Peter Macfarlane's 2018 Solo East-West Through-Paddle of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail
in a Cedar-Strip Canoe by Otter Creek Smallcraft

NFCT's Map of Overall Route Peter & Sylva completing the NFCT

Day 22

26.5 miles

Monday 4th June

Swanton - North Hero


Day 22 route on Google Earth imagery

I awoke late, around 5:30 am. A glance out of the window told me that there was a gentle rain falling and a slight breeze. Realising that I had, for some inexplicable reason, packed too many breakfasts, I had a double portion with copious tea, and then emerged into the rain, picked up my canoe and carried around a mile back to the dam. I launched around 7:15 am and headed downstream, taking it gently to conserve energy for the battle to come: the wind was forecast to be 15-18 mph from the south, and my experience of Lake Champlain is that the forecast wind speed is often an under-estimate by about 10 mph. That still was not sufficient to persuade me to take Viveka's advice to sit tight.

Missisquoi River

Aproaching Lake Champlain

The rain continued to fall gently, and a breeze stirred the treetops, lightly at first and then, as I approached the lake, much more vigorously. Branches began to sway and then whole trees started to bend. This looked ominous. In my position in the delta I was largely sheltered, but the signs were all too unmistakable. As I exited the delta into the open lake, a blast of wind hit me full force in the face as I turned to the south.

On the first crossing, which would bring me to Donaldson Point, the wind blew strongly out of Brush Creek. There was no shelter to be had anywhere, no shoreline to follow that might offer a little respite. The only option was to battle into the wind, together with the waves that were being driven north towards me. As I neared Donaldson Point, the waves reduced in size in accordance with the reduced fetch, but the wind was little interrupted by the land until I could tuck right in against the shore. Now I headed southwest, hugging the shoreline to try to gain every advantage that was available. This brought me gradually to the boat launch at the Route 78 bridge where I took a brief break.

To pass through the bridge I had to head out into the lake, following the stone causeway which offered some shelter until reaching the open span. At that point the wind was focussed by the causeway, an exaggerated case of what happens at a headland. It took maximum effort to make the necessary headway to achieve the southern side. Then I headed east once more by means of a ferry-glide to try to find shelter against the shore. Passing through the old railway bridge was a feat of timing and coordination, waiting for a lull in the wind and judging the effect that the not inconsiderable waves would have on my trajectory.

Back against the shoreline I inched to the south-southwest, using what little shelter existed. My aim was to get at least as far as Clark Point, preferably to Hog Island Point, before making the crossing to Stephenson Point on the north end of North Hero Island. As I round the headland, though, and turned to the south east towards Clark Point, this became an exercise in futility. Now, with no shelter whatsoever, every paddle stroke was trying to accelerate me from scratch while the wind made the load feel like a lead weight. Ahead of me I could see Stephenson Point, and in between lay something over a mile of tumultuous waves, white caps and unrelenting wind.

It was into this tumult that I now ventured, guiding my bow a little to the right so that the wind would keep it in that direction, yet not so far that I would lose control of it. I was kneeling, of course, not only for stability but also to reduce the area that my body presented to the wind. Here began probably the hardest crossing that I have yet to make, probably the hardest that I shall ever make. When my focus would allow, I took transits to check on my direction, and soon realised that a straight line crossing was not going to be achievable. All I could do was to stay as near to my intended route as possible, and sort out the discrepancy later.

Every paddle stroke was an exertion somewhere near the maximum that I was able to muster, and, considering that I am a strong paddler anyway and was now well trail-hardened, was a very large effort indeed. The farther I progressed, the more it became apparent that there were two sets of waves that I was encountering: those driven by the south wind straight up the Alburgh Passage (where I was hoping to find some shelter) and those driven up the eastern side of North Hero and which were now diffracting around the head of the island, so approaching me more from the southeast. As these waves converged, they achieved heights of at least 4 feet. At one point I knelt down in the bottom of the hull, not for stability but to reduce windage, and found myself staring up at the crests.

In all of this I felt no instability whatsoever, and was able to guide the canoe over waves, taking on board minimal water. Sometimes, however, waves from two directions were curling over at the same time, leaving me no good option to avoid a dousing. As the wind blew me ever farther westward from my intended course, I started to ask my self what the option would be if I couldn't make the lee of the shore of North Hero. Running with the wind over an even longer crossing into a region of even bigger waves arising from an even longer fetch went against everything that I knew and that I advise others about, so that renewed my motivation to work even harder to make way into the wind. On brief lulls, I turned the bow more to the east, switched sides with the paddle, and paddled as hard as possible – using some different muscles was a relief – to try to regain my line, gaining easterly distance at the expense of southerly. Then when the wind blew at full force again, I turned once more to the south and continued my southerly track with westward drift.

In this fashion I eventually started to run into smaller waves as those from the eastern side of North Hero were now blocked by the island, and the small reduction in wind allowed me to creep towards the beach at Stephenson Point. It came ever nearer, but painfully slowly, until at last, in relative calm, I landed, crawled out of the canoe, gradually straightened out my body and collapsed on a bench to recover for a while. I had taken on board maybe 4 gallons of water, more than on any other crossing that I have done, yet still not enough to seriously affect stability or freeboard.

My original plan was to head for a lean-to on Knight Island off the eastern shore of North Hero and much farther south, but that would be possible only if the wind died substantially. To have any chance of getting anywhere near, I would have to make a several miles to the south, and opted for the Alburgh Passage on the west side of North Hero, where I hoped to find more shelter than on the more exposed eastern side of the island. That would allow me to cross to the east at the Carrying Place, a narrow causeway with a culvert where the water level is sometimes just right to allow passage.

Once more back in the canoe I set off to the south-southwest, as close to the shore as depth and breaking waves would allow. There was some shelter from the wind, not a lot, but enough to allow progress. Squires Bay offered some temporary relief, but my route after that was even more directly to the south, more fully into the wind. My first attempt to pass through the Route 2 bridge ended in abject failure as my bow was swung round uncontrollably by the funnelled wind and I was pushed back, having to paddle hard to gain shelter once more. My second attempt was successful, having learned to keep my bow better pointed into the wind. I then, as so often before on this trip, did a ferry-glide back towards the relative shelter of the eastern shore. Across the next bay, I initially hugged the shore until far enough south to pick up enough shelter to cross more directly to the headland.

Not many photos today?

I can't imagine why!

Reaching Carry Bay brought me to another decision point. While paddling earlier in the calm of the Missisquoi, I had been entertaining the possibility of even reaching Plattsburgh today, but that idea had long since evaporated, so now there was no good reason to stay on the west side of North Hero. My overnight options were limited: Knight Island, which wasn't looking hopeful as the wind showed no signs of abating; Campmeeting Point at the south end of North Hero, which would involve even more travel into the wind; or North Hero Village, where I was not sure about the options for accommodation. All of these pointed to heading through the Carrying Place to the eastern (and more exposed) side of the island.

The concept of reaching the Carrying Place was much easier than the execution. As I rounded Blockhouse Point, there was now no shelter to be had, anywhere. I was at the mercy of the full force of the wind. My only option was to point the bow a little to the left of the wind and perform a long, exhausting ferry-glide to the east, reaching first a small headland and then, much later, some relative calm under the shoreline. At least going this way I was paddling largely on the left, whereas my earlier crossing to North Hero had been primarily on the right. I then crept south to the culvert and was pleased to see that the lake level was perfect for passing through it. A strong current emerged from it, resulting partly from the influx from rivers on the eastern side of the lake filling up that side more, and partly from the effect of the wind, driving ever more water on to the eastern side of the island.

I pulled my way through the culvert against the current and emerged into a small sheltered cove from where I could see for the first time just what conditions were like on the eastern side. For those who like to paint stormy scenes, this was probably a delight: dark clouds, rampant, rolling waves, white-caps, bent trees. For me, such beauty represented more hard work. Knight Island was now out of the question: there was no way that I would attempt that crossing, even if I were not so tired. My goal now was North Hero Village, probably not much more than a mile away, just around the next major headland to the south, Hibbard Point.

With all the determination that I could muster I exited from the cove into the full blast of the wind … and came to a complete halt. I dug in my paddle and levered as hard as I could, to no effect. I repeated this, and achieved just as little. Watching the shoreline, I realised that I was now making not just minimal headway but none whatsoever. Never before had this happened, but now I realised that I had, at long last, finally encountered a wind that I could not paddle into. Maybe, had I been fresh, things would have been different, but I wasn't; indeed I was close to sheer exhaustion from the efforts of the day. Humbled at last by the wind I retreated into the cove and took out to consider my options: camp here (the lack of suitable trees, the lack of good shelter and the proximity of the road were negative points), sit and wait for the wind to die (who knew if or when it would?) or carry along the road to North Hero Village. This last seemed to be the least bad choice.

I loaded up and set off along the side of Route 2. It was easy going initially, but I knew what was to come. At the moment there were trees blocking the wind from me, but as I approached City Bay these trees disappeared and I was exposed to the full force of the wind coming across the bay. Carrying a canoe overhead in that sort of wind, especially a crosswind, presents a challenge of control. I leaned the hull towards the south to prevent the wind from getting underneath it and lifting it away from me. At times the force from my left was such that I crouched down with my right leg well out to the side as a buttress. Sometimes, when I tired of controlling the bow as the wind tried to rip it to my right, I planted the bow down on the ground, if there was grass, or lodged it behind the guard rail, merely to give my muscles a reprieve from exerting continuous maximal force to control the direction. I was in this pose, bow down on the ground, when a concerned resident came out, evidently having watched me struggling for a while, and offered to give me and canoe a ride in his truck for the last few yards. I'm sure he totally failed to understand my motives for declining his very kind and sincere offer.

At the Carrying Place

From North Hero House

The wrestling match continued for maybe another hundred yards to the south, where I found North Hero House. I had not planned to stay indoors tonight, and this was likely to be somewhat above my budget, but needs must. I placed the canoe in a sheltered spot against one of the buildings, and went inside to enquire about a room. They had one free, and clearly my face showed some evidence of sticker-shock as the receptionist pulled a few strings and came up with some excuse for offering a discounted rate, for which I was extremely grateful. Really, I was in no fit state to quibble – I had been forced off the lake and was in need of accommodation, so would have paid whatever it took – but this act of generosity brought the cost much more into my sphere, allowing me to enjoy the luxury and the excellent service rather than feel guilty about it. At the receptionist's suggestion I placed my canoe underneath one of the buildings where it would be protected from the wind, and then had a well-deserved shower, hot and long.

Feeling somewhat refreshed, I went out to register at the sign-in box, pleased to find one with pencils that worked and sign-in sheets that were not mouse-eaten and were up to date (this is the box which I'm responsible for – please excuse the moment of self-congratulation!) I also tried to visit Hero's Welcome, but arrived just as they were closing. Dinner was at North Hero House, in the porch where we could watch as a rainbow unfurled across the eastern sky in response to the setting sun. The rest of the evening passed with drying out damp gear and relaxing on the bed, fading in and out of consciousness. The forecast for tomorrow was for lighter wind, for which my aching body would be extremely glad.


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