A Weathered Edge

Lake Ontario enters the Saint Lawrence River. The foreground and tree branches are iced over from the spray of waves over the sea wall.

At 6:30 this morning it was apparent that the wind gods had decided to take a break. This, of course, was the signal to the snow gods, who took up the cause with fervor. Just east of Rochester, NY, on the banks of Lake Ontario, in April, we were having a white out. From Pultneyville to Pulaski, it was one lane, 10 feet of visibility and 15 minute stops to clear the windshield. And then it stopped. 10:30 am and the skies over Lake Ontario went from impenetrable to absolute bluebird. It wasn’t like the storm front passed or anything, it was as if the clouds evaporated in a matter of minutes. They weren’t off in the east, they were gone. Which was the signal to the now refreshed wind gods…

Of course, I had experienced “lake effect” snow. Cold winds from the northwest cross the lake, picking up moisture and dropping it when they cross the land. The southern and southeastern shoreline of Lake Ontario is actually known as the snow belt. Lake Ontario is the smallest of the Great Lakes by surface area, but not volume. It is deeper by a stretch than Erie. In fact, its deepest point is about 200 feet off shore from Oswego. Just north of Oswego, when the snow has disappeared and the sky was clear blue, Lake Ontario looked almost purple. The water is clear, but, I assume because of the depth, it was the deepest, darkest blue water I’ve seen.

The Tibbetts Point Light at Cape Vincent

I followed the blue Ontario all the way to the northwest corner of New York at Cape Vincent. This is where the Great Lake empties into the Saint Lawrence river and from thence to the Atlantic Ocean. I would keep the Saint Lawrence immediately on my left all the way to Rooseveltown, NY, and I was thoroughly glad to do so. I’ve noticed around the edge, when a significant body of water is involved, the towns seem more organized. Most of the northern edge is a border that is man made, and the towns sort of wander out into the brush and don’t have much identity — save the rail junctions. Along the Great Lakes, and certainly here on the Saint Lawrence, there is work to be had, harbors to be built, fish to be processed, goods to be stevedored. And on the Saint Lawrence, such has been the case since well before we were even us. The principle method by which the French developed the (mid) west well before independence, it would become a key part of the first war we fought as independents — in 1812. From fur traders who found their way all the way to what is now Northern Minnesota, and south to what is now New Orleans via the Saint Lawrence, people have been living and trading and building along its banks for a long time. While the ability to navigate all of it was seasonal, the early French “Voyageurs” built special freighter canoes that made it almost possible year round. The ability for real trade would have to wait until Dwight D. “Mr. Interstate” Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth officially opened the Saint Lawrence Seaway in 1959. The Seaway used locks and dams to alleviate the Lachine Rapids and make real commercial shipping a possibility.

The Saint Lawrence has such an effect on the geography that when the New York border leaves it, everything turns to, well, average. The towns are boring. The landscape is uninteresting. There is no sense of history or culture. There is nothing really, until the Mohawk Reservation Casino. This is, I’m sure, a tad unfair, but when you drive though town after town and can’t find a single interesting thing — or even different thing — it becomes a grind. The houses are all either built or reconstructed in the vinyl siding era. The farms are non-descript. The landscape neither rolls nor fills the horizon. Frankly there are just enough beautiful rivers cleaving northern New York (to get to the Saint Lawrence) to keep you from going totally bonkers. They last about 60 seconds as you see them, cross them, and then move on. Looking at the map,with all the finger lakes to the south I had high hopes for the edge along northern New York. If you go, stay in the finger lakes region and avoid the edge along highways 37, 122 and 11 like the plague. There is nothing up here east of the Saint Lawrence River boundary.

In absolute proof that there is a God, I got to Lake Champlain and the Vermont border. The lake is beautiful, but it’s the view from high atop the bridge across, halfway when you enter Vermont, that renders all that northern New York drudgery moot. Lake Champlain in the foreground and snow topped Green Mountains lining the horizon. Mountains make every view better, but in this case, it is the mountains and the approach to the mountains and the getting out of northern New York that make it really special.

I stayed hard on the Canadian border through Berkshire and Richford and North Troy, Vermont. I saw my first maple syrup farm 25 miles west of Newport. I crossed through the Green Mountains amidst blue sky and thick snow and gleaming white birch trees. The roads are narrow and have no shoulder. You have to pay attention. But every glimpse you get is glorious. I realized once I got to Newport and settled in, that this is my final one — the last of the 50 states and Puerto Rico that I have not been in. So in addition to significantly improving my mood after northern New York, Vermont is a milestone for me. And tomorrow it will be my starting point for New Hampshire and northwestern Maine.

Western Maine is not well marked for roads. Most of the roads are private and, while you can use them, they are built and maintained for the timber business and its log trucks. They are opened and closed at will. They are abandoned and left open and unimproved. They are sparsely marked. I’m going to do my best — solo — to find a way north in some general vicinity of the edge before turning south along the Atlantic coast. Oh, and it’s in the mid teens at night up here. Wish me luck. I hope tomorrow to get as far north as Jackman, before finding a way across to Millinocket from whence I get all the way north to St. Francis. Stay tuned.

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