Riding the rails
Biking across Lake Champlain on an old rail causeway
Abandoned rail lines have been converted into recreation paths all over the United States. But the Island Line Trail in Vermont is unusual: It includes a causeway that runs across the open waters of Lake Champlain, from the Vermont mainland to the island community of South Hero. And that causeway includes a gap to allow boats through.
So how do bikers and others get across the 61-metre gap, known as the cut? An in-season ferry takes them from one side to the other.
It’s been more than a half-century since trains used the narrow causeway built on marble and granite blocks around the turn of the 20th century. A rotating bridge once connected the causeway’s two sections, with the bridge opening up for the boats that now sail through the gap, but the bridge is long gone. The trip by ferry takes just a few minutes.
The unique trail across the lake is open for walking, running and fishing, but it’s mostly used by bicyclists, giving them a chance to practically pedal across the water amid the sailboats and motorboats. From one side of the cut, it’s more than five kilometres south to the mainland town of Colchester. From the other side it’s just a few hundred yards to South Hero.
New York’s Adirondack Mountains are to the west while Vermont’s Green Mountains stand to the east. On sunny summer days pleasure boats will dot the water on both sides of the causeway.
“It’s absolutely gorgeous,’’ said Julie Lussier, who rode the causeway while visiting the Burlington area for a recent weekend getaway from Montreal. “It’s bucolic and I think that the landscape is absolutely amazing. I will recommend the trail, for sure, to my colleagues here and in Montreal.’’
The trail can be narrow in places and the sides steep down to the water, requiring passing bicyclists to show courtesy to one another. Anglers carry their tackle onto the rocks to cast their lines into what would otherwise be the middle of the lake.
The causeway is part of the almost22-km Island Line Trail, which starts at Burlington’s Oak Ledge Park and runs north along the Lake Champlain waterfront at the edge of Burlington’s vibrant downtown. A portion of the bike path in Burlington is under renovation this summer, detouring riders onto the city’s North Avenue for about three kilometres.
The entire trail is owned by the city of Burlington, the town of Colchester and, north of the cut, the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife. The non-profit group Local Motion manages the trail and owns and manages the bike ferry, co-ordinating to make sure people who use the trail “don’t even notice it has three different ownerships,’’ said Local Motion interim executive director Jason Van Driest.
Bicyclists ride on the Island Line Trail bike path on an abandoned railroad causeway from the Vermont mainland to the Lake Champlain islands. The seasonal ferry on the five-kilometre section of the Island Line Trail bike path carries cyclists across the opening in the causeway so they can reach the islands.