A cyclist writer explores the Clinton County side of Lake Champlain
Kevin J. Kelley
Samuel de Champlain with crouching indian
The west side of the Champlain Valley — or the “Adirondack Coast,” as the tourist posters call it — has a landscape much like the east side: hay fields and pastures, wood lots with half-hidden houses, creeks cutting down from the mountains to the lake. Culturally and economically, however, the Clinton County corner of New York state is no mirror image of what it faces in Vermont, as a bike ride from Port Kent to Rouses Point reveals.?
Norman Rockwell’s America lives along this flat 50-mile stretch of mostly smooth asphalt. Flags flap in many front yards; a boy sells lemonade and cookies from a roadside table made of milk crates and planking; little kids and their parents fly kites in newly mown fields. There are also hot-dog joints ($4.25 for a Michigan and fries at Gus’ Red Hots on Cumberland Head Road in Plattsburgh); evangelical churches (“When the trumpet sounds, I’m outta here!” reads one of their billboards); and gun shops (the Old Lantern specializes in firearms for historical reenactments).?
Clinton County appears to be staging its own reenactment of the 1950s, complete with the decade’s seamy, sexy side. Diamond Dolls Gentlemen’s Club leers at the Bible Baptist Church almost directly opposite it on Route 9.?
Politically, Clinton County is as dependably Democratic as any place in Vermont. Barack Obama trounced John McCain here, 60 percent to 38 percent. But the Tea Party has a presence, too, as evidenced by yard signs for Doug Hoffman, the “true conservative” who’s seeking the Republican nomination in New York’s 23rd congressional district. Carl Paladino, a wealthy developer and GOP gubernatorial candidate, may be the Mad Hatter of the Clinton County Tea Party. His yard signs proclaim, “I’m mad as hell too, Carl!”
The landscape shows hints of hard times — perhaps more noticeable to a biker than a driver. Saplings have sprouted in fields where cows probably grazed not long ago. Tumbledown barns and rusty tractors age gracelessly alongside homes that look occupied until an observer sees the weeds growing on their front steps. Nearly 15 percent of Clinton County’s 81,000 residents live in poverty, and more than 9 percent can’t find jobs. The corresponding figures for Vermont are 10 percent and 6 percent.?
But success also can be seen. When the Pentagon closed the Plattsburgh Air Force Base in 1995, it seemed to be consigning the base’s 3500 acres to hopeless abandonment — a site unlikely to attract anything other than the occasional mega-concert, like Phish’s Clifford Ball in 1996.
Today, riding the looping roads of a complex that closely resembles Fort Ethan Allen in Colchester, a biker glimpses redevelopment projects at every turn. One example: A green is replacing a parking lot on the grounds of the Champlain Valley Transportation Museum, where visitors can get guided tours of a well-tended, though poorly lit, collection of antique cars and bicycles. Of 165 parcels of land on the former base that went up for sale 15 years ago, only nine remain on the market.?
It’s a cool and cloudy day with a strong southerly wind: ideal conditions for a biker pedaling north from the Lake Champlain ferry dock along the wide shoulder of Route 9. The road has little car traffic, and almost none after I turn onto Lake Shore Road in Chazy, about five miles north of Plattsburgh. I’ve found biker’s delight: herons, horses and heifers pose photogenically against a backdrop of whitecaps. For 10 miles or so, it’s like riding on a two-lane bike path that’s lined with ash trees — a few of which, oddly, have triangular purple boxes swaying from their branches.?
“What are those for?” I ask the lemonade boy. He tells me they’re traps for beetles. Wikipedia later provides a more detailed description of the emerald ash borer that’s said to be eating its way through 14 states and parts of Canada, killing more than 50 million trees en route.?
History is a constant companion as I sweat my way past at least 30 roadside markers commemorating local events and personages. One is intriguingly succinct: “Captain Chazy,” one reads, “killed by Mohawks in 1666.”
Clinton County can’t be accused of leaving its backstory untold. In Chazy, the Alice T. Miner Museum documents local colonial history. The region’s important role in the War of 1812 receives its due at a museum and intepretive center on the former air base, which is also the home of the Clinton County Historical Association. And the Kent-Delord House Museum in Plattsburgh preserves artifacts of a family prominent in two wars and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.?
Vermonters interested in the visual arts ought to check out the Rockwell Kent Gallery Collection on the Plattsburgh campus of the State University of New York. Many of the writings and paintings of this modern realist and socialist agitator were composed on an Adirondack farmstead in nearby Au Sable Forks. Quirkier works by various artists, including a 10-foot-tall steel-and-wire-mesh Indian, can be seen at the Stoneledge Sculpture Park about 10 miles north of Port Kent.?
Five hours — and several stops — after disembarking from the ferry, I reward myself with a mug of French roast and a cinnamon donut (the $1.75 house special) at Lakeside Coffee in Rouses Point. Here, a stack of Seven Days and a couple of Stephen Huneck’s droll dog prints make a Vermonter feel at home.
Revived, I pedal a final New York minute to the Canadian border post, where a guard waves me through with a nod and a smile. I’m heading for St.-Jean -sur-Richelieu on Québec’s fabulous Route Verte bike network. For those who prefer to stay in the U.S., ?a ride through Clinton County can also end with a roll across the Rouses Point Bridge to Grand Isle and then south toward Burlington.?
Biking Clinton County proves a fine way of experiencing the sights, sounds and scents of the Burlington area’s underappreciated northwestern neighbor: so close yet seemingly so distant.