Our tent site overlooked an emerald field that stretched across the peninsula. Gary, the owner of the campground, had recommended it as distant storm clouds and the hint of ozone on the breeze meant lower ground would be soaked by morning.
The campground, called Campbell’s Bay Campground and situated on Campbell bay road, has been owned and operated by the Campbell family for four generations. It sits on a lush peninsula that pokes out into waters where Lake Champlain meets the Missisquoi Bay. The bay is home to diverse wildlife and an endangered form of turtle I had the fortune of spotting.
Campbell’s Bay isn’t exactly a “campground.” The Campbells have cabins they rent and lease some of the their land to a trailer park. They also have a little supply store with beer and snacks. As I was buying supplies–ok beer–I spoke with Gary, a big northern Vermonter who clearly enjoys beer and sun and so my best guess as to his age places him somewhere between 30 and 80. He came complete with an ancient and mangy brown lab, “one of the best retrievers I’ve ever owned” he said. “I’ll never find another like her.”
She had cloudy eyes, patchy fur, and a barely audible bark. The latter directed at Liesl who was bouncing around the lab like a giant flea, her flag-tail erect and ears perked. Not that I’m one to judge a man’s ability to elaborate a touch when describing a beloved pet, but I couldn’t see the hunter through the cataracts.
“I’ll tell you what’s wrong with Quebec,” said Gary ignoring the dogs while my beers grew warmer on the counter. “The French don’t realize that by not learning English, they’re just setting themselves up back again….”. Nodding, I retreated as soon as I could.
Once again the promise of heavy rain meant a desperate attempt at drying out gear before the storm hit. The air was soupy with humidity and it was so hot it felt like the air was simmering. My solar panels failed to give my phone much of a charge—an issue that would lead to an interesting problem in a few days.
Thunder rumbled throughout the afternoon as the storm wended its way up the lake. During the night a duet of thunder rumbles and lightening cracks kept us awake all night. The alarm beeped at 5:45. It was, as always, too early.
But at least the thick grass of the campground provided an excellent mattress and most of my clothes were dry.
While getting ready for the day a quip of Gary’s echoed in my mind. “Imagine you drove all the way from Montreal to Old Forge just to paddle all that way back.” My limp response “it’s fun” elicited a non-committal and suspect “I guess so” from Gary. I carried my wet gear to the canoe and filled up my water bottles from a tap connected to his well.
A spider had made its home on the back edge of the tap, and so made its way into my water bottle. I’m an arachnophobe. When I tilted back that bottle a few hours later and felt something moving up my lip, I panicked and smacked myself in the face. It died. (Despite spiders being devil-spawn, I try not to kill them—bad karma—but this brash little monster had crossed a line.)
My maps and guidebook explained that the Missisquoi delta could prove tricky to navigate, so after a quick breakfast and visit to the outhouse L and I prepared for two possibilities based on available camping sites and our speed.
My goal had been a consistent 40 kilometres a day. Of course, there would be shorter days and, of course there would be longer ones, but 40 kilometres a day was what I would ideally be averaging. However, I knew that on the against-the-current sections, like the Missisquoi, I would move much slower.
The first option for the day was a relatively short day distance-wise, about 25 kilometres. The second option was much longer at 45 kilometers. A distance that would not have troubled me paddling downstream, but upstream, under overcast skies with multiple portages around dams and through towns (an unexpected challenge due to Liesl’s moronic and suicidal tendency to chase cars), would make for a very long miserable slog.
Rather than making a decision, I decided I would wait and see what I felt like at option one.
No one was stirring as we left the campground just after dawn. We paddled north to within a few hundred meters of the Canada/United States boarder, and then turned back down one of the delta’s channels.
The branch of the delta I chose had muddy banks and in many places no clear line between water and land. It was beautiful, and reminded me of paddling I had done over a decade before in the northwest of Florida. But my imagination was constantly wondering what I would do if we were to tip. Where water met shore was murky. It was impossible to tell which was which. This wasn’t a huge concern, but frankly I had no desire to get that dirty.
Liesl, however, bore no such burden. She remained a taciturn observer in the bow. A figurehead scanning the banks for any potential rodents with her steady vacant gaze. After a little over a week of roughing it, I began to think her expression had changed. Maybe I was projecting, but it looked a little more incredulous, a little more “What the fuck am I doing here?” Boredom had settled behind her dark brown eyes. It was an expression a true outdoors dog—like a lab or some other slobbering muscle-bound, uncouth beast—would never don.
I was snapped out of my psychoanalysis of a 13lbs Dachshund mix when the current became noticeable much earlier than expected. I tried to estimate our speed to determine how far we should try to go. Initially there wasn’t a big change though I was working harder and moving slower. The first of what would be numerous rains that day began around then too. As I approached the first of four potential portages, Marble Mill Park, in Swanton, VT., the current picked up again.
The descriptions on the map and in the guidebook are designed to help the paddler find the best places to put-in, and take-out. But they’re written for average water levels. I learned after that there was nothing average about the water levels in Northern Vermont that week.
To reach the first take out I would have to ferry across some class two rapids and skirt up the shore, eddy hopping.
As I entered the rapids, I noticed a figure on the right bank watching me. He was in an over coat with a Tilley hat on, and as I reached midstream he turned and walked along the shore to the bridge over the dam.
“Please don’t let him come and talk to me,” I thought. I wasn’t in the mood to be overly chatty. And I had grown tired of explaining what I was doing to people. Their inevitable quizzical expressions were beginning to chip away my resolve.
I reached the far bank, and struggled up its muddy side to the park. Liesl promptly pooped, which I picked up and dumped. It was immediately evident that it was called marble mill because there had been a marble mill there. There was some of the structure left and some public art shaped out of large slabs of marble. Shards of marble littered the banks, one of which I’m looking at now. A sharp edged souvenir of the beginning of the end of part one of my trip.
Names of places that directly correspond to what they were are comforting. There is something pleasing, whole, about a place with a name that fits.
I hefted Woody onto my shoulders and began the short portage. About five meters in–so yes immediately–the man in the hat appeared from the street and began talking to me, oblivious of my struggle. I rested the back of the canoe on the ground and peered from below Woody’s gunnels as the man talked and talked and talked.
The worst part was he was interesting.
He was a member of the Abenaki Missisquoi tribe. He remembered paddling down the river from his home to come work at the mill. It was fascinating and I wish I had had the sense to talk to him longer. Instead, I single-mindedly plowed ahead, politely leaving the conversation and continuing up stream.
Later, in a wet tent with a wet dog next to a swollen river flooding its low banks, I thought about how his people had discovered much of the water trail I was paddling centuries ago, and felt guilty about not stopping to put on some water and offering him some tea or something. Now writing this at home, the nascent journalist in me is cursing myself for not getting his contact info to help flesh-out this journal.
I signed the NFCT kiosk and put in above the dam. The next stretch was straight forward paddling for about an hour or two until reaching Highgate Falls dam. According to my guidebook there was supposed to be a rough NFCT campsite here with room for one tent. But when I arrived I couldn’t find anything that looked remotely inviting. Just some garbage the remains of a campfire and a lot of mud.
With the rain pounding now, and the water getting higher, I chose to push on and try for the long day.