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Annual Guide to the Great Outdoors 2010

On the CATwalk

First steps on a Champlain Valley trail network

Long before you reach the first Lake Champlain lookout on the recently completed Boquet Mountain trail, in Es­sex—even if you’ve not heard a whisper about the greater underlying vision here—you discover surprising things about this footpath: no rutted mires, no toe-tripping roots, no washed-out switchbacks. It’s not often you get to experience a brand-new trail in these old Adirondack hills. Hiking between the mountain’s twin peaks last fall, guided by markers that looked like they’d just come out of the box, we half-expected to find a blazing crew ahead of us nailing them up.

That was nearly the case. Volunteers from Champlain Area Trails (CATS), a new local nonprofit, have been busy the past two years building the first few routes of a European-style ramble network they hope will one day connect old ports along 40 miles of Lake Champlain between the towns of Au­sable and Crown Point. For a sampler my wife, Jean, and I, along with our daughter Amy and her husband, Mike, linked three of the mildly challenging Essex trails—the Boquet Mountain, Bea­ver Flow and Bobcat. It made a leisurely six-and-a-half mile, north-to-south, one-way, half-day hike.

After bagging scones at Dogwood Bread Company, in Wadhams, we headed toward Essex to leave a car at trail’s end on Ferris Lane, then drove to our starting point on Jersey Street. Our Boquet Mountain walk began in an ordinary recovering forest of birch and aspen, but the basking saplings quickly gave way to a shadowier world of older-growth pine, hemlock and maple. And though we had just found our stride we happily stopped to watch a gray squirrel trying to navigate with a heaping mouthful of newly fallen maple leaves as if intending to carry them back to the treetops where they be­longed. When it ran up a hemlock in­stead we figured it was building a nest. Songbirds were out of view but singing so heartily it didn’t matter.

As we walked we mused how this little hike might turn out to be our first leg in a growing adventure as more CATS trails are built southward—over hilly farm country into lakeside villages like Westport, across the former upland mining districts of Moriah and amid the haunting fort ruins on the Crown Point peninsula. Northern pathways might visit the old water-mill settlements of Willsboro and Keeseville along the plunging Bo­quet and Ausable Rivers, respectively. Our three trails for the day would connect the future routes north and south.

In just 25 minutes we were traversing the saddle between North and South Bo­quet Mountains. Filtered views east over Lake Champlain helped us grasp the enormity of the Champlain basin. The prominent hill across the lake in Charlotte, Vermont, is Mount Philo, where an ancient beach near its base marks the shoreline of the once-saltwater Cham­plain Sea; we imagined this view 12,000 years ago, enlivened by beluga whales and hooded seals, whose fossil remains have been found along the lake.

Another isolated view from the saddle frames the southern Essex shore, in­cluding Split Rock, the historic boundary between Iroquois and Algonquin, and later Brit­ish and French. Guidebook writ­er Benjamin Butler described the landmark in 1873 as “the most remarkable natural curiosity on the lake … an enormous mass of rock … de­tached from the neighboring cliff.” This is the hike’s best lake view and the spot Amy, who’d been packing the scones, chose to more fairly distribute the weight among the hiking party. As we finished our snacks and descended the saddle, the path ex­panded into a pleasant logging road, which we followed to the end of the first trail at Cook Road.

We found the Beaver Flow trailhead about 15 minutes east on Cook Road, then followed the CATS markers south. Crossing a winding stream we en­tered a grove of white birch crowned by a stunning golden canopy. This section was in peak foliage. If you plan to hike here in the fall keep cameras ready as the landscape ahead rises into a flaming ma­ple forest. Au­tumn colors en­hanced the next highlight of this trail as well, about 20 minutes in, when our humus path abruptly narrowed into an artful serpentine up and among enormous moss-carpeted boulders. The trail was quite manageable and it soon returned to its usual character. We’d been told to watch for beaver dams in the distance but realized as we emerged onto Walker Road that we’d missed them.

Directly across Walker Road we picked up the Bobcat trail, our final leg, and followed markers through a sunny meadow of wildflowers. In the woods around the bend we stopped for a picnic beside a beaver pond, our table a large as­pen felled by our buck-toothed hosts. We never saw beavers at work but marveled at their watertight dam as we strolled south.

A brook with handy stepping stones sashayed up to the path as we en­tered a dense hemlock forest, one of the prettiest natural settings of the day. Then, all too soon, a grand stand of fragrant pines bid us farewell as we exited into a rolling meadow. We found the car we’d left on Ferris Lane, five minutes across the field.

Our four-hour hike gave us a tantalizing taste of the growing Champlain trail network that CATS expects will one day also extend west to the Jay and Giant Mountain Wilderness Areas. The organization hopes as well to link to the North Country National Scenic Trail, which is being built from Crown Point to Lake Saka­kawea, in North Dakota, and the Long Path, un­der construction from Fort Lee, New Jersey, through the Adi­rondacks to Can­ada. We’re among a growing list of CATS fans eager to make bed-and-breakfast walking tours of the Champlain system.

The notion of footpaths along the western shore of Lake Champlain—an idea kept alive by Adirondack photographer Gary Randorf and former Essex County planner William Johnston, who discussed modeling a system after England’s town-to-town “rambling trails” during the 1992 U.S.-U.K. Countryside Exchange—gathered real momentum in 2007, when Essex residents Steven Kellogg and Bruce Klink began discussing Bill McKibben’s book Wandering Home, about his walk through the Champlain Valley and Adi­rondacks.

The concept blossomed into action when CATS formed. John Davis, conservation director at the Adirondack Council, who co-founded CATS with Sheri Amsel, Chris Maron, Jamie Phil­lips and David Reuther, noted in a press release, “We looked at maps and realized that a trail network between Essex and Westport could easily be established using lands already open to the public.” Contributors including the International Pa­per Com­pany Foundation and Hud­­son-Fulton-Cham­plain Quadricentennial Community Mini-Grant Program came on board, and volunteers with spades and loppers began blazing the initial trails in Essex. So far the paths are largely on land owned by the nonprofit Eddy Foundation, of which Phil­lips is president, and link to the lake and villages by “roads good for walking,” as mapped by naturalist/artist Amsel on the group’s Web site.

The recently formed Champlain Valley Conservation Partnership (CVCP) is also pitching in. Maron, who is executive director of the Westport-based group, said, “Our goal is to help residents and visitors alike to appreciate the tremendous natural beauty of the Champlain Valley, as well as its many historic and cultural features. These trails will also benefit the region as visitors hike and ski between the lake towns in the same way the Jackrabbit Trail brings skiers to Lake Placid and Keene.”

Reuther, who helped inspire the CATS initiative with stories of his treks across northern England, explained, “Our dream is to eventually create a network of trails like they have in Europe, where visitors take the train to a trailhead, hike from town to town for a week or two and then return to their homes by train.” Luckily for all of us, Amtrak already links the Champlain corridor with New York City, Montreal and beyond.

IF YOU GO

CATS trails are open to hikers, snowshoers and cross-country skiers but closed to bikes, horses and motorized vehicles. Shoulder parking is available at trailheads, which are marked with small white signs. The green-and-white CATS trail markers feature a bobcat-paw print and arrow.

The 3-mile Boquet Mountain trail’s northern head is on Jersey Street about 1.5 miles west of Route 22. (A short path that branches east along this trail simply merges back to the main path.) The southern terminus is on Cook Road about .75 miles west of Leaning Road.

The 2.25-mile Beaver Flow trail’s northern head is on Cook Road about .2 miles west of Leaning Road. The southern terminus is on Walker Road about 1.4 miles west of Route 22.

The 1.5-mile Bobcat trail’s northern head is on Walker Road about 1.4 miles west of Route 22. Much of this route follows a right-of-way over private land so stay on the trail. The southern terminus is on Ferris Lane a short distance west of Route 22. Park at the end of the road out of the way of a private driveway.

The CATS Web site, champlainareatrails.com, has maps, events, a Facebook link, volunteer opportunities and information about other nearby CATS trails, including the Black Kettle Farm loop south of the intersection of Cook Road and Leaning Road, and the Wildway Overlook, which begins at Brookfield Road and leads to wonderful views from the summit of South Bo­quet Moun­tain. Nearby, the state-owned Split Rock Moun­tain trails, with spectacular views of Lake Champlain, are tied by rural roads to the CATS network.

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