The central Champlain Valley, in summer one of Vermont’s most beautiful regions, can be formidable in midwinter.
The plains of Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton and Bridport lie right next to Lake Champlain and sometimes in February, the wind off the lake seems to be ripping into you, direct from the Arctic. Nothing stands in its way until it hits Snake Mountain, six or so miles inland.
Even this year, with snow cover scanty, Addison County feels as remote and barren as Labrador. You wonder how summers here can be so lush, how life survives here at all when summer’s gone half a world away.
Yet I’ve learned over the years that the Champlain Valley abounds in life, even in winter. We usually think of winter as a time when life goes to sleep, or is locked away with Persephone, deep in some metaphorical dungeon. Addison County proves us wrong, winter after winter. Life is strong; it wants to endure.
Some of my fondest birding memories have come from Addison County, on days so cold my gloved hands ached holding the binoculars. Most recently, a group of us went in search of bald eagles and whatever else we might find along the shores of Lake Champlain. Especially in years when the lake doesn’t freeze over, bald eagles show up in numbers there in late winter, fishing the open water. If you know where to look, they’re about as hard to spot as a hay bale in a tree. They’re a big, dramatic bird.
We saw several of them, mature birds and immatures, near the mouth of the Little Otter Creek. Some soared, some hopped ignominiously along the edge of the ice. Some sat regally in trees alongside the open lake.
Then we went off in search of snow buntings and Lapland Longspurs, Arctic birds that come down to winter in Vermont’s open farmland. We didn’t see the local snowy owl and we missed the snow buntings and longspurs that we know are there, but we did spot some horned larks and we saw several rough-legged hawks — another Arctic bird that winters regularly in this part of the world.
Near the Champlain Bridge, we watched huge flocks of ducks — common goldeneyes, greater and lesser scaup, and various mergansers– as they flirted with one another and fed, out on the heaving, windswept lake. Up in the trees above us were our 13th and 14th bald eagles of the day. A Northern pintail navigated carefully amidst a flock of mallards and common mergansers.
Scientists tell us that our world is in trouble — that human activity is changing our climate and that animal species are becoming extinct at an increasingly rapid rate, world-wide. Yet I found hope this winter, on the frozen plains of Addison County. Life wants to continue, to grow and to multiply. It fights back against incredible odds. Even in winter, it enriches and makes magical the chilly lake and the ice-encrusted fields along its shores.
This is our hope: life is irrepressible. All we have to do is learn to get out of its way.
–Tom Slayton lives in Montpelier and is the editor of Vermont Life Magazine.