Ride the waves and break the ice

Crew member Lea Coggio. Photo by Louise McCarren.

For an adventure and a thrill, ride the Charlotte-Essex ferry when the lake is frozen. Of course you cannot ride waves, because the lake is frozen over and even the weather bureau does not forecast wave heights.

Lake Champlain does not freeze over every year, but this year it has, creating the opportunity to ride the ferry as it cuts through the ice on its way to Essex. Twice in the last month I had the privilege of riding the ferry as a foot passenger on its first run in the morning after particularly cold nights.

By the time you read this the ice, given the warmth and rain, may be broken up.

Park at the commuter parking lot and take a short walk to the ferry. Buy your inexpensive ticket on board. Before you board, take a long look around. The buoys in the bay are frozen in, the lake is a white palette, and the ferry is already groaning as it bubbles the water behind it and puts on steam for the crossing. Look west to the Adirondacks in their first morning light. Spot Marcy, Dix and Whiteface mountains.

The crew is very friendly and may let you on a bit early to go to the cabin and be warm. If you are very lucky, your crew will include Lea Coggio, a magnificent ferry persona. She has been captain, crew member and spark of happiness for many years. She walks to the ferry from her house. Her legend includes paddling a canoe up the lake in very high waves to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Lake Champlain’s discovery by Europeans. Well, of course, by Samuel de Champlain.

The ferry moans and groans as it warms up. In the aft of the ferry in an open bubble are ducks, the brave and few seeking open water during the winter? Are these the animal counterparts of the humans who do not go south in the winter. The inverse of snow birds?

You can stay warm and look out the windows or brave the cold and be on the deck. Pretend that you are the captain. There is a clear channel across the lake that has been forged many times, but now has a new cover of ice. Giant chunks of ice line the path but are pushed aside by the ferry.

A frozen landscape as far as you can see looking north to Sloop Island and South to Split Rock. It will (thankfully) not last as the weather warms and the ice rots.

As you approach Essex you will see even more ducks gathered in any open water, many species together. To the north of the ferry dock look for a yellow house that has a bubbler and a mass of ducks gathered there. On one trip there was an eagle in a tree obviously looking for breakfast.

After the ferry docks new passengers will board. During the week it may be school children commuting to Vermont. Watching them with their musical instruments and energy makes you smile. On the return trip look east to the Greens and pick out Mansfield, Camel’s Hump and Mt. Abraham.

Go ride the ferry anytime!