Burlington, Vermont is one of those kind of rare towns I could see myself living in someday and being happy in for awhile. It’s chill enough to not stress me out, yet has enough going on to make me not feel restless. If you’ve spent too much time in towns with populations of both 2,100 and 2.7 million, you understand how amazing of a balance this really is.
I recently spent a week in the Grand Isle area along Lake Champlain and found myself biking to be the best way to get around. The roads from Grand Isle to Burlington are ideal for biking because there isn’t much traffic to battle with, the hills are gentle on weary muscles, and the scenery is peaceful enough to make even the most cluttered mind start to wander.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of biking to and from Burlington is the bike ferry. After a rail bridge was torn down, a narrow breach in the middle of Lake Champlain was left behind, forcing bikers to choose between either turning back or taking a swim with their bikes. A company called Local Motion operates a ferry service that connects bikers and hikers to the neighboring villages of South Hero and Colchester.
Local Motion raised $1.5 million dollars from donations last year to leverage state and federal dollars to repair the three-mile portion that extends into the lake. The entire operation is run by volunteers and donor funds to keep locals active and Vermont topping the “most bike friendly destinations” lists.
Since running a boat company isn’t exactly cheap (operating costs are about $100,000 per year), you need to fork over $8 to take the 5-minute ride from one side of the bike trail to the other. Season and annual passes are available too, which a pleasant retiree will tell you about when you approach the ferry tent.
The bike ferry is a wonderfully efficient, low-budget operation. Basically, one guy drives a little boat back and forth while another guy ties it up and helps you lift your bikes on board. The ferry service has been able to expand in recent years, offering Friday, Saturday, and Sunday service from 10am to 6pm during the summer months.
No matter how nice the day is or how much you beg, the ferry volunteers won’t detour to take you joyriding around the lake. The break in the bike path isn’t actually very wide at all. I would have just jumped in and swum across it if I wasn’t lugging along a fancy bike on loan from my buddy in the Peace Corps.
After you reluctantly conclude the boat ride portion of your bike ride, a volunteer will warn you that the last ferry to get back leaves at 6pm. Keeping a strict time schedule in mind while on vacation is burdensome. Yet somehow, it adds a sense of progressive structure to an otherwise leisurely day exploring a new place.
Soak up the serenity as you ride with crisp, blue water on each side because the neighborhood section is up ahead. I’ve ridden through plenty of neighborhoods before, but few as well maintained as this one with designated bike paths and plenty of shade.
As a self-proclaimed gnome addict, I was pleased to encounter a gnome garden in a small front yard along the path. When I stopped to introduce myself and snap some shots, the motorcycling homeowner wasn’t nearly as enticed by his “wife’s collection” as I was.
After a few turns through the neighborhood, you’ll enter the village of Colchester and pass over the Winooski Trail Bridge and enter Leddy Park. If it’s a nice day outside, you’ll see beach-goers with towels and coolers in tow as you approach North Beach and Waterfront Park.
Keeping a keen eye on our watches, we chose Switchback Brewing Co. as our reward destination for the miles we’d peddled and the heat we’d endured. More time was spent trying to find the door to the brewery than actually drinking beers inside of it. Switchback is tucked away in a warehouse district with an unassuming sign, and it’s only open a couple hours of the day.
I’ll admit that I was pretty disappointed to find only two beers on tap for samples and zero beers on tap for sale. A girl who barely looked old enough to pour a beer handed out samples of their similar-tasting ale and red ale. In retrospect, I’m glad that this brewery stop was a bust because it allowed time for a second brewery to be added to the day’s agenda.
The clock was clicking and the last ferry of the day was leaving the dock in an hour and a half. As a real woman who can handle her beer, I wasn’t worried. Well, maybe just a little.
I was skeptical about Zero Gravity Brewing because it was located inside a restaurant called American Flatbread. I always find myself a little wearing of breweries that advertise their food first and their beer second. Much to my surprise, Zero Gravity brews were delicious. And there were more than two of them, which was an added bonus. Zero Gravity didn’t offer samplers, but they did serve up half-pints. We settled on the Gandy Dancer California commons, Grateful Belgian ale, Keeper Biere de gard, and Starkboro coffee amber. I’d order any of them a second time, if given the opportunity.
As typical, a bit too much time was spent at the bar and the 6pm ferry departure was quickly approaching. I’ve never been much for adrenaline rushes and unnecessary risk, but a 14+mph average speed seemed appropriate for the return journey. Although getting stranded wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world, a pre-paid campground with delicious s’mores ingredients waited on the other side.
Since I’d been peddling around Canada the previous week, my body was in better biking shape than usual. Since I’d removed myself from my normal routine and physical location, my mind was prepared for wherever my body took me.
Instead of being turned off by a challenge, I embraced it. Instead of letting my anxiety get the best of me, I focused on the single task at hand. Instead of being oblivious to the beauty around me, I shifted my gaze towards subtleties.
The scenery continues to be ever-changing on the Burlington Bike Path, as you move from land to water, land again, residential streets, forested paths, beachfront areas, and city streets. And once you’ve arrived, you get to do it all over again, with a path to follow and a goal in the distance.
Some bike paths are just gravel roads to get from Point A to Point B. Others leave a lasting impression that’s hard to shake long after the helmet’s tossed off and the padded shorts are in the laundry basket.
If you’re interested in donating to the Burlington Bike Ferry or volunteering, contact Local Motion at [email protected].