Inclement Weather Will Not Stop Adventurers
From the Rambles and Rivers of Vermont
"If you don't like the weather, don't complain. It will get worse."
The Vermonter's advice proves Doppler perfect. Yesterday, I whined when puffs of cloud shielded the sun. Now, I'm having breakfast in a mountain inn that's being pummeled by a seething storm.
A fierce wind wails, hammering windows and bowing tall trees. Noah-inspiring sheets of rain rip horizontally across the summit ridge. Nearby, lightning bursts like paparazzi strobes, each flash instantly followed by a sharp crack and thunderous explosion. This is a day for novels by the fireplace. Surely, we are not going to hike in such a duck-drowning deluge.
I came to New England for the "Valley of Vermont Rambles," an inn-to-inn hiking and canoe adventure through the fall colors of southwestern Vermont. The Web site promised six days of forested trails and rippling waterways. It said nothing about traipsing into the full anger of an autumn nor'easter.
"You've paid good money for this trip," says Elizabeth Cooper, our guide from BattenKill Canoe. "We're not going to let a little bone-soaking rain cheat you from the experience."
Reluctantly, I load my pack for the eight-mile walk. By the time we assemble, the sky-bolting electrics have stopped and the winds subsided. At least now I know we will not light up and blow clean to Kansas.
Our group of eight, all slickered in Gore-Tex and nylon, follows Cooper down a tree-sheltered trail that was once a carriage road. A quiet mist softens the air. Rain drops patter on parka hoods. Pant legs rustle. Boots slide and slurp through the mud.
The early harbingers of color have just started surrendering their chlorophyll to expose the flaming pigments beneath. Yellow birch, earning their name, shimmer like caution lights in the rain. Their fallen foliage gilds extended sections of the pathway. Hobblebush plants add eye-catching maroon. Isolated maples toss in slices of orange.
Cooper has us sniffing and touching. Sprigs from the predominant tree, balsam fir, smell like Christmas. The birch emit an odor of root beer. She shows us that fir needles are tender, while those from similar looking spruce are sharp and stickery. We finger striped maple whose spreading leaves are Charmin soft.
"That's our toilet paper tree," Cooper says.
At a dirt road, a second guide meets us in a van. He has set up tables and hung tarps for lunch. Three miles after eating, we arrive at our night's inn. Drenched and disheveled, we resemble a crate-load of cats escaping the Titanic.
"Yes," we admit to a group of visiting artists, "this is what we do for fun."
In Vermont, inns seem as common as bugs on a Midwest windshield. Each night of our trip, we stay in one of these family run establishments. Most are historically old. They vary in size from a few guest rooms to enterprises resembling small European hotels. Their flaming fireplaces provide warm retreats for drying out.
"What will you be doing tomorrow?" the innkeeper asks as she feeds another log to the blaze.
"Canoeing the Batten Kill," Cooper tells her.
The proprietor casts a motherly glance at the dripping heavens.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," she says.
We put in beside the "Norman Rockwell" covered bridge. The span crosses near the home where the painter lived for many of his Saturday Evening Post years. Two of our group brought their own kayaks. The rest of us divide into canoeing pairs.
The Batten Kill forms the "Valley of Vermont," splitting the Green Mountains in the east from the Taconic Range to the west. Late in the season, the river is low enough for one to wade across without getting their drawers wet.
We glide along in a light drizzle, listening to a rustling breeze, the whoosh of water and the plunk of dipping paddles. The flow takes us past white homes, red barns and farm fields green as a Heineken bottle. A knotted rope overhangs a swimming hole. Beyond, a fisherman stands in waders, fly-casting downstream. Dazed by the bucolic serenity, we travel miles before noticing the rain has stopped.
Mid-afternoon, we hit a tricky place where the river channels through rocks. A canoe-snagging log overhangs the main flow. The secret is to make a quick turn and muscle through before reaching the tree. My partner and I barely make it. The couple behind does not.
They barrel along and miss the turn. Their canoe becomes trapped in a current that pushes them straight toward the limb. In cranium-saving desperation, the couple leans, ducking to the starboard. The action immediately unbalances the canoe. It scoots sideways, tips and flings its human cargo into the Batten Kill.
"The water is not as cold as you might think," says one of the soddened survivors. His chattering teeth suggest it's a frigid lie.
The two step ashore and strip off as many of their wet clothes as weather and modesty will allow. After they don their dry, emergency clothing, we all continue onward. Everyone shows even more care to avoid impeding bars, rocks and snags.
The autumn transformation along the stream has been spotty, with only early trendsetters bedecked in fall fashion. Higher in the hills, iridescent Paisleys are in full vogue. We spend the next day in the Teconics, ambling through the 2,800-acre Merck Forest and Farmland Center.
"It was founded by George Merck, former president of the pharmaceutical company," says Cooper. "He bought this land in the late '30s and '40s for experimental planting. It's now run as a community conservation and education center."
Trails crisscross the reserve, accessing overlooks and camping shelters. I explore a weathered barn where orange pumpkins fill a grayed wooden wagon. Rust-red splotches blister the hills beyond. Some of the leaves have only been tipped with the paints of autumn; others are fully saturated.
From the high ground, mountainous lumps extend to the horizon. Songbirds chirp hellos, and geese honk greetings as they fly south. Even the sun sheds its shyness, finally issuing a few smiling rays.
By the next morning, Ol' Sol has become a grinning extrovert. He beams from calendar-perfect skies as we paddle Tinmouth Channel.
"Workers once dredged the waterway and floated tin ore through on wooden barges," Cooper tells us.
We head up a willow-lined slough that resembles a swamp without alligators. Reeds, grasses, vines and lily pads float and poke from the seemingly motionless water. Maples border the high ground, their leaves shimmering brighter than our lifejackets. Only the dip of paddles breaks a sublime stillness. We stroke slowly upstream, turning back when a beaver dam impedes further progress.
That afternoon, we venture into the Green Mountains to hike an easy, two-mile section of the Long Trail, a pathway that ultimately stretches the length of Vermont. Our route follows a brook that boulder-hops down in a cascade of tiny cataracts and miniature pools. Fallen leaves bobble like tiny rafts on the water. Others cover the path in scarlet confetti. At color-spangled Little Rock Pond, we chat and rest before turning back. Our day of sunshine is coming to a close.
The next morning, I awaken to sopping gray skies. A band of sunlight teases with promise, but wet clouds soon tarnish any glimmer of hope. By mid-breakfast, the sponges open and the torrents come wringing down. Over coffee, we debate what to do. Even Cooper now agrees we have gotten our money's worth of rain.
Finally it's decided that when the weather gets tough, the tough should go shopping. She drives us to the Vermont Country Store in Weston.
If Garrison Keillor were a retailer, this could be his shop. The sprawling building overflows with homey, rural-Americana products. They range from pine-soap bars to brass-bristle brushes; Crosley radios to Aladdin kerosene lamps.
I am intrigued with their Genuine Vermont Weather Sticks. These wooden branches point upward to indicate good conditions; down for bad. Today, they look like Roger Ebert thumbs panning a Demi Moore flick.
When a tour bus disgorges a bedlam of new shoppers, I escape to the store's front porch. Beyond the eaves, rain continues pouring down. I may not like this weather, but at least now I know better than to complain.