A Champlain beauty - Vermont: Isle La Motte
- Boston Globe Article
In the lake named for the explorer is an
island marked by history both human and uniquely geological
By Judith Gaines, Globe Correspondent
| April 18, 2004
The northernmost of the Champlain Islands, Isle La
Motte also is the most remote, least commercialized, and most peaceful
of the lot. Once you've crossed the old causeway that links it to
the mainland, you enter a serene little world apart in an unusually
picturesque and interesting farm burg.
About seven miles long and two miles wide, Isle La Motte looks something
like a lozenge floating in the lake roughly 20 miles south of the
Canadian border. Its population -- 300 or so year round -- is predominantly
French Canadian, and the town layout reflects this. There's no town
common, for instance, nor any white-spired church. The town center
is a crossroads near which a country store with some gas pumps,
a town hall, a post office, a firehouse, and a library all loosely
clustered. Several of these buildings are made from elegant, locally
The old schoolhouse houses the historical society
and a museum. A quirky pink lighthouse stands on the island's northwest
''It's feminine and sweet, just like me," quips
Erika Bayer, who keeps the automated beacon.
What this town exudes is its own distinctive rural
charm. Its only traffic light sits in Howard and Polly Schwenker's
backyard, an inoperable totem their son gave them as a joke. ''It's
the only traffic light within 26 miles," Howard Schwenker said
with a chuckle.
Locals seem particularly proud of their pets, which
come up frequently in conversations. The library features a large,
framed photo of Keisha, an unusually sociable collie ''known for
being good about visiting people in town," says trustee Joyce
Tuck. The library also helps support itself with sales of a calendar
featuring photos of a different local pet each month: dogs, cats,
rabbits, horses, even a pet elk.
''It can be kind of quiet and isolated here, especially
in winter," Tuck said. ''So you really get to know your animals,
and your neighbor's animals."
A few locals rent out cabins or cottages, and there's
a lakeside campground, but otherwise the main tourist accommodations
are Ruthcliffe Lodge, a charming and secluded B&B with motel-like
rooms and a restaurant on the lake, or Terry Lodge of Isle la Motte,
a simple farmhouse where a set meal is served family-style in the
evenings at the dining room table. We stayed at the Ruthcliffe and
happily could have passed several days just lounging by the lake
and enjoying the cooking of chef and co-owner Mark Infante. His
wife, Kathy, was friendly and helpful, with lots of suggestions
for things to see and do.
The island is flat, offering lovely views of Vermont's
Green Mountains in one direction and New York's Adirondacks in another.
Bicyclists seeking a mild and scenic excursion love the terrain
and the lack of traffic. The island environment seems to moderate
the climate somewhat, making it warmer than other communities this
far north. Swimming, boating, and other water sports are popular
here from about May to October, as is walking down the country lanes
that crisscross the island. The Ruthcliffe rents bikes, canoes,
and kayaks for $15 a day.
There's also an underlying reason -- literally --
to visit this place. The bedrock of the southern third of the island
is one of the few visible remnants of the Chazy Reef, about 480
million years old, that once stretched 1,000 miles along what later
became the North American continent. Scientists believe that in
those days, the only living creatures inhabited the seas, and the
reef grew over a period of about 10 million years as their calcium
carbonate remains slowly accumulated, layer upon layer. Then the
''Now you can walk from south to north on the island, from the oldest
to the youngest sections of the reef, and it's like a museum of
this very primitive life on Earth," said Linda Fitch, who heads
the Isle La Motte Preservation Trust. She gave a little tour, pointing
to fossils of cabbage-like stromatoporoids and twiggy bryozoa in
the 20-acre Fisk Quarry Preserve, and to assorted swirling gastropods
and other exotic fossils just a mile or two away in the younger
Godsell Ridge, where she hopes to preserve 81 additional acres.
Isle La Motte ''provides the most complete database
in the world for this chapter of the Earth's history," Fitch
said. ''It's a time capsule of ancient reef-building."
Much more recently, several significant events happened
on the island. At a sandy beach on its western shore, the explorer
Samuel de Champlain may have landed, when he discovered the lake
and the region in 1609. Fifty-seven years later, a French captain
named Pierre de La Motte -- for whom the island is named -- built
a fort on the spot, dedicating it to St. Anne, mother of the Virgin
Mary. The stockade was Vermont's first white settlement, and the
state's first Roman Catholic Mass was celebrated here.
Although the 45th parallel was long considered the
boundary between the United States and Canada, officials initially
had difficulty determining exactly where it went, according to Allen
Stratton, who compiled a history of Isle La Motte. School Street,
which now passes in front of the town's Country Store, was once
considered part of the Canadian border.
Settlement of the area didn't begin in earnest until
1842, when boundary disputes finally were ironed out, Stratton says.
French Canadians came to work in apple orchards and dairies that
soon flourished here and in Fisk Quarry, which became famous for
black marble so fine it graces the US Capitol and the National Gallery
of Art in Washington, and Radio City Music Hall in New York.
Today, the old stockade is gone, but tourists come
to Champlain's sandy point, where a statue of him stands, as does
a popular shrine to St. Anne with an open-air, Victorian-style chapel,
a cafeteria, a small public beach, and a picnic area.
''There's something about his place. We come and feel
at peace," said Sandra Kinney, an administrative assistant
at the shrine.
Most of the dairies have disappeared, but Hall's Farm
Stand on Main Street still sells apples and other produce. Lakes
End Cheeses, a family-run farm just across the causeway in Alburg,
makes cow's and goat's milk cheeses, as well as some terrific chocolates.
During our stay, an Apple Fest was underway on South
Hero, another of the Champlain Islands, and we enjoyed sampling
wines nearby at Snow Farm Vineyard, which offers free summer concerts
there on Thursday evenings. We also ventured into Quebec, for a
taste of French Canadian cuisine and culture.
Still, nothing was quite as nice as lazing by the
lake in the Ruthcliffe's big Adirondack chairs, while the sun glinted
off the wavelets and the water lapped gently at the shore. Kathy
Infante described the ambience well: ''This is down home country,
with a peaceful feeling and some gorgeous views. It's one of those
places where you really can reconnect."
Judith Gaines is a freelance writer from Boston.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.