This winter Lake Champlain has frozen all the way across for the first time since 2007, and while many of us have enjoyed this chance to get out on the ice—ice fishing, skating, or just walking—others are eagerly awaiting ice out as evidence of spring’s arrival.
For commuters counting on the ferry to get them across the lake the sight of all that ice can be disheartening. If the ferry does not run that means a long drive to one of the bridges spanning the lake. Before 1998 the Essex Charlotte ferry crossing was seasonal, but since then (with a few exceptions) the Lake Champlain Transportation Company has kept it operational through the winter—including operating throughout this season’s complete freeze. In a recent interview we can learn just how these winter trips are possible.
Of about 30 ferry captains that Lake Champlain Transportation Company employs Lea Coggio is one of six women who holds the title. She was interviewed by Alicia Freese (@aliciafreese) in an article that appeared in the in the Seven Days issue released on March 5, 2014. The article “Carving the Commute: Crossing Lake Champlain in Winter” explores the mechanics, challenges, and aesthetics of crossing Lake Champlain by ferry in the winter.
Coggio explains that two ferries operate at the Essex-Charlotte crossing in the summer, and during that busier season they transport around 600 passengers a day. In the winter only one boat works this crossing and transports between 100 and 200 per day. Despite lower winter passenger figures, the Essex Charlotte ferry is no less vital for our community in winter than summer. It offers critical year-round infrastructure for many Essex area residents as well as Vermont residents who commute to New York for work, etc. This winter frequent thanks have been offered by commuters from both sides of the lake, grateful for reliable ferry access despite challenging conditions.
As one frequent ferry passenger Lori Myers notes:
When the Charlotte-Essex ferry used to shut down for the winter… “It always kind of felt like this wall went up between Vermont and New York.” (Carving the Commute: Crossing Lake Champlain in Winter)
Thankfully, with the Essex Charlotte ferry operational we have not had to deal with that separation.
Essex-Charlotte Ferry Channel
Despite the lake’s complete ice over, there are a couple channels of open water that are roughly 100 feet wide between Vermont and New York that have been created by the LCT ferries.
Coggio describes how these channels are made and hopes to disabuse readers of any misconceptions about winter ferry travel with LCT.
Steering one of two wagon-wheel-size helms, she was eager to clarify some misconceptions: First, the United States Coast Guard does not carve out this channel for the ferry; second, “There are no true ice breakers on this lake.”
“True ice breakers” are boats with bows capable of cutting through frozen surfaces or engines that can act as ice-smashing hammers. The boat that connects Grand Isle and Plattsburgh is equipped with a bubbler to prevent ice buildup. But the 95-ton Essex-Charlotte ferry, confusingly called the Grand Isle, has none of those accoutrements.
How does the modest boat clear a path for itself? It fends off ice simply by traveling back and forth in the same liquid strait. The ferry does have a strong piece of steel called a “skeg” that prevents ice from interfering with the rudder, and it can cast aside frozen chunks using its prop wash.
Some mornings, the first run is an ice-breaking one, and the pilot has to pivot and wiggle the ferry in its slip to break free from ice that’s formed around it overnight. But Coggio downplays the inconvenience, saying the process takes 30 minutes, max. (Carving the Commute: Crossing Lake Champlain in Winter)
The Beauty of Winter Ferry Crossing
Crossing the lake in any season offers travelers myriad breathtaking views, but winter water travel offers unique opportunities to marvel at the lake and the distant mountains surrounding it. It is an altogether different experience from summer travel but still beautiful in its own way.
The singularity of the open water of the ferry channel also presents the perfect chance for some wildlife viewing at the winter ferry crossing.
Hundreds of ducks — hooded mergansers, mallards and common goldeneyes — are camped out in the channel this winter, drawn to the open water. When the boat approaches, they take flight en masse; after it passes, they cluster again in the after-churn. Coggio describes herself as a novice birder, but she’s got her ducks down. She keeps a birding book and a pair of binoculars in the cramped pilothouse. […] Waterfowl and their predators account for those passengers with tripods and telephoto lenses on deck during midday voyages. (Carving the Commute: Crossing Lake Champlain in Winter)
And if wildlife doesn’t intrigue you, then just enjoy the sunlight on the water and ice or the beauty of a stormy day during your winter ferry ride.
Read the full Seven Days story by Alicia Freese here: “Carving the Commute: Crossing Lake Champlain in Winter.”
- Birders Flock to Essex-Charlotte Ferry Channel (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Essex-Charlotte Canal (rosslynredux.com)
- Essex-Charlotte Ferry Winter Schedule (2013-14) (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Birds drawn to frozen lake’s ferry channels (wptz.com)
- Purchase Winter Tickets on Essex-Charlotte Ferry (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- When Will Lake Champlain Thaw? (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)