay is sublime in the sunshine. But the towering afternoon clouds rolling in are magnificent, too. They filter the lowering, slanting light, sending green-gold rays beaming across the mountaintops, the water, and the sails that dot the horizon.
Though my legs are still a little tired, I feel, in the cooling air, a surprising resurgence of energy. Suddenly, it crosses my mind that the ferry across the broad lake runs all day and into the evening. A new temptation appears before me. After all, I could make it to the dock in time to catch the next crossing, and treat myself to another run, over on the New York side...