October 2012

See Span

A scenic ride over the Lake Champlain Bridge

THE WHOLE POINT of this ride is to let you appreciate the new Champlain Bridge at Crown Point. Which just might be (close your eyes, W. W. Dur­­ant Great Camp groupies) the region’s most powerful piece of architecture, a soaring arch that lifts like helium off the lake. It looked lovely in the drawings that de­signer and Glens Falls–area native Ted Zoli passed around in the in­tense 10-week planning phase after the demolition of its predecessor. But it looks even better in place—like a string of pearls that really comes to life against the plunging neckline of a beautiful woman. My wife, Sue, and I are going to ride that heaving backdrop so you can feel this setting in your bones—not to mention lungs.

We begin with a trailer, a short loop through the flats of Vermont that’s de­signed to give you the best view of the bridge. Park at the DAR State Park lot in Addison and then head north, away from the lake on Route 17, continuing with a series of right turns (Jersey Street, then Town Line Road) that will eventually bring you onto Route 125 where it hits the lake. And it’s there that you’ll first see the bridge, about two miles away. What al­ways strikes me is how small it looks—the lake narrows and the span seems like part of a model train layout. As you ride a few feet from the lake, occasional glimpses come through the trees, and the structure gets steadily more substantial, until finally you make the left turn onto the bridge.

Those who’ve ridden the old bridge will notice a few things right away. One, there’s a bike lane on each side. Not only that, but there’s a sidewalk on each side too—and on a pretty day they’re crowded with camera-toting families. Next realization: this is a serious little climb—a minute’s worth of hard pedaling. But you’ll hardly feel it, because the bridge’s arch seems to suck you up the hill. The grand old bridge, by its last years, was so rust-flaked and de­crepit that you felt arthritic yourself. But this one is all giddy swoop and smooth pavement; it’s so sleek, in fact, that you keep staring up at the arch, not out at the scenery. So it’s worth parking on the Crown Point side and walking back on the sidewalk yourself, if only for the un­matched view over to Port Henry, and the slag heaps of Mineville beyond, which on a sunny day positively gleam.

Back on the bike, and a few miles of flat push on Bridge Road across this strip of farmland, before you run into Route 9N—turn left, and pedal hard so you can get out of the traffic fast. Just beyond Gunnison’s apple orchard (cider donuts in season) take a right on Factoryville Road and ride a couple of miles till you make a right turn on Creek Road in the hamlet. This is where the climbing be­gins, and it doesn’t relent much for the next five miles, steepening perceptibly after a right turn just out of town on White Church Road. There’s only one section where you’ll need to drop down into your bottom gear (you’ll know it’s coming when you pass a picturesque barn bizarrely plastered with placards de­nouncing the state of Israel), but your legs will be working nonstop—the total climb is almost a thousand feet until you top out above Moriah.

You could ride all the way into Port Henry, but Sue and I turned right just before town, on Edgemont Road. Now it’s your wrists that will be tired because you lose all that altitude in about a mile. Pay attention—the last steep drop Ts out onto busy Route 9. Turn right onto the highway and pedal hard again; you’ll be tempted to gaze across Bulwagga Bay toward the bridge, but watch out, since this is some of the worst pavement in the park and since the drivers are likely to be looking at the scenery too. Once you’ve made the left onto Bridge Road you can relax a little, and if you’re lucky, pick up a tailwind that will push you hard back to the span. When you cross it this time you’ll be looking south, down into the narrower, almost riverine, portion of the lake—in winter this is a hobo camp of fishing shanties, but in summer your gaze drifts up to the line of the Green Mountains in the distance.

The lake is far more of a psychological barrier than it should be. I know plenty of Adirondackers for whom a trip to Vermont is a rare expedition and plenty of Vermonters who have never managed to make it to the High Peaks. But when the bridge was taken down in December 2009 it reminded everyone that the connections are actually pretty tight: the line at the ferry boat often stretched down the roads on either side. Everyone wanted a replacement, but most feared it would be a utilitarian span that wouldn’t match the noble bridge that had stood since the days when Franklin D. Roose­velt was governor.

That’s why Zoli, who’s won a Mac­Arthur genius award, deserves some kind of special proclamation from both Montpelier and Albany. His Kansas City– based firm, which has built famous urban projects such as the new Boston bridge that mended the city’s spirits after the Big Dig fiasco, knew this was a special job: they had to work fast to repair a link that was suddenly missing. Zoli spoke at meetings on both sides—hundreds of people turned out, and thousands voted on various de­sign options. Then everyone held their breath, watching from the ferry crossing as the bridge took shape in 2011, that year of awesome flood.

By the time it reopened in November, the verdict was in—I haven’t heard a negative word from anyone, even people who specialize in negative words. But only those who’ve crossed it on a bike, I think, can completely feel its sensuous glide, moving just slow enough to take it in and just fast enough to share in the delicious sense of besting gravity.

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