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A Champlain beauty - Vermont: Isle La Motte - Boston Globe Article
In the lake named for the explorer is an island marked by history – both human and uniquely geological

By Judith Gaines, Globe Correspondent | April 18, 2004

The northernmost of the Champlain Islands, Isle La Motte also is the most remote, least commercialized, and most peaceful of the lot. Once you've crossed the old causeway that links it to the mainland, you enter a serene little world apart in an unusually picturesque and interesting farm burg.

About seven miles long and two miles wide, Isle La Motte looks something like a lozenge floating in the lake roughly 20 miles south of the Canadian border. Its population -- 300 or so year round -- is predominantly French Canadian, and the town layout reflects this. There's no town common, for instance, nor any white-spired church. The town center is a crossroads near which a country store with some gas pumps, a town hall, a post office, a firehouse, and a library all loosely clustered. Several of these buildings are made from elegant, locally quarried limestone.

The old schoolhouse houses the historical society and a museum. A quirky pink lighthouse stands on the island's northwest corner.

''It's feminine and sweet, just like me," quips Erika Bayer, who keeps the automated beacon.

What this town exudes is its own distinctive rural charm. Its only traffic light sits in Howard and Polly Schwenker's backyard, an inoperable totem their son gave them as a joke. ''It's the only traffic light within 26 miles," Howard Schwenker said with a chuckle.

Locals seem particularly proud of their pets, which come up frequently in conversations. The library features a large, framed photo of Keisha, an unusually sociable collie ''known for being good about visiting people in town," says trustee Joyce Tuck. The library also helps support itself with sales of a calendar featuring photos of a different local pet each month: dogs, cats, rabbits, horses, even a pet elk.

''It can be kind of quiet and isolated here, especially in winter," Tuck said. ''So you really get to know your animals, and your neighbor's animals."

A few locals rent out cabins or cottages, and there's a lakeside campground, but otherwise the main tourist accommodations are Ruthcliffe Lodge, a charming and secluded B&B with motel-like rooms and a restaurant on the lake, or Terry Lodge of Isle la Motte, a simple farmhouse where a set meal is served family-style in the evenings at the dining room table. We stayed at the Ruthcliffe and happily could have passed several days just lounging by the lake and enjoying the cooking of chef and co-owner Mark Infante. His wife, Kathy, was friendly and helpful, with lots of suggestions for things to see and do.

The island is flat, offering lovely views of Vermont's Green Mountains in one direction and New York's Adirondacks in another. Bicyclists seeking a mild and scenic excursion love the terrain and the lack of traffic. The island environment seems to moderate the climate somewhat, making it warmer than other communities this far north. Swimming, boating, and other water sports are popular here from about May to October, as is walking down the country lanes that crisscross the island. The Ruthcliffe rents bikes, canoes, and kayaks for $15 a day.

There's also an underlying reason -- literally -- to visit this place. The bedrock of the southern third of the island is one of the few visible remnants of the Chazy Reef, about 480 million years old, that once stretched 1,000 miles along what later became the North American continent. Scientists believe that in those days, the only living creatures inhabited the seas, and the reef grew over a period of about 10 million years as their calcium carbonate remains slowly accumulated, layer upon layer. Then the reef tilted.

''Now you can walk from south to north on the island, from the oldest to the youngest sections of the reef, and it's like a museum of this very primitive life on Earth," said Linda Fitch, who heads the Isle La Motte Preservation Trust. She gave a little tour, pointing to fossils of cabbage-like stromatoporoids and twiggy bryozoa in the 20-acre Fisk Quarry Preserve, and to assorted swirling gastropods and other exotic fossils just a mile or two away in the younger Godsell Ridge, where she hopes to preserve 81 additional acres.

Isle La Motte ''provides the most complete database in the world for this chapter of the Earth's history," Fitch said. ''It's a time capsule of ancient reef-building."

Much more recently, several significant events happened on the island. At a sandy beach on its western shore, the explorer Samuel de Champlain may have landed, when he discovered the lake and the region in 1609. Fifty-seven years later, a French captain named Pierre de La Motte -- for whom the island is named -- built a fort on the spot, dedicating it to St. Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary. The stockade was Vermont's first white settlement, and the state's first Roman Catholic Mass was celebrated here.

Although the 45th parallel was long considered the boundary between the United States and Canada, officials initially had difficulty determining exactly where it went, according to Allen Stratton, who compiled a history of Isle La Motte. School Street, which now passes in front of the town's Country Store, was once considered part of the Canadian border.

Settlement of the area didn't begin in earnest until 1842, when boundary disputes finally were ironed out, Stratton says. French Canadians came to work in apple orchards and dairies that soon flourished here and in Fisk Quarry, which became famous for black marble so fine it graces the US Capitol and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and Radio City Music Hall in New York.

Today, the old stockade is gone, but tourists come to Champlain's sandy point, where a statue of him stands, as does a popular shrine to St. Anne with an open-air, Victorian-style chapel, a cafeteria, a small public beach, and a picnic area.

''There's something about his place. We come and feel at peace," said Sandra Kinney, an administrative assistant at the shrine.

Most of the dairies have disappeared, but Hall's Farm Stand on Main Street still sells apples and other produce. Lakes End Cheeses, a family-run farm just across the causeway in Alburg, makes cow's and goat's milk cheeses, as well as some terrific chocolates.

During our stay, an Apple Fest was underway on South Hero, another of the Champlain Islands, and we enjoyed sampling wines nearby at Snow Farm Vineyard, which offers free summer concerts there on Thursday evenings. We also ventured into Quebec, for a taste of French Canadian cuisine and culture.

Still, nothing was quite as nice as lazing by the lake in the Ruthcliffe's big Adirondack chairs, while the sun glinted off the wavelets and the water lapped gently at the shore. Kathy Infante described the ambience well: ''This is down home country, with a peaceful feeling and some gorgeous views. It's one of those places where you really can reconnect."

Judith Gaines is a freelance writer from Boston.

© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.

 

Ruthcliffe Lodge and Restaurant
1002 Quarry Road
Isle La Motte, Vermont 05463
(802) 928-3200
Toll Free: (800) 769-8162
Fax: (802) 928-3200

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