A winter ride-along with a Lake Champlain ferry captain
Captain Silverman photograph by Carrie Marie Burr
On an evening of gray skies, gray sleet and horrendous gray chop, I stand abreast the shoreline, my hood cinched, shivering. Lake Champlain conjures in many hearts a sweet, gentle environment, all neon swim trunks and cocktails sipped at sunset, but my heart is different. Though I love this big sloshing basin in every season, I love it most in raw, rowdy winter. Because it terrifies me then. Because it enlivens me. Because it reminds me of an eternal, yet easily forgotten, truth—that we puny humans are just that, puny, and nature is quite the opposite.
And so, standing there, borderline hypothermic, transfixed by the vast violence of the scene, wanting badly to somehow touch its primal energy, I consider my options. Kayak: certain death. Canoe: ditto. Then it strikes me, spume in the face and a flash of inspiration. The ferry. Given the poor visibility, I can’t actually glimpse the vessel motoring from Charlotte, Vermont, to Essex, New York, but I know it’s nearby, achieving the unthinkable, a kind of intimacy with this intimacy-averse place and time of year.
To my delight, a mere 24 hours and one email to the Lake Champlain Transportation Company later, I have procured a ticket to ride.
The ride—a “morning watch” alongside Captain Andrew Silverman—is scheduled for a winter day that, by chance, dawns downright gorgeously: clear, low 40s, scant snow on the ground. Where are the foul conditions infamous for launching giant waves over the rails and denting the hoods of Mazda Miatas? Arriving at the Charlotte dock by nine a.m., I observe nothing remotely foul. Ripples lapping a pebbly beach. Some 200 Canada geese drifting on a shining cove. And a young guy—combed black hair, trim black beard, black sunglasses, black V-neck sweater with epaulets stitched to the shoulders—inviting me aboard.
Originally from Saratoga Springs, Captain Andrew worked summers as a deckhand while studying at the University of Vermont, then officially took the helm in 2010, two months shy of a decade ago. I introduce myself by whining about the “nice” weather. “Yeah, I won’t deny that I get a thrill out of a rough day,” he says, smiling. “But it can be stressful, too. There’s stuff that makes you worry.”
Though commercial ferries have plied Lake Champlain’s waters since the late 1700s, it wasn’t until 1977 that regular winter travel was attempted—Grand Isle, Vermont, to Cumberland Head, New York, ice be damned. Or perhaps that should read, damn this ice. Writes historian Ralph Nading Hill in his 1990 history of the Lake Champlain ferry: “One difficulty arose when the vessel froze into its slip on particularly cold and windless nights. The crews hoped for heavy trucks on their first trip. The weight of a heavy vehicle, settling the boat, broke the grasp of the ice just enough to let the boat’s power finish the job.”
That pioneering ferry, the M/V Grand Isle—a “diesel screw” type, 850 horses snorting in the engine room—is presently assigned to Charlotte–Essex, where during the winter months it undertakes 11 daily crossings. (Three ferries run at busy Grand Isle–Cumberland Head, offering round-the-clock service.) For Captain Andrew, this schedule means 12-hour shifts and fat mugs of coffee: repeat, repeat, repeat. It likewise means sideways whiteouts and thick steam fog. And ice. And vigilance. And more ice.
“The main issue is cutting a channel and keeping it open,” he says, leading me up two flights of steep stairs to the pilot house, a snug nest of radar screens, compasses, throttle knobs, steering wheels (the M/V Grand Isle is equipped with stainless steel propellers both fore and aft, hence the dual controls), and encircling windows. “Everything depends on the freeze scenario. With a calm cold snap, the lake freezes clean, and we can break that virgin ice no problem. But if wind comes out of the northeast, the Plattsburgh area, it can push junk down here—thickly stacked ice that has been broken and folded and refrozen. You can literally see the channel closing behind you, disappearing.”
“In 2018 we only lost a week. In 2015 we had to completely quit, February to April.”
Despite the trouble it causes, the lake’s hard lid occasionally grants Captain Andrew his mellowest reveries. “This is tranquil,” he says as we ease away from land, aiming for the Adirondack horizon, a faint mechanical hum droning in our ears. “Oh, but when you’ve got ice everywhere, and you’re slipping through the open channel, then it’s so serene.” This makes sense: by molecular definition, ice is extremely still water. Thus no waves rocking the boat, no chaos of slashing spray. I recall surreal sessions gliding infinite panes of Lake Champlain’s perfect glass, hockey skates laced tight, and for a second imagine Captain Andrew enjoying a similar sensation, the M/V Grand Isle beneath him in lieu of blades.
At 9:35, having deposited nine vehicles at Essex (a Prius, lots of Subarus, two pickups with Maine plates) and replaced them with a fresh batch, we push off, retracing the same invisible line back to Charlotte. Discussing the peaceful lake on this peaceful morning is fine, plenty cozy, but my fundamental interest lies, of course, in severity. For the duration of the return trip, Captain Andrew, at my request, shares memories of blizzards, tempests, bomb cyclones, you name it.
“Battle scars,” he says, nodding to a metal first-aid box mounted next to the pilot-house door—a box dented as though struck with a home-run swing from a baseball bat. My eyes swerve from there to a stool that could be bolted to the floor via flanges but isn’t bolted to the floor via flanges. “Got flipped during that recent Thanksgiving storm, thrown against the wall,” he says. I reference the lack of bolts. Mutual chuckling. “A bunch of captains switch in and out of here. We’d never be able to agree on where to set the thing.”
Ten minutes pass and our conversation segues from broadside swells to swamping. “Sometimes the bow of the ferry will scoop three or four feet of water, just shovel it and send it streaming along the deck,” Captain Andrew says. “A couple years ago we had life rings floating off their hooks, and we had greenwater—full-on buckets of green lake—hitting the pilot house.”
I peer through the window, down to a dabbling duck far below, trying to remember the steps we climbed to reach this perch: 18, 24, 30 steps? Like if the backyard swimming pool jumped up and tagged the top of your house’s chimney, I think. Greenwater! Buckets! Badass!
Split Rock Lighthouse to starboard, Four Brothers Islands to port—I lose myself for a spell in the sweeping views and, simultaneously, in the vicarious pleasure of Captain Andrew’s gnarly anecdotes. Then, too soon, it’s done, the M/V Grand Isle nudging into the Charlotte dock, vehicles idling patiently in a row. I blurt out a final question: How many trips have you made over your career, all told?
“Oddly, I’m not sure,” Captain Andrew says, turning to a desk and pulling out a calculator. He punches buttons, generates a figure. “Maybe 25,000? Give or take.”
I thank him, depart, and from the parking lot stare west to New York’s brown fields, purplish hills of bare deciduous forests, and distant High Peaks. The M/V Grand Isle recedes, shrinks, goes specklike: a dark dot amid bright beauty. Part of me wants to be upset that the treacherous winter lake of my dreams didn’t emerge today—but honestly, legit outrage is tough to muster. There are untold ways to be humbled, to be made puny, by this big sloshing basin. Twenty-five thousand ways and counting, I suspect.
Visit ferries.com for Lake Champlain Transportation Company’s ferry route schedules and COVID-19 restrictions.