Guest Blog: Grand Isle State Park by Matt Parsons

Camping fever was on the rise! Our daughter and grandkids had just spent a weekend at Grand Isle State Park. Our visit with them heightened the anticipation of our own 5 night stay, the following week.

I personally wanted a lean-to overlooking Lake Champlain and the beautiful Green Mountains. Watching a sunrise from the comfort of my own shelter is appealing to me. Unfortunately the lean-to’s are popular prime sites and usually requires a year advance planning in some cases. We don’t plan that far ahead, so tent site #70 was all we could get on this busy week.

On our visit to see our kids, we made sure to check out our future site. The plan was to camp for a week where all the kids could come and go at their leisure. We wanted to make sure the site could house a few tents. It was a cozy lot and lived up to what the interactive website claimed. The long term forecast predicted rain for much of our stay. We decided that “we get what we get and we don’t pitch a fit”!

The week started with a day off to celebrate Ann’s birthday. Tuesday was Bennington Battle Day so I had a free day off. I worked Wednesday despite the fever that was brewing deep inside. To ease the pain I packed the trunk with camp gear on Tuesday night. I had to practically jump on the trunk lid to fit it all. My luggage packing mom would be proud. When the quitting bell rang on Wednesday, my fever was at a full boil. I was on a dead run to my car. I had 4 days of camping in front of me and I was going to enjoy them all.

Several years ago I submitted a picture to the State Parks. Our car was loaded to the gills with “camping goodies”, so they dubbed it the “fun mobile” Grand Isle is located where there are many outdoor opportunities to take advantage of. We were going to be ready to seize them all. The Fun Mobile rides again!

Packing went well. The car was loaded and the house was picked up before Ann got home. Despite a well planned and stress free packing situation, we still got off to a late start. We arrived just as the ranger was closing out for the night. The young man was the same fellow who let us in the week before to see our daughter. He seemed to remember us. With no time to unpack and return for wood, we quickly bought a few arm loads of wood. When we drove up to the barn we realized that the only place for the wood was in Ann’s side of the car. Our first adventure!. We loaded the floor boards in a fashion that would havw made my dad proud. The excess went on the seat where Ann would gently rest her buns. We laughed the whole way; even across the speed bumps.

By now it was good and dark. We made a joint decision to put up the tent and bed; start a fire and begin to unwind. This was only the 2nd time putting up our new tent. Doing it in the dark was not be a problem. My technique for starting a fire almost never fails. The wood we selected was good and it was book time in front of the fire before we knew it. The book Appalachian Odyssey harken my name. How I became friends with the author, Jeff Ryan is for another blog entry. Reading about his adventures on the Appalachian Trail was going to be a treat for me.

The next morning we had our ritual of coffee and meditations by the campfire. I strategically kept wood on the fire all night to assure for a quick starting fire in the morning. This is something I regularly do but I would have to idle it down for this 4 night trip. We finished setting up camp and relaxed some more.

Neither of us had any strong direction of what we wanted to do. In hind site, I think we needed this vacation to chill more than anything else. I love to play as much as I love to work, so it is hard for me to just sit still. I chose to sit still the best I could and wait to see what happened. Ann suggested a ride through the campground on our bikes. This was a perfect opportunity to check out any vacant lean-to’s and dream build. Maybe I could get a random photo opp. I jumped to attention.

It was a nice ride through the Park. We noticed that they offer “city” amenities such as WIFI and coffee in the morning which adds to the charm of the park. Grand Isle has a very diverse selection of sites ranging from lean-to’s overlooking the lake or tucked in the woods to open air sites. The same goes for their tent and camper sites as well. We saw many families taking advantage of the playground and picnic areas which we thought were as extinct as the dinosaur. The nearby nature center was swarming with kids  We came back to camp with our heads chalked full of ideas. 

Naturally we had to relax and download by the fire. After lunch we decided to explore the island by car. We had to pick up a few groceries. There is something about camping in Vermont that sparks a shop local mentality for us. A vegetable stand was on our itinerary.

Conveniently North of the Park on Rt. #2 is a small mom n pop grocery store. We stocked up on supplies and headed for side roads in search of a vegetable stand. Fortunately for us we have “sectioned biked” the Champlain Islands over the last few years. I remembered a veggie stand on the northern portion of East Shore Rd. We picked up cherry tomatoes, ( another one of nature’s candy ) green beans and some Amish peaches. Pleased with our booty, we headed for camp to stock our cooler. We picked up some ice and wood for my dwindling wood supply at the Park.

All this excitement required R & R at our pace. Ann did more book reading by the fire and generally puttered around the camp with the transistor radio on. There is something indescribable about the ambiance a transistor radio creates from an obscure radio station.I couldn’t sit long, so I got up and explored the Ironwood Trail where I found an interesting crack in the earth. I’m not sure bur a trail map might explain the reason for this piece of nature.

The weather up to this point had been phenomenal. Outside of the park was noticeably hotter but our shaded tent site became an oasis. The forecast was now good through Sunday afternoon. An evening paddle on Lake Champlain was in the works as we eased into a dinner frame of mind.

We put our kayaks in at the boat launch and set sail an hour or so before sunset. The water was calm and the smell of campfires from the lean-to’s were down drafting from the cliffs above. Between the “aroma therapy” of campfires and the gentle sound of paddling, I could have easily paddled into Canada!

The sky turned a burnt orange that faded into a reddish pink. We explored the day beach North of the boat launch before taking our time coming back. We landed our boats amongst a small crowd waiting for a full moon to appear over Eagle Mountain. I looked back as we were securing our kayaks , only to see the moon slowly rising over the mountain. We stopped what we were doing and joined the crowd of “jaw droppers”.

Two kayakers paddled across the moon beams that were being reflected by the lake. The shimmering light off the water, shadowed by a silhouette of kayakers, made for a picture that I wish I could have taken.

This was the perfect time to release a wishing light ( miniature hot air balloon ). The crowd was curious as I lit it and waited for take off. When it finally took flight a small cheer emerged from the crowd. It was short lived and so was my pride. 25 feet up and about 50 yards out, my balloon softly made its landing into the drink. The only amazing thing was that the candle remained burning on the water. The spectacle was a stark contrast to the image of kayakers crossing the moonlit lake.

Slightly depressed that my wish did not come true, ( a successful take off and a huge applause ) we proceeded to finish securing the kayaks. A couple of Boy Scout Masters and their boys from troop 252 in Springfield Vt. were scoping out the kayaks for the next day. I struck up a conversation with one of them as he helped me load my kayak onto the car. I noticed the boys watching and thought; “what a powerful example of service”. I am glad that I let him help me. Our conversation was about their adventures climbing Mount Katahdin and their plans to hike Mount Marcy. My dream factory was in full gear and I was wishing I was a Scout again.

We said our goodbyes and headed for the comfort of our campfire. We read a few chapters in our books and said goodnight. Tomorrow was going to be a big day for us. We spent most of our Friday away from camp preparing for a yard sale in which the proceeds go to a mission called Vision Guatemala. From there we distributed posters announcing a free concert and silent auction to benefit the same mission. The advantage of camping close to home allowed us to work and check on the house. In this case I had just received a kayak console from L.L. Bean that needed my attention.

When we got back to camp our car was full of wood and ice. I made quick order of my chores so that I could try out my console. By this time we were exhausted and took some time to rest. A second wind rushed through the camp site and a light went on in my head. “Let’s make a picnic lunch, load it into the kayaks and head to the campers beach from the boat launch”. Before you know it, I was cooking burgers over the fire and Ann was preparing leftover side dishes to pack. We packed an extra soda for the cup holder in my console for good measure.

It was another beautiful evening that mirrored the evening before. We had a relaxing dinner at a picnic table as a young family played in the lake. On the way to the beach I saw an exposed Cedar tree root hanging from a washed out piece of rock ledge. I had to get a few pictures of that before we set sail. It was an interesting peace of nature that in my mind served as a good picture frame

It seemed like the moon was taking its sweet ole time rising over Georgia Mountain this time. The weather was perfect and the seas were calm, so staying out late with my sweetie was ok with me. The moon announced its arrival by lighting up the horizon. We were at such an angle that the moon rose between two wind turbines as if it were making a field goal. Even though it wasn’t a full moon we felt like we had scored one for ourselves. We put in a good days work and was rewarded with a beautiful evening on the lake.

We both got a good nights rest. Ann slept in while I took a shower and cooked a breakfast smorgasbord of bacon, eggs, home fries and blueberry pancakes. We made time for things to settle before we headed off for our first adventure.

In May, Ann and I cycled 40 miles from Burlington to our home. We made it a 2 day trip with an overnight stay at a cabin in North Hero. On that trip we completed all of the West Shore which is part of the Champlain Byway. A couple of years before that we shoved off with our bicycles from Knight Point State Park and did the Northern portion of the East Shore. Grand Isle State Park is the perfect place to make base camp and take advantage of some of the best cycling in New England! From here we could complete the East shore portion of the Lake Champlain Islands and chalk it up to “section biking”.

And experience the community we did! It is always a scenic ride along the shores of Lake Champlain but we took a few side roads for good measure. When we hit Route 2 and headed North it became obvious that something special was going on. It was a good old fashion Vermont farmer’s market. It was a no brainer. We stopped. The Islands themselves are host to many area attractions from wineries and farmer’s markets to art exhibits.

Breakfast was wearing thin and so was our wallets. We had to be a part of this great outdoor event. To fully enjoy this market we knew we had to buy some things, so we formed a game plan with the money we were willing to spend. We went down the whole row of vendors, eyeing what appealed to us and chatting with the owners. At the end we made a quick decision and headed back.

We met some nice people and one spicy character; who on character alone, convinced me to buy his product. When it was all said and done we sat beneath an apple tree and ate homemade pasta and beef sticks, and washed it down with a cold glass of maple lemonade that we shared. For dessert we had chocolate fudge made with goat’s milk. Not exactly a culinary combo but it was all delicious and worth it.

With our stomachs satisfied and our sense of community fulfilled, we had just enough time to peddle north for a ½ mile. I wanted to check out the Hyde log cabin for some photos. The State Parks list the cabin as a near by thing to do. I didn’t know this until I visited; but the cabin is thought to be the oldest in the country. Wow, right in my backyard! Our surprise dinner ate up our play money so we had to pass on the $3 per person admission. Next time.

Our son and a friend were coming to visit, so we made tracks for camp. We wanted to relax before they got there. ( a common theme for the week ). The plan was to hook up with the State Park Interpreter and do some fishing. The Parks offer a great program called Reel Fun. Campers can sign out fishing gear for free. On this day we were fortunate enough to get a guide AND free use of fishing gear. Eric brought 5 of us + my wife to the boat launch and distributed the gear. The temps were in the high 80’s and a brisk wind was welcomed for a bike ride, but now we had to switch gears.

The swells on the lake were 1 - 2 feet which meant throwing pride overboard and dawning my life preserver. Fishing from a kayak was going to be a handful, but I had a new kayak console and I was going to use it! Armed with a fish pole and a ginger ale, I was setting sail.

A young boy named Jacob, who was fishing with his dad, tossed out his line and trolled while paddling against the waves. A brave strategy that landed him a minnow. We were happy for the young lad but deep down inside I think we all chuckled just a little. By the end of the day ole Jacob had the last laugh. None of us got so much as bite. Oh well, a bad day of fishing is still better than a good day at work. Eric, the Nature Interpreter on the other hand had the best of both worlds.
We gave into the waves and fished while the wind blew us North towards the campers beach. The highlight of the weekend was paddling against the “ class IV rapids”. Our son had a concern for his mom but once she showed him no fear, it was game on! We greeted each wave with excitement. Smacks of water in the face required a determined yahoo! By this time my ginger ale was as flat as the waters from last night’s stroll on the lake.

We all arrived safe and satisfied that we had defied nature. But in her final curse; mother nature sent us a deluge of water as we tried to land our boats. A final slap for our defiance. We laughed it off and headed to camp hungry and rejuvenated.

The evening got better as our son and his friend decided to stay for some good ole fashion camp cookin’. This would fulfil our hearts desire for the weekend; having family! It was a Smorgasbord of delights. The menu consisted of linguica cooked over an open fire, beans, baked potatoes, hot from the coals and farm fresh corn on the cobb.

Once the “food babies” stopped kickin’ we headed for the campers beach to skip stones and to show off the tree root picture frame. We had fun posing for more pictures. By now the sun was starting to set and we said our goodbyes to the kids.

Our last night at camp was what we had hoped for. It is also what we have come to expect when we camp at a Vermont State Park. Conversations were filled with recent memories as we settled by the fire. When our eyes became heavy and our books fell to our laps we eased into our tent and let the gentle warm breeze put us to sleep.

The consistent breeze that lulled us to sleep had increased overnight. The forecast for rain all week had been pushed back. It was apparent to us that the dam was eventually going to break and a wall of drenching rain was imminent. Our reservations were for one more night to insure a slow tear down of camp and a leisurely ride home.

The skies were partly cloudy and the recent forecast confirmed an afternoon shower. This fit into our plans nicely. But wait, “the car won’t start” I said disgustingly. I slept so good that I never got up to take our phones off the car charger and take the key out of auxiliary. Damn!

I packed everything so tightly that there was no room for jumper cables in the trunk. Bound by pride ( again ) I decided to try and give it a push start. The slight grade was more than my year old hernia surgery wanted. Delaying the inevitable I chose to pack things into the car while my “sweet wife” urged humility. Selective hearing kicked in.

A voice of reason finally penetrated my thick and slightly embarrassed skull. “I’m going to get help”, I muttered. Across the way was a quiet couple. I walked over with all the charm my growing humility could muster and explained my plight. A 4 foot firecracker emerged from the shadows of her 6 foot partner and volunteered to check her car for jumper cables. I was in luck!

Rick brought the car over and viola emergency diverted. Pride was safely in the back seat. Rick and Annette sat at our picnic table with their dog, while Ann mustered up coffee from what remained of camp. We talked for a good hour while we finished packing. It turns out that we know some of the same people and share similar beliefs and interests. Fancy that!. Once again a crisis was turned into a friendly encounter.

Rick and Annette said their goodbyes and crossed the road to their site. We made a quick survey of our own site and loaded into the car. We gave a short stab of the horn and gave a big wave as we left. We are only a short drive away from home so a slow ride through the islands for lunch was in order. We stopped in North Hero and grabbed a sandwich at Hero’s Welcome. Rain was on its way but we took a chance and went across the road to enjoy a view by the lake. Minutes after pulling up stakes, the wall of water we had seen dam up all day finally broke loose. Dodging the rain was just another reason to be grateful.

I don’t know why, but it seems for me, that the farther away I camp from home the better I think the camping experience is going to be. I know that is false thinking and Grand Isle State Park proved it to me. To finally camp at Grand Isle changed my preconceived notion that it is a “bald” park filled with noisy city campers. We were able rest and found plenty of things to do; in and out of the park. With Rick and Annette’s help, my faith in humanity got a huge jump start. I have come to the conclusion that my preconceived notions can’t be trusted and if I need a quick and local camping fix; Grand Isle is the place for us.

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