When asked to make a recommendation of one thing that was not to be missed when visiting our Lake Champlain Region I had a very difficult time. After all we are rich with unique features: historic forts, quaint villages, world class art and music, 100+ year old attractions, and an abundance of recreational opportunities. And, all of these features are set against a back drop of awe-inspiring scenic beauty - some of the best in the world. How can anyone possibly choose one thing? Obviously, I am a major fan of the Champlain Valley. Therefore, for me picking one thing that should not be missed is impossible. What I can do is give you one of the top ten - experience the new Lake Champlain Bridge.
I say “experience” because this is more than a walk or viewing. ( For a 360 view from the top There is considerable sensory impact to absorb while there, it's more than just simple recreation in a great setting. I am talking hands-on, or rather, feet-on here. You do need to get out of the car, or off the two wheeled vehicle you arrived on, to make the most of this experience. Just being on the bridge, in or on any vehicle, will not have the same effect. You need to actually walk the bridge with your own two feet and stay alert to attain the total package. Once you do, prepare for sensory overload and some unique opportunities you won’t find elsewhere.
New and Improved
You would not have had this opportunity a short four years ago. This new bridge is only a little over 3 years old. The former bridge, built in 1929, did not have sidewalks. I’m not sure it ever did. f there were sidewalks originally, sometime over its life that space was claimed for more modern traffic and wider vehicles. I’m not saying no one ever walked it before, but, if they did, it was at a serious safety risk and it couldn’t have been at all enjoyable. There was very little space between moving traffic and the outside rail. A large passing truck certainly had to have a walker clinging to the outside rail. Today’s wide sidewalks with protective hand and guard rails make it a safe, comfortable experience.
For those that do not know, the former bridge developed some serious structural issues, was declared unsafe, and closed in October 2009. Since 1929 this bridge had been a principle vehicular connection between all of New England and the Adirondacks. Its closure created more than a major hardship, not only for commuters, but for commercial traffic, businesses, families, medical patients, and travelers. An estimated 6000 vehicles daily had to find and take alternate routes across, or around, the lake. Both New York and Vermont scrambled - at first to establish a temporary ferry service at this location, and then to construct a replacement bridge. I was incredibly fond of the former bridge, but I have to admit this replacement is a beauty, an international award winning beauty, I should add. Its design and function easily accommodate today’s traffic while being aesthetically appealing. It very much resembles its predecessor; though rather a sleek, modern rendition, with bonus features. The new bridge opened in November 2011, record time actually for a construction project of this magnitude. Since its opening one of the bonus features is the sidewalks and the ability to walk its approximate 2100 foot span.
Step by Step to a Great Experience
I want to give you some tips from my personal experience of numerous walks on our current bridge. For starters bring your camera, and binoculars if you have them! In addition, you should bring along a jacket or at least a wind breaker, though it may be a warm day. Also, though you may be primarily thinking exercise and an opportunity to stretch your legs, rethink, and slow down. To thoroughly take it all in with appreciation, the bridge walk should be more of a stroll allowing for plenty of pauses and stops to absorb and recognize what is around you. If not, it will be your loss.
I generally begin on the southeast side, starting at the Lake Champlain Visitors Center, the historic former toll collector’s house. As you start the gradual ascent, look down along the shoreline south of the bridge. Here you will see an old sail ferry dock and the gravel path of the Lake Champlain Bridge Interpretive Trail. This trail meanders under the bridge connecting the NYS DEC’s boat launch area to Fort St. Frederic at the Crown Point State Historic Site. Beneath the bridge is a totally different experience so make a mental note to walk that trail too, afterward. From the bridge you will have a bird’s eye view to look into the water not far from shore. If the sun is at the right angle, usually around mid-day, you can easily see into the water and spot a variety of fish that hang out in this area. I’ve seen numerous bass and huge carp here, also some other large “un-identifiables.”
Therefore, this makes for great fishing grounds for the Great Blue Heron, osprey and eagles. With any luck you will watch one of them catch lunch. A variety of ducks may also be visible in this protected bay. It’s entertaining to watch their bottoms-up antics. Look for loons too. I’ve seen (and heard) them in this bay, though that was very early morning. Keep your birding eyes on.
Continuing along the walk, though not yet to the top, you will have a great photo op of the Champlain Memorial Lighthouse (featuring its Rodin and Heber sculptures) adjacent to the NYS DEC campground’s fishing pier. Large vessels may be tied up to the pier. The Lois McClure, a replica canal schooner from the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, makes regular visits here welcoming visitors for an onboard educational experience. Catching the Lois, or other large vessel, tied up to the pier makes for another great photo. The mountains you see on the horizon from this vantage point are the Green Mountains of Vermont.
At the Top
Once at the top you need to take a specific pause. If there is a sufficient breeze, listen for the bridge’s voice. It may sing to you. Wind passing though the arch support cables and outside rail fencing can create an enchanting melody. You could miss it if not paying attention. Also at the top is another bird’s eye view opportunity. The bridge is approximately 80 feet off the water at the top. One can look down on boat traffic in the warmer months, fishing shanty villages in the winter months, it's almost as if you had wings.
Also at this top location is the bridge marker for the New York and Vermont State line. Find it. Do not miss this chance to put one foot in NY and one in VT achieving the impossible. You really can be in two places at once! I can’t think of anyone who hasn’t wanted to do that, at least at one time in their life.
Descending the Vermont side, gives you a great perspective of Chimney Point Historic Site and its beautiful beachfront. Once an historic tavern worthy of presidential visits, today it is a museum loaded with local artifacts and site interpretation. Another mental note should be taken here to do a subsequent visit or perhaps you have time to stop in while there. A little past the museum you will find the pedestrian crosswalk to make your return on the northwest side of the bridge, my personal favorite.
Return Trip, a Favorite
There is a bit more site distance across the water on this northwest side. Most often any breeze will come from this direction encouraging you to take a deep breath to absorb that “wind over water” smell. Across the bay you will see the majestic Adirondack horizon. On a crystal clear day, some of the distant high peaks are visible. You will see the houses and buildings of the Village of Port Henry dotting the hillsides. Two separate campgrounds along the village shore will reveal stripes of clear sandy beaches while two marinas will display clusters of boats at docks, moorings, or out recreating on the water - it's like a living exhibit of lakeside life.
Once at the top of the bridge, directly under the arch, the sidewalk widens considerably. This is known as the Official Champ Viewing Platform. Champ, Lake Champlain’s renowned, mysterious “monster”, makes his home in Port Henry. Sure, he has been seen in other Lake Champlain locations while out on excursion, but most often is spotted in the waters off Port Henry. You will definitely want to take some time to scan the water’s surface from here, just in case. Your name could be the latest addition to the sighting board on display south of Port Henry village on Route 9N.
Looking straight ahead as you descend from the arch will give you a phenomenal overview of the Crown Point State Historic Site and its two National Historic Landmarks. The distant stone chimneys and waving British flag (during summer months) indicate the ruins of the Great Britain’s His Majesty’s Fort at Crown Point and in the foreground lay the stonework foundation of Fort St. Frederic. Near this foundation you will see France’s solid white naval flag of that era. Make another mental note to visit CPSHS’s museum to catch the audio-visual show explaining the occupation of these two forts and the significance of this piece of geography. Look for fisherman off the rocky ledges along the site’s shoreline or off Arrowhead Point, the long narrow peninsula protruding north into the water.
Once is Not Enough!
I do suggest you do this walk more than once at different times of day and even at night. Early or late- day low level natural light changes the shadows and the scenery. The handrails and arch are well lit after dark for a different experience entirely. Then, walking under the arch can make you feel like you’ve entered center stage. Also at night, Port Henry’s village lights twinkle with a mesmerizing effect. Man-made sounds recede while nature’s sounds, croaking frogs and chirping peepers, intensify. And, you should try this walk during all seasons. Low flying geese during migration over this Eastern Atlantic Flyway will have you feeling “one with the flock” from this high vantage point. Whenever you walk remember the likelihood of wind and dress appropriately. Note that after winter storms often only one side of the bridge sidewalk may be cleared and open for pedestrian traffic.
There you have it, an experience filled with a bit of recreation, nature, art, music, history, and scenic beauty; even a little mystery and impossibility tossed in for fun. Enjoy this “not to be missed” recommendation and let me know about your personal experience on the bridge.