Monday, October 22, 2012

Autumn Inn-To-Inn Hiking In Vermont

Our trip started out with a bang.  We drove out of the Chicago area early on Monday, October first.  We were heading to Toronto for dinner with friends and then planned to re-enter the U.S. in northern New York state and spend a few days in central Vermont before joining an R.E.I. Autumn hiking trip.  A few miles before we crossed from northwest Indiana into southwest Michigan we felt and heard the highway get bumpy and in the fraction of a second that it took us to realize that the highway sounded a lot bumpier under our tires than it looked to our eyes, the right rear tire blew.  This wasn't one of your hissing deflations followed by a flop-flop-flop sound.  This was a sudden and total failure of the tire accompanied by full disintegration of the sidewall and a complete separation of the tread.  Getting to the side of the road wasn't a problem but we quickly realized that our schedule had just been dealt a blow as severe as that delivered to the tire.

When this happened, we knew we would never make it to Toronto in time for dinner
AAA membership, cellphones and GPS navigation made all of this a lot easier to deal with.  AAA had a guy at our car within twenty minutes and the smaller scale spare was on in no time.  In the meanwhile, I pulled the tire information from the glove box.  I had replaced the tires in July and fortunately had used a retail outfit with locations in many areas.  Their Benton Harbor, Michigan store was fifty or so miles down the road.  They did not have an exact match to the tire but had one that would fit and promised to order a replacement that we could have put on as we came back through town in ten days or so.

We we crossed into Canada at Port Huron and were able to reschedule our Toronto dinner as a breakfast the next day with one of our friends.  We arrived in the city about three hours later than we planned.  After breakfast the next morning we headed east out of Toronto and elected to re-enter the U.S. at Ogdensburg, New York after tracing the northern shore of Lake Ontario and following the St. Lawrence River eastward.  Ogdensburg is apparently not a frequently used crossing so we had absolutely no delay.  We drove southeast through upper New York state, including Adirondack Park.  Many people misconstrue what is referred to as the Adirondack area as a national or state park.  At six million acres (2.6 million owned by the state and 3.4 million privately held) the Park and the 105 towns within its boundaries is the largest protected area in the lower 48.  We entered Vermont near Port Henry, New York toward the southern end of Lake Champlain.

We arrived at the Strong House Inn outside of Vergennes.  We selected the inn since it is used by Backroads, a travel outfit we have used several times.  Innkeeper Hugh Bargiel greeted us and got us situated in our room.  We were in a building called the Country House Annex.  It is of modern construction and set a little further back from Main Street (Route 22A) just south of Vergennes.  Hugh suggested the Black Sheep Bistro for our late dinner, even though we just wanted a small meal.  This place was a real find.  Pam had the seared salmon cakes with caper remoulade and celery root slaw.  I selected the pork scaloppini with chantrelle mushroom gravy.  We skipped a first course and dessert but made reservations for two nights later.

After a very good breakfast in the dining room on Wednesday, Mary Bargiel us if we had our plans for the day in place.  When we said we thought we might take a drive she promptly produced a map and traced a route for us to take, pointing out highlights.  We headed east under cloudy skies with occasional showers.  Our route took us through Waitsfield and per Mary's suggestion we stopped at a place called The Store to check out some of the various Vermont products they offered.  The Store also has a demonstration kitchen and there was a class scheduled for the following evening that would feature the preparation of a few Cuban dishes.  We got back in our car and placed a call to our friends Sue and Craig who were driving to Vermont to join us for the R.E.I. trip.  They said they would enjoy the class so we then called and shifted our dinner reservation at Black Sheep Bistro to that evening and then stepped back into The Store to make a reservation for the four of us for the class.
Back on the road we turned north to head for Stowe, enjoying the Autumn color all the way.  Stowe is a ski village located in the shadow of Mt. Mansfield which,  at 4,395 feet is Vermont's highest peak.  We walked around the village and stopped in a few of the shops before continuing our drive.  Our goal was Smuggler's Notch, a narrow pass through the Green Mountains that features a road that winds around huge boulders.  The area was used in the early part of the nineteenth century as Vermonters smuggled goods to Canada in defiance of President Thomas Jefferson's embargo and later in the century it was used by runaway slaves escaping to Canada.  The narrow road through the forest allowed for tree branches to touch overhead providing a tunnel of Autumn color.  The beauty of this road, along with that of the highways elsewhere in the state made driving here a pleasure.  Additionally, the fact that Vermont is one of four states which prohibit highway billboards added to the beauty.* 

Approaching Smuggler's Notch

We did not even have time to explore the state's largest city, Burlington, nor its capital of Montpelier, the least populous state capital in the U.S.  Craig and Sue arrived in good shape and checked in at the Strong House and we were off to dinner once again at Black Sheep.  The salmon cakes made such an impression on Pam that she ordered them for the second evening in a row.  I had the coriander crusted bistro steak in a shallot and red wine reduction.  Sue ordered the pork scalopini I had enjoyed the previous evening and Craig had the applewood smoked bacon and brie stuffed chicken breast, balsamic cream reduction.  We agreed it was another very fine meal and the price was not bad either.

Thursday was our last full day before the R.E.I. part of our trip was due to start.  The weather was cloudy with the possibility of rain but after much too much time in the car we were ready to stretch our legs.  Vermont's oldest state park is Mt. Philo State Park and on clear days it features commanding views of the Champlain Valley and even the Adirondacks.  We walked up the road to the top of the 968-foot Mt. Philo.  We did see views of the valley below but the horizon was cloudy.

Pam led the way as we walked up Mt. Philo

The view of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks from atop Mt. Philo
Next we visited the Shelburne Museum.  With 37 buildings on 45 acres it has something for everyone.  In 1955 the 220-foot steamboat Ticonderoga which used to ply Lake Champlain was brought over land to the museum.  We toured the boat and learned about the steamboat days on the lake.  Electra Havermeyer Webb started this museum and for us the centerpiece of our visit was a tour of the incredible impressionist paintings displayed in a museum building that reproduced her parents' New York city apartment.  It is a small but very notable collection of paintings by Monet, Manet, Degas, Mary Cassatt (a friend of the Webb family), Gustave Courbet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, and Charles-Francois Daubigny.  The lower level of the building presents a great display of bronzes.  All in all it is a very approachable collection of great art in a place you might not expect to find such wonders.

We returned to Waitsfield and The Store for our cooking lesson and enjoyed a few glasses of wine while chef John Lumbra prepared taro root soup, meat croquettes, Cuban pork chops, rice and beans and rice pudding for dessert.  Guests could participate if they wished or simply sit back and enjoy the lesson and dinner.

Chef John Lumbra showed us how to cook Cuban food

On Friday we enjoyed a final breakfast at Strong House and checked out.  We spent the middle part of the day exploring Middlebury and then headed towards Blueberry Hill Inn near Goshen where our R.E.I. trip was scheduled to begin.  The inn is located in the heart of the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area, 15,875 acres of forests, waterfalls, lakes and streams within the Green Mountain National Forest.  We met our guide Sue Wetmore that afternoon as well as the four other hikers who would be on the trip with us.  We bonded over a couple of glasses of wine and a cheese plate appetizer followed by a delicious salmon dinner.  We found the food on this trip to be absolutely first rate.  We enjoyed dinner at a long communal table that seated all of us as well as the other guests of the inn.  Some of the others were hikers like us while a few were parents of Middlebury College students who were participating in the college's annual family weekend.  One couple from England were there doing some scouting work for their group of antique car enthusiasts who were planning to ship their cars over to North America in 2013 for a road rally to be held in the area.  Meeting interesting folks is one of the top reasons to stay at inns like Blueberry Hill.
Our guide Sue

After a hearty breakfast the next morning we assembled in front of the inn with our hiking gear and our lunches which had been packed by the inn.  It was a windy, relatively warm day with temperatures expected to be in the high 60's but occasional showers were in the forecast as well so we had packed rain jackets.  After a short ride in the van we arrived at a parking area at Brandon Gap.  We were now technically outside of the Moosalamoo and had ascended a few hundred feet.  The winds were quite strong through the Gap as we started up the trail.  We intersected the Long Trail and hiked a section that took us along but not on top of the peaks.  The Long Trail runs the length of Vermont and is the oldest long distance hiking trail in the United States.  Sue had selected this section for the morning hike estimating the rainy weather predicted for the morning might not reach this area and it turned out she was largely correct.  We put on rain jackets halfway into the hike but the forest canopy did not let too much rain through.

From the trail we could look across to the cliffs of Mount Horrid

The height of Autumn color was not the only well-timed aspect of this trip.  The occasional rain, warmer temperatures and the onset of Autumn had prompted all of the late season mushrooms and other fungi to grow and spawn.  On this and subsequent hikes we saw fungi of every size (from one-quarter inch across to almost twelve inches) and color (brown, black, gray, yellow, red and even blue).  I have never seen so many fungi.

While traversing a darker section of the woods before reemerging into the brighter Autumn light, we recalled the words of Robert Frost (1874 - 1963) who spent almost every Summer and Autumn beginning in 1939 at nearby Middlebury College and his farm in Ripton, Vermont:

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Some of the woods did seem dark and deep...
... but most of the time they were filled with light

After returning to the van we drove a short distance to the Otter Valley Union High School parking lot.  We walked across one of their athletic fields and after eating our lunches in one of the baseball dugouts, we headed out on the Hawk Hill Trail.  In the eighteenth century, early settlers established the town of Neshobe (later to be named Brandon) in this area.  The town was moved to its present location at a later date.  Hawk Hill is part of the property owned by the high school and is managed by the town of Brandon.  We continued to find mushrooms of every description but the most surprising aspect of this hike is that we found bright orange salamanders moving through the leaf litter.  Usually you have to flip over logs or rocks to find them perhaps the warmer, moist conditions were prompting them to move to prepare for the onset of winter.  They ranged in size from barely an inch to more than three inches.

The indigo milk cap is an unusual blue mushroom
Turkey tail mushrooms are found on many logs
Hen of the woods mushrooms are found at the base of oak trees.  This specimen was about 12 inches in diameter
We found dozens of red eft salamanders on the trail

The red eft's bright color is a warning to predators that eating them would be a bad idea and perhaps a fatal one

As red efts mature, their bright red colors fade to shades of green

We returned to Blueberry Hill after a nice day of hiking and gathered in the living room for appetizers, drinks and to recollect what we saw on the trail.  As we prepared to go in to the dining room, someone glanced outside and said that the sun had dipped below the clouds and was now shining brightly.  Blueberry Hill faces west and there is a pond behind the inn at the base of some hills.  The setting sun had brightly illuminated the scene and we all rushed outside for some pictures of the scene.  We enjoyed another dinner together and then retired for the evening knowing that we faced a long hike the following day.  We would be checking out of Blueberry Hill and hiking between ten and eleven miles to Churchill House Inn near Brandon.  We were anticipating cooler weather but little or no rain.

Sunday did indeed deliver the expected weather and after breakfast we piled on an extra layer or two of clothes, packed our lunches and started hiking.  After about 3.5 miles we entered the Silver Lake area and hiked to the lake shoreline where we enjoyed lunch while watching a couple of loons dive for fish in the lake.  We then followed the eastern shore of the lake and went around the northern edge of the lake.  We ascended onto the Chandler Ridge where we enjoyed commanding views of the lake and of the larger Lake Dunmore.  We spent the rest of the afternoon hiking south along the ridge while flocks of geese honked as they followed their annual southward migration.

A young maple tree?  Nope.  This is a maple leaf viburnum
Often it seemed as though our path was a Persian carpet

We stopped at Silver Lake for our lunch
This little spring peeper frog wasn't much more than an inch long (photo by Sue W.)
From its very unusual blossom, to its beautiful summer leaves and finally its autumn color display, Indian cucumber-root is a singular plant
Club moss sends forth its "candles" to bring on the next generation
One of the scenes from our last hike of the trip

There was color everywhere we looked

We arrived at the Churchill House Inn tired but happy to have completed the hike.  After enjoying a glass of wine on the inn's enclosed porch, we sat down to a very nice dinner prepared by innkeeper Olya Hopkins.  After breakfast Monday we were driven back to the Blueberry where we had left our cars.  Our hike that morning was to be the trail around Hogback Mountain.  After hiking through the woods and a meadow where we saw a porcupine munching on bark on a high branch of a tree, we emerged out over a meadow and were greeted with a spectacular view of the valley below and more mountains in the distance, all covered in beautiful Autumn colors.  That view will remain in my memory for a long time.  We enjoyed our lunch at a picnic table near the Blueberry and then said our goodbyes.

Our route home took us back into Canada through the crossing in Buffalo, New York. As we approached the crossing back into the U.S. at Port Huron, we saw rather long lines of cars waiting to clear U.S. customs but that did not delay us. Within the last year we had both signed up for the U.S. Customs' Trusted Traveler program and were entitled to use an express lane where we presented our passports and our Global Entry cards and were promptly waived through.

Since quitting day-to-day office work two and a half years ago, we have tried to take Autumn trips to see the leaves.  We were a little too late in driving up the northern Mississippi River valley a couple of years ago and last year we were way too late to catch the height of the seasonal color when we traveled in Ontario but this year we feel we saw the area featuring the best color at its very height.  As we drove homeward through western New York, Ontario and Michigan, we enjoyed the beautiful seasonal color along the highway but driving by the scenery does not compare with hiking among the trees, lakes and mountains.

*The other states that prohibit highway billboards are Arizona, Hawaii and Maine