In 2008, it does so at three different ferry crossings — Cumberland Head, Port Kent and Essex — with a fleet of eight ferries. The dark outline of the rugged Adirondack Mountains, most noticeably Giant Mountain, can be seen from the ferry, as well as the rolling, green farmland of New York’s Champlain Valley. Aquatic birds such as sea gulls, cormorants and ducks can also be seen from the deck of the boat, bobbing on the surface of the sixth largest lake in the U.S.
In early September, after the peak summer tourism season and before the peak of fall foliage, the ferry makes five round trips a day, beginning from the Burlington, Vt. side. You can climb aboard this hour-long scenic crossing at one of the widest points of the 110-mile-long lake from the end of May until Columbus Day in October.
Leaving Port Kent, the ferry rounds Trembleau Point where there are many nice homes and docks. Soon, the ferry passes by Schuyler Island to the south and the farmlands of the Highlands Road become visible. Whiteface Mountain peaks out briefly from behind the low hills and then vanishes again.
Passengers can barely make out Willsboro Point and the Four Brothers Islands, also to the south. The landmarks can be clearly seen through one of the magnifying lenses on deck for the price of a quarter. All of the trees stand dead, gray and leafless, on one of the Four Brothers, the work of cormorants. On sunny days, the Valcour shares the lake with numerous sailboats and motorboats.
As the ferry motors on into the open water, no other prominent landmarks are visible until it gets closer to Vermont. Juniper Island appears to the south and then the Burlington breakwater.
Ferry Captain Steve Pond, of Burlington, Vt., has been making the 10-mile crossing from Port Kent to Burlington every summer since 1976. Last Sunday, he was steering the Valcour, a ship built in Shelburne, Vt., which first took to the lake in 1948. The Valcour is able to carry up to 50 cars.
Although Pond isn’t sure he believes in Champy, the mythical lake monster said to inhabit Lake Champlain and has become the unofficial mascot of the ferries, he has seen some unusual things in his 30-plus years on the water.
“One time about two or three miles out of Pork Kent, I saw a set of deer antlers swimming across the lake, heading for New York,” he said. “Believe it or not, deer are pretty good swimmers.”
He said the deer eventually came ashore near Schuyler Island, between Port Kent and Port Douglas.
Although Champy may never have reared its head while Pond was in the captain’s seat, he admits he has seen “some pretty odd-looking wakes go by with no boats or logs around.”
According to legend, Champy was first spotted in 1609, by explorer Samuel De Champlain, for whom the lake is named. Champy sightings occur most often in Port Henry’s Bulwagga Bay area.
According to Pond, the ferries’ speed can reach up to 13 miles an hour, but this year he has been slowing down to save on fuel. The ferries typically use about 20 gallons of fuel an hour; he strived to keep this summer’s consumption around 17 or 18 gallons an hour.
Pond has worked for the Lake Champlain Transportation Company almost his whole life, starting with parking cars at the ferry docks in high school. In the winter, he pilots the ferries at Plattsburgh’s Cumberland Head Crossing where they run 24 hours a day, all year round.
Pond said although crossing the lake, like any other job, can occasionally get boring, talking to visitors keeps things lively.
“It’s fun to meet new people,” he said. “And the scenery is pretty hard to beat.”
Passengers enjoy the sunny weather above deck on the Valcour. Below, During the early fall weeks, just one ferry runs between Port Kent and Burlington, Vt.
Fact BoxIf you go:
Port Kent is just a 45-minute drive from Lake Placid. Visitors can leave their car at the parking area by the dock and venture over the Burlington as foot passengers. The advantages: It’s cheaper, easier than finding parking in a busy city and more environmentally friendly. Burlington’s bustling Church Street is just three blocks from the ferry.
An adult round trip foot passenger ticket costs $9.30. The Port Kent ferry is also popular with cyclists who take advantage of Vermont’s bike-friendly lakefront paths and rolling hills. The round trip cost for a cyclist is $10.30.
Check out www.ferries.com for a complete schedule of all three crossings. The Port Kent-Burlington ferry is open through Oct. 14, but times may vary.