Mysteries and Legends Of The Champlain Islands

Though Vermont is the only New England state without a seacoast, we have our fair share of vast waters and attractive islands here. The Champlain Islands – an archipelago stretching from the Canadian Border, encompassing roughly 200 miles of shoreline around a trio of islands and a peninsula, is practically a different world. Accessible only by 3 bridges or a ferry from Cumberland Head, New York, the islands are isolated from the rest of the state, and as a result, are relaxed (though, 21st century stress doesn’t entirely escape) and carry a different attitude.

With the Adirondacks rising dramatically to the west across the lake, and the Green Mountains to the east and the south, the islands are a beautiful place. There’s not much to do, and that’s exactly what I love about this region. Route 2, the main artery, passes through 4 out of 5 towns that make up Grand Isle County, with the only stoplight being on the drawbridge that separates North Hero from Grand Isle. The economy is largely dependent on agriculture and tourism, most often combining the two in agritourism pursuits of farm stands, restaurants, and a few vineyards now days.

Things can coexist up here in the world around it peacefully, and sometimes, even manage to go largely undetected. And those sort of conditions are just ripe for mysteries. The numerous smaller and inaccessible islands that dot the lake are mysteries unto themselves – which are also most commonly private property. It’s easy and fun to speculate what sort of things happen on those remote chunks of rock, and what can be found there.

Carleton’s Prize

One of the most interesting stories I heard comes from off the south west coast of South Hero – a small chunk of rock rising 30 feet from the choppy waters of Lake Champlain, in a large passage between Providence and Stave Islands. One day, I was searching on Google maps, and noticed that this almost insignificantly tiny scrap of land had a rather peculiar name; Carleton’s Prize. Why would a small rock have such a strange name? What exactly is the prize here?

As it turns out, the name can be dated back to the Revolutionary War. Local lore has it that Benedict Arnold escaped around Valcour Island with what remained of his fleet during the battle of Valcour Island– and a dense fog had draped over the lake.  The trailing British fleet, lead by Sir Guy Carleton, were searching for escaping American fleets, but unknown to them, the Americans had slipped by them in the cover of night.

But up ahead, through the fog, they spotted something. A silhouette of what appeared to be a ship. This was their chance. The British bombarded it with cannon fire. However, the smoke from all the black powder obscured their vision even more, and eventually, they couldn’t see a thing. But determined to take down those no good Americans, they kept on firing. An hour later, the firing finally stopped, and the smoke and fog cleared, and they would finally see what an hour of shooting had gained them. And what a dose of reality it was.

They hadn’t been firing on an American ship. They had wasted several rounds of ammunition on a small rocky outcropping in the middle of the lake they had mistaken as a ship. Since then, somehow and somewhere down the line, the small landmass has been referred to as Carleton’s Prize. Some say that you can still see the scars from cannon fire, and maybe even a cannonball or two on the island’s rocky shore to this day. But this is where the story gets a bit hard to trace. This story apparently isn’t well documented, and not much information exists to actually back this up – apart from a Wikipedia article and a blog entry – but even the blogger was questioning the truth of this interesting legend. So, did this blunder actually happen? I suppose we can only speculate. As far as I know, no one has came back with a cannonball yet.

Though the story of Carleton’s Prize is intriguing, the island’s original name is far more mystical. In the book, In Search of New England’s Native Past, author Gordon Day tells us the Abenaki knew this small rock as odzihózoiskwá, or “Odzihozo’s wife”. But who or what is Odzihozo?

Odzihozo, “the transformer”, was the supernatural being who created Lake Champlain, the mountains and all the lands that made up their homeland.

According to the legend, Odzihozo was an impatient deity, and before he was even completely formed with a head, legs and arms, he set out to change the earth. His last creation was Lake Champlain, which he considered his masterpiece – and he was incredibly happy with it. So happy in fact, that he climbed onto a rock in Burlington Bay and turned himself to stone so he could watch and be near the lake for the rest of eternity. The rock still resides in Burlington Bay, and is known to boaters as Rock Dunder – several miles away from his wife. It was said that the local Abenaki would bring offerings of tobacco to the rock as late as the 1940s.

travel tip: near White’s Beach, make sure to check out the alluring bird house forest and keep an eye out for the miniature Barber castles scattered around the island.

Carleton's Prize - the small bump in between the 2 islands.

Carleton’s Prize – the small bump in between the 2 islands.

Carleton's Prize from White's Beach in South Hero

Carleton’s Prize from White’s Beach in South Hero

Isle La Motte’s Coral Reef

From the extreme southern portion of the islands, we travel to both the most northern and most remote of them – tiny Isle La Motte.  It is here where one of Vermont’s true treasures can be found – something prehistoric, something unique, and something that many people wouldn’t expect to find in the northern reaches of Vermont.

Around the island, curious visitors can witness evidence of the oldest fossilized coral reef in the world – some 480 million years old. As a matter of fact, almost the entire southern half of the island is made up of this incredible petrified vignette.

Many years ago, Isle La Motte was underneath the warm waters of a tropical sea, roughly where Zimbabwe is today. Officially dubbed the Chazy Reef, it once stretched from an area covering Quebec to around Tennessee, now sitting fossilized in quarries and underneath farms around the island. Over the millennia, the earth’s crust shifted, and eventually, due to volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and the pull of the tides, Limestone formed, preserving the reef.

On a recent visit, I had the experience to view some of the reef myself. Stopping at the Fisk Quarry preserve, I was first taken by the tranquility of the place, almost quietly awe inspiring. And yet, if there weren’t signs to hint at what you were looking at – you might not even know you were walking around such a magnificent treasure.

The Fisk Quarry itself is actually no longer an active quarry – nothing has been quarried here in over a century after the incredibly rare and highly desirable “Black Marble”. In 1995, proposals to once again open the quarry for asphalt purposes was put on the table, but local residents who didn’t want to see the fossils get turned into road fill, protested, banded together, and was able to get the Isle La Motte Preservation Trust and the Lake Champlain Land Trust to officially protect the land in 1999.

Today, it’s incredible to think that you are walking around on a coral reef – it’s years of history preserved, giving scientists an understanding of the formations of primitive reefs and their development overtime – in other words, what the world was like millions of years ago.

Nature has reclaimed most of the quarry and other reef viewing sights, offering tall grasses and wildflowers and mixed swamp lands with still green pools (and of course, mosquitoes). Underneath your feet, you can see the undulating patterns eternally molded into the stone, and various outcroppings and quarry walls showcasing different fossils. The nearby Goodsell Ridge Preserve has an even more remarkable collection of fossils that are much easier to find. Maybe next time, I’ll be more prepared.

Perhaps the real mystery is why in an area ranging from Quebec to Tennessee, the best preserved chunk of the reef is in Isle La Motte? That still remains to be explained.

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According to a sign, the areas around the white portions of the quarry walls are where most of the fossils can be seen.

Goodsell Preserve

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A Pink Lighthouse

To some, the idea of a traditional lighthouse seems out of place in tiny landlocked Vermont. But Lake Champlain’s 587 miles of shoreline is home to 12 lighthouses, 6 of them belonging to The Green Mountain State.

At a total of 120 miles long and 12 miles across at its widest point, Lake Champlain is the 6th largest freshwater lake in the United States – and even had a short distinction as being the 6th great lake, before complaints from the other 5 revoked the title, but we think it’s still pretty great. Often dubbed as “New England’s West Coast”,  the lake was a vital part of the settlement of the region and has been inseparable from local history.  In 1819, the Champlain Canal was completed, connecting the lake to the Hudson River and eventually New York City. This would change the culture of the lake as it was propelled into a transportation route for trade and tourism. Burlington became the largest port on Lake Champlain, and the third largest lumber port in North America. The waterfront was transformed into a bustling and chaotic shoreline of mills, factories and no shortage of cargo ships and passenger steam liners. With this much travel on the lake, lighthouses were needed to make sure travel could be made safely from one end to the other. And with a series of dangerous reefs and no less than 70 islands scattered throughout the lake, these lighthouses played important parts to keeping the lake running efficiently.

Today, the lake is a different place then it was 200 years ago. Heavy ship travel have been replaced by personal recreation boats and a few ferries carrying people across the lake. Interstates 87 and 89 run along both sides of the lake, and have became the main routes of travel between Canada and the United States, leaving the lighthouses unnecessary. Now, these vestiges of the past have slowly been forgotten as the lake tides carry their memories into the mists. However, they are still surviving, finding new lives as private estates or cultural showpieces. Some are landmarks, and others have made large efforts to camouflage them from public knowledge, an irony to their original purpose.

The lighthouses of the lake have always been a curious subject for me. I’ve spent summers traveling around the shorelines and seeing countless summer camps, McMansions and beaches, but a lighthouse is a rare, almost unseemly. But as it just so happens, one of the 6 lights in Vermont rests on Isle La Motte, and unlike most, you can sort of catch a glimpse of it.

The realization of  the need for a light on Isle La Motte started humbly in 1829 with some good old fashioned Yankee ingenuity; by hanging a lantern light on a tree branch on the Northwestern tip of the island, to help mariners navigate their way around the island and through the channel. In 1856, the U.S. government purchased the land around the point for a grand total of $50. The first attempt at a real structure was made in the form of a pyramid shaped limestone tower that would hold the lantern.  However, the lantern would always blow out on stormy nights, and eventually the need of an actual lighthouse became evident, and in 1881, the first permanent lighthouse was finally constructed on Isle La Motte.

A twenty-five-foot tower made of curved cast-iron plates was constructed. Originally painted bright red, the tower features many attentions to detail, such as an Italianate cast railing, arched windows, and molded cornices. Over time, it has faded to a light pink.

During the 1930s, in a cost saving measure, lighthouses began to be replaced with steel skeletal towers. The Isle La Motte light was replaced in 1933. In 2001, the Coast Guard determined it would be cheaper to return the light to the original tower rather than replace the deteriorating steel tower and on October 5, 2002, the light once again shined across the lake’s waters.

A reminder from the locals that they would prefer you not drive down aptly named Light House Point Road - it's a private road.

A reminder from the locals that they would prefer you not drive down aptly named Light House Point Road – it’s a private road, and the lighthouse is private property.

Isle La Motte's Lighthouse, as seen from North Point Road - the best place to get a good view of it, unless you have a boat or a kayak.

Isle La Motte’s Lighthouse, as seen from North Point Road – the best place to get a good view of it, unless you have a boat or a kayak.


Cloak Island

Off of Isle La Motte’s south east coast is a small island with a weird name; Cloak Island. Why would you name an island, Cloak Island? In Tara Liloia’s book Champlain Islands, the name behind the interesting moniker is revealed. As the story goes, a domestic quarrel in the 1770s boiled over, when Eleanor Fisk got sick of her husband’s angry tempers. She hitched up her team of horses and set out across the frozen lake towards Alburgh, but never made it. Later, her red cloak was found along the bushes and rocks of the island, which would forever be known as Cloak.

But there is another variation of the story. After Eleanor Fisk went missing, concerned townsfolk suspected she had drowned, but needed proof. So, they gathered down near the lake and dropped her red cloak into the water. An old Yankee superstition dictated that to find the body of a drowned victim, all you had to do was drop a cloak belonging to the missing woman in the water and it will come to rest above the body. The cloak eventually found its way over to the island and got tangled on the beach, thus giving Isle La Motte’s tiny neighbor it’s name.

Weird Waters

Isle La Motte’s waters seem to hold many secrets at their murky bottoms, where they lay until we learn to live with them. The island’s west shore, which is ringed by vacation cabins and small farms within sight of the matchstick like silhouettes of the Malone wind farm, has been host to allegedly bizarre phenomena over the years. In 2004, a Champ sighting was supposedly reported off of Isle La Motte near Point Au Fer, by a Maryland family out on their boat, when there was an “explosion” that came out of the water, followed by 3 “humps” that breached the surface and sank back down almost as quickly as they came up. The startled family had no explanation for what they all witnessed, and none of them were fast enough to grab a camera. Champ sightings are all good, but there is a much larger scale of weirdness that tends to get reported from around the lake, including people claiming they saw balls of light shoot astonishingly out of the water! The weirdness continues with other unidentified swimming objects spotted moving against the tides and creating large wakes in their path. There are even said to be UFO sightings. Sadly, these claims aren’t nearly detailed enough to warrant a separate blog entry at the moment or even more than one paragraph (maybe a future blog entry in the works?), but are certainly compelling. After all, it comes as no surprise to most of us that weird stuff has been reported along and around Lake Champlain for centuries, but rarely makes it into circulation.

Cloak Island

Cloak Island

I’d like to close this entry on island weirdness, with both an interesting account and a fact I was able to dig up. One of them happened many years ago. On May 19th, 1780, something called a “dark day” was experienced across the islands. Starting in the morning, and lasting for 36 straight hours, the area was plunged into inexplicable and startling darkness, so much so that people were lighting candles and lanterns in the middle of the day, just to see.

While this might seem terrifying and otherworldly – the explanation is easily presentable. During that time, vast wildfires were rapidly spreading their way across Ontario, the smoke billowing down into New England skies. Today, Vermonters are relativity experienced with that, as smoke from Quebec forest fires of previous years have spread down our way. However, nothing thus far as been powerful enough to send us into another “dark day”.

Another fun fact worth noting, especially if you’re a geography buff, is that Alburgh is one of only six non island places in the continental United States that doesn’t share a land border with anywhere else in the country. Alburgh, being a peninsula, is surrounded by water, and technically cut off from both Vermont and New York. It’s only land border is with Quebec.


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6 Comments on “Mysteries and Legends Of The Champlain Islands

  1. fyi, the elevated rail bed near the Moran Plant in Burlington was made from rock quarried in Isle LaMotte. Lots of fossil viewing there!

    • Thanks Tom. I’ve always assumed as much, looking at those massive blocks of stone that make that wall near the bike path! Have you found anything that stands out?

  2. suggested post: the old slate quarry in Montpelier… as long as you don’t advertise it to well….

    • I’ve heard of the quarry in Montpelier. Would you know how to get there? (and wouldn’t mind passing this information along lol)

  3. I had a friend who many years ago DID bring up a small canon ball from the waters on the west side of the Island. My son, Lars D. H. Hedbor, has published a novel, The Prize, a fictionalized account of the shelling of Carlton’s Prize. My parents owned the island, along with Providence, many years ago, and my mother donated Carlton’s to the Land Trust in my father’s memory.

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