Ted Riehle and Ayn Baldwin live in splendid isolation on Savage Island
"No man is an island, entire of itself," the poet John Donne once wrote — but he might have been convinced otherwise after a sunset skinny-dip in Lake Champlain with "Big Ted" Riehle. The larger-than-life owner of Savage Island has everything he could possibly want on 207 water-locked acres off the east coast of Grand Isle. Along with jet-setting Bill Hazelett, stockbroker Mary Haas Burak and his ex-wife Hope, Riehle is part of a small group of Vermont island owners who need a boat to bring home the bacon.
"No shoes, no smoking, no baseball caps past the mud room, and no Bill Clinton buttons," Riehle says with an easy laugh, noting the "rules" of the island on the well-worn path that leads from the dock to the house. His fourth wife, Ayn Baldwin, seems mildly chagrined that her husband is showing his political colors before cocktails. She feigns protest again when the unruly Republican blurts out with childlike exuberance, "Oh, and by the way, we don't wear bathing suits. I hope that doesn't make you uncomfortable. The policy used to be 'no bathing suits allowed' on the island," he says. "But I've mellowed."
Mellow is not an adjective often associated with 72-year-old Riehle, whose political history in Vermont is even longer than his list of ex-wives. Nor does it accurately describe his singular lifestyle on the only solar-powered sheep farm in the middle of Lake Champlain. Idyllic as it looks from the flower-filled porch, living on an island requires planning, ingenuity and a dual appreciation for surprise summer visitors and winter isolation.
Unlike their fair-weather neighbors, Riehle and Baldwin stay on Savage year-round, trading their launch for a snowmobile when the lake freezes over. "People love us in the summer, but in the winter no one pays any attention," says Riehle, who tries to maintain his twice-daily swimming schedule through December. No one, that is, but the South Hero Rescue Squad, which maintains a radio frequency the Riehles can patch into in case of emergency. "We consider it paradise," Baldwin says of her island home of four years, "but not everybody would."
By New England standards, Savage is a fantasy island, blessed with sandy beaches, perfect pastures and surrounding woodland. Approached from the north, it looks wild except for the swath of green where the trees break at the northern end of a grassy airstrip. Riehle cleared the land himself, and for a short time operated the island as a fly-in resort. He has since given up aviation, but the Hazeletts still pop over by float plane from nearby Stave Island.
Riehle also built the original rustic cabin at the southern end of the island, where caretakers Mike Eddy and his wife, Julie, have lived for the last two years. When the couple is not tending sheep or sanding docks in exchange for a small monthly stipend, they make marionettes. Although they're good friends and get together for dinner at least once a week in the winter, both couples concede they prefer being on the island alone.
Riehle and Baldwin keep their distance in a stunning, many-windowed house designed by architect Marcel Beaudin. The three-sided porch and cupola lend the place a grand Nantucketeque air. Inside, there is lots of light, hardwood floors and a stunning spiral staircase. Birds serenade the sunny house all day. If not for the distant whine of motorboat engines, you could easily forget it was the 20th century.
But at least in part, the Riehles owe their spendid isolation to technology. A former engineer with a degree in nautical science, Riehle has rigged up an inventive series of systems that allow the couple to live "off the grid." They get their electricity from a small bank of photovoltaic cells angled south in a field of sheep and wildflowers. When the sun is shining, it pumps 1000 watts of energy into a bank of nickel cadmium batteries in the basement.
When it's not, they conserve. "Have you ever had anyone say to you, 'Please stop vacuuming?'" Baldwin asks. The former director of the Shelburne Craft School flashes a mischievous smile that suggests she may be good-natured enough to stick it out with this guy — her third husband — who refers to his exes as "predecessors" and their respective tenures in nautical terms, as in "Oh, that was Hope's Watch."
A liberal Democrat and a painter, Baldwin is up to speed on the Savage systems, able to explain them more succinctly than her husband. "Ted is like a crazy inventor. He loves thinking of how to make things work," she says. "He is always thinking, how can we do the next thing? Can we really have a microwave?"
The answer is "yes," the duo discovered, but you have to turn on a light switch first. Savage has its operational quirks, but things run a lot smoother since Riehle accepted the fact that it was cheaper and more efficient to heat the house with oil instead of wood. "One of these days, before I go to the great sheep farm in the sky," he says, "I should sit down and explain the whole thing to somebody."
Washing machine, dryer, television, computer, phone, fax — the Riehles enjoy all the "decadent conveniences," as Riehle calls them, including a four-wheel All Terrain Vehicle that ferries groceries and other supplies up from the dock. It also transports the Riehles, in matching terrycloth bathrobes, to their twice-daily swim.
Hot showers, on the other hand, have proved more problematic. The couple relies on a heat-transfer system that runs potable antifreeze through a solar collector on the roof. It collects in a tank in the basement, where hot coils interface with the water supply transported by solar pump from the lake to the house. But the excess heat, stored in paraffin, occasionally melts the pipes.
"I've got a bit of an ego," Riehle says, signaling he is about to say something self-deprecating. "The last thing I want to do when someone comes out to admire my house is to have to turn on the fricking generator."
Getting supplies to Savage is a multi-modal undertaking. You don't want to forget anything when it means having to backtrack through rough waters or over rotten ice. The Riehles use their thick-hulled West Coast fishing boat to go back and forth in summer —it's designed to haul sheep — and a barge for bigger loads. "At the grocery store, somebody says, 'Can I help you to your car?' Well, I think I can handle that part," Baldwin says with a laugh. "How about, 'Can you load them from the car into the cart, and then from the cart into the boat, and then can you load them from the boat into the wagon and from the wagon into the house?'"
Crossing in winter is more difficult, and dicey until the lake freezes solid. The Riehles have gone up to seven weeks without a trip ashore. Christmas is the worst, Riehle says, because "you just don't know whether or not you are going to be here or there, or if you are going to see anybody or not." Things have improved somewhat since the Eddys moved in. Now someone is always on the island, to feed the sheep, keep the pipes from freezing and to guide late-night boaters by illuminating the cupola, or in the case of very heavy fog, by acting as a human navigational beacon at the north of the island with the help of a powerful flashlight.
Even when the lake is calm, there is a certain amount of drama involved in winter boating. Freezing spray forms huge bulbs of ice that can weigh down the bow of the boat and potentially sink it. On one occasion, the lake was open when Baldwin left the house, and the bay had frozen over by the time the Eddys returned to pick her up. "It was so foggy and you could hardly see anything, except these figures coming through the ice," she says. Beautiful as it was, the crossing seriously damaged the boat's propeller.
Once the ice gets thick enough — Riehle prefers eight inches — snowmobiles, cars, any sort of engine can haul hay wagons across the ice. In perfect conditions, the couple can drive their Blazer from the local Hannaford's directly to their door. "Of course, the one time we did it, we couldn't get the car back to the mainland," Baldwin recalls.
Last year a huge crack that started in St. Albans Bay made their crossings especially treacherous. "I remember we had a wagon full of groceries with my son on the back and everybody, and we came to open water — a crack maybe four feet wide," Baldwin says. They had to turn back. "I used to think people who went out on the ice were crazy."
Riehle's strangest encounter by far was one winter when he was all alone except for his dog — Tess, the border collie, had spousal status in the white pages that year, and Riehle still likes to show visitors the "Ted and Tess" listing in the five-year-old phone book. He was in the kitchen with the dog when he spotted "some drunk" staggering up to the house from the shore. Riehle was concerned enough to pocket a loaded revolver, but by the time he got to the back door, the frozen fellow promptly collapsed. "I didn't know what the story was until I touched him," Riehle says. "He was all ice."
The South Hero Rescue evacuated the man by plane — his truck had fallen through the ice — but not before they declared he had the lowest body temperature they had ever recorded. The guy never thanked Riehle, the theory goes, because Riehle refused to give him a cigarette when he came to. Ever since he has required anyone going ashore in winter to carry a wooden device that pulls apart to form two hand-held ice picks — hand crampons, really. "If that guy who damn near froze had had this," he insists, "he wouldn't have had a problem."
Riehle is out there — physically and politically. Although he jokingly describes himself as "an insensitive Republican bastard," he comes across as a charming eccentric — a Rush Limbaugh listener who went to both Grateful Dead shows in Vermont and loved them. His eldest son, Ted, sums up his individualistic father as "Jimmy Stewart meets John Wayne."
He has always been very dogmatic, very set in his ways," the younger Riehle says of his conservative dad, who served two terms in the Vermont House. But the piece of legislation for which Big Ted Riehle will be remembered — and for which he is still feted — was considered socialist by his party fellows. Riehle championed and pushed through the billboard law that prohibits highway ads in Vermont.
Ironically, it was an outsized sign that brought Riehle to Savage Island, a story he relates with obvious glee. He was vice-president of a New York-based company that manufactured metal rules when he spotted a billboard advertising shoreline properties on Lake Champlain. It turned out that Savage, which had been a successful subsistence farm, had come up for sale the day before. Riehle bought the land in 1952 for $5500. Forty five years later, his annual tax bill totals $20,000.
I don't know which I bought first — the island or the float plane," Riehle says of the years he spent flying in from Newburgh to spend weekends on Savage. When the rule company sold — and Riehle had accumulated enough stock to make a tidy profit on the deal — he moved his family to Vermont.
At that time, he had thoughts of making some money on the island by turning it into a fly-in resort for isolationist aviators. He built the runway, put up an A-frame cottage at the north end of the island and placed an ad in the Wall Street Journal in hopes of attracting a few fancy flyers. Apologizing in advance for the sexist language, he recalls the wording of the advertisement exactly: "If you own your own flying machine, and own someone with whom you would like to disappear, try. . . "
The island inn idea did not last nearly as long as some of the relationships that came out of it. One couple, who met on Savage more than three decades ago, is finally tying the knot on the island this month.
When the Vietnam War broke out, Riehle was commander of the naval reserve — a job previously held by former Sen. Robert Stafford, R-Vt. A two-time veteran, he was seriously considering signing up for duty when an unexpected visit from Duncan Brown and Fred Hackett changed his mind.
The two men were recruiting Republicans for the legislature, which had been recently reapportioned, and had Riehle in mind for his Democratic district in South Burlington. "I agonized over that, really, and decided to run for the Vermont House," Riehle says. On his first try, he defeated Democratic incumbent Ralph Goodrich, who was so popular he did not bother to wage a serious campaign. Riehle knocked on every single door — not once, but two or three times.
He applies the same thoroughness to all his endeavors, from engineering problems to evening swims. "I am no good at doing a bunch of things at the same time, but I can sink my teeth into something and go for it," Riehle says. "That's exactly what happened with the billboard law."
Riehle was a wild card in the legislature — a Republican version of Howard Dean. "The real conservatives hated me," he recalls, but in this iconoclastic Republican, Democrats saw a zany version of Jim Jeffords. This political hybrid had historical precedence. Riehle's grandfather was a Democrat who distanced himself by "running Tammany Hall," political home of New York's infamous Boss Tweed. His son — Riehle's father — sought to right the wrongs of his father by becoming a Republican.
Riehle eased slowly into island life while he was in the legislature. And he was still based in South Burlington when Al Moulton convinced him to run for secretary of state. "In a way he threatened me," Riehle recalls, "saying if I didn't make secretary of state, he thought the billboard law was doomed." Riehle probably would have won the general election, but the Republicans ran a more conservative candidate against him in the primary.
Luckily, his losing campaign caught the eye of Gov. Deane Davis, who appointed him state planning director "at twice the salary I would have made as secretary of state," Riehle says with a chuckle. He returned the favor by raising a record sum to keep Davis in office, twice what any gubernatorial candidate had ever spent on a re-election campaign. His reputation for fund-raising lived on in Republican circles. Both Stafford and Snelling took history-making trips to Savage in hopes of bringing Riehle back into the fold. Both flew home disappointed.
When he worked for Davis, Riehle was living three-quarters of the time on Savage. He flew his kids to school in Burlington and drove south to Montpelier from there. The governor "used to kid me when he talked about dedicated employees," Riehle remembers. "He'd say, 'Now Ted, he gets up at five in the morning, take a dip and hops in a plane to get to Montpelier by eight.'"
The logistics were equally challenging when Riehle left the state to run a successful congressional campaign for Richard Mallary. He was mid-way through a promising political career, running Mallary's Vermont offices, when he was diagnosed with throat cancer.
"I may have been a dirty old man before," Riehle jokes, "but now I sounded like one, too." Unable to talk on the phone, Riehle resigned his post to live full-time at Savage, where he and his then-wife Mary planned to quietly sail and tend sheep. "She liked it at first. In fact, the sheep operation was her idea," he says of his third wife. But Mary never found a compelling enough reason to live in seclusion, Riehle says, and the relationship eventually "fell apart."
Three years later, he met Ayn, who is 23 years his junior — a sailor and painter with the same remarkable ability to switch from perfect host to hermit at the drop of a hat. Her artistic interests complemented his scientific ones, although Baldwin insists her husband has a "good eye."
Judging from the number of incoming phone calls on a sunny Saturday morning, isolation is not the couple's only option. Although he goes to the mainland as "rarely as possible," Riehle keeps up on things. A self-described "news junkie" who checks the radio hourly to see if he has missed anything, he also has a direct link to the legislature. Sen. Helen Riehle won her first legislative campaign, in part because her father-in-law was running it. "She is numero uno in my book," Riehle says of the wife of his son, Ted. And she skinny-dips.
From terra firma, young Riehle, a stockbroker, has a different view of his dad. "Whenever we go out there, we say to ourselves, 'Why don't we do this more often?'" he says from Shelburne. "You are totally surrounded by water and peace. You don't have Brownies selling you cookies door-to-door. There is a defined area that is yours with a two-mile buffer before you get to someone else's."
On an island like Savage, he says, you can create your own world. Big Ted Riehle has done so swimmingly, by suiting — and unsuiting — himself.