Guest Blog: Remote Camping at Woods Island State Park

-By Matt Parsons

Woods Island is a remote Vermont State Park situated in the northern part of Lake Champlain near St. Albans, Vt. The island is a mile long and a quarter mile wide. There is no ferry service. With only five campsites, this 125 acre park, with 2 miles of shoreline allowed me to have all the privacy I could ever want. ( if I was willing to work for it ). There is something appealing to me about camping primitively on an island. The work involved is often rewarded by good views and the ability to detach from the riggers of life. There is a sense of peace and freedom knowing that there is nobody around. In 2008 I bought a 18 foot aluminum canoe from a friend of a friend. It is a dinosaur! I wanted to find things that my kids and I could do together. The kids and I made several reconnaissance missions to Woods before planning our camping trip on July 4th weekend 2009.

Site #4, on the very southern tip was always the most appealing to me. In my mind it is the most scenic. I envisioned sitting on the rocky outcrop and watching the sun rise over Mount Mansfield and then watch it set over the Adirondack Mountains. The thought of a warm cup of coffee in the morning and a crackling fire with the kids in the evening appealed to me.

I made my reservations and began to plan my first remote camping trip. My friends Steve and Gale made reservations too. This was going to be a long weekend with 2 kids so I decided to pack heavier than usual. To save time I borrowed my mom’s truck with a hitch on it. Steve allowed me to use his old boat trailer which I eventually bought. I put the canoe on the trailer, loaded all my gear in the boat and covered it with a tarp. All I had to do was back it in the water and shove off from Kill Kare State Park, which helps make up part of St. Albans Bay.

That sounded great in theory but the weather was less than favorable. A storm was coming from the West and winds were heavy. I made a mistake of putting in at the boat launch on the east side of Kill Kare, (the St. Albans Bay side.) Hathaway point protects the bay from prevailing west winds, making it deceiving to the novice sailor. When we set sail it became very obvious, (extremely quickly) that we were top heavy and over loaded. Crossing between Burton Island and Kill Kare, and head directly into the wind was not something I was willing to do with 2 young kids in the boat. I immediately turned around.

Embarrassed that I had made a strategic error, I sheepishly rowed to shore. Good ole grandma { who wanted to see the kids off } and our friends Steve and Gale assured me that the weather would clear in a few hours. While we waited I met a group of cyclist who camped at Lake Carmi State Park and travelled 26 miles to Kill Kare for a picnic. I enjoyed talking with them and a seed was planted

By mid afternoon the skies were clearing but the wind was still heavy. Steve and Gale were safer in their motorboat and headed to campsite #5 to set up their camp. From there they could see the Western sky and communicate to us by phone. By the time the waters calmed down It was getting too late to paddle to Woods Island. Steve came with his boat and towed us to the island. The time waiting allowed us to discover another boat launch on the west side of Kill Kare. This gave us a straight shot to Woods Island. The kids thought it was fun to sit in Steve’s boat while their old man was being towed in the canoe. I later named the SS Minno. There is no “official transport service” to the island but “Steve’s Boat Towing Service” was one of his many blessings to us that weekend.

The real fun came when we landed and unloaded. I scaled a shale embankment and realized I had a little bit of a hike to transport our gear. It challenged our resolve to camp but there was no turning back now! The kids and I rallied our strength and scrambled our gear up to the site. We set up camp to take advantage of every view possible. I remember a storm narrowly missing us as we finished setting up camp.

A nature trail follows the shoreline of the island and connects the campsites. Feeling accomplished we decided to go for a walk to see our distant neighbors at site #5. We got back and spent the rest of the afternoon kicking around camp. The kids explored the rocky shoreline that is reminiscent of the Maine coast. I enjoyed a few moments in my chair that I strategically placed on the rocky peninsula. The weather was clearing up nicely. Seeing the kids below sitting and talking made me grateful for them. As a single “weekend dad”, each moment is as precious as the last. This particular weekend however was going to show us what we were made of.

Hunger pangs were getting louder so I began dinner. JalapeƱo and cheddar burgers were on the menu. A favorite for my son David. Kim took over the grill so the old man could relax a bit. It was a treat for my oldest to cook for me. David just loves to eat and licking his fingers assured me of his approval. It was family time in the rough! While we finished up dinner David amused himself by catching a large and harmless Garter snake. He would catch 5 more before the weekend would end.

There was plenty of firewood scattered around our sprawling campsite. We managed a fire and relaxed some more. The kids and I retired to our tent. Once they were a sleep I ventured to my chair to ponder the cosmos and to take inventory of my gratitude. By this time the wind had swiped the slate clean and exposed the twinkling stars. It was an adventurous first day.

Some of Saturday escapes my memory but going over my photo album from the weekend tells the story. This is one reason why I  bought my first camera   ( a Cannon point and shoot ) and began this journey of photography. Capturing our adventures and blogging rekindles memories once lost. This; I hope, will be beneficial to me when I am old.

The clouds continued to play hide and go seek with the sun. We chose to seek! Being planted on an island you are forced to make the best of situations. I guess that is part of the primitive appeal for me. The kids and I took advantage of the 2 mile hike around the island. We found a grove of Red Raspberries and picked them as if our lives depended on it.

David climbed a huge tree that was blown down from a recent storm. Our  imaginations of survival in adverse conditions were heightened. Along the way we skipped stones across the water and visited with our neighbors. We spent a good while with them before heading back.

As we approached camp the wind became noticeably stronger along with my concern for our tent. Before we could see the tent David intuitively bolted from us. We hustled behind. When Kim and I got there David was sitting in the tent literally holding the fort down. The wind was about to blow our shelter into the drink. David’s weight was barely enough to hold it down.

Grudgingly I made the decision to relocate camp. Close bye was a group of trees sheltering a flat spot suitable for a tent. The wind was still strong and I was gun shy. The kids and I dug in and grabbed the tarps and bungi cords that I had packed. We used every resource at our disposal to create a wind break for our camp. In just a short time our fortress was complete. The kids and I still joke about my love for bungi cords. Mostly because of my inability to tie knots.  : (

Kim was visibly tired from the ordeal. Somewhere in this time frame we decided to cook to refuel our spirits. They were quickly dashed when we discovered that we were out of cook gas! Fortunately for us Steve and Gale stopped by to visit. They kindly agreed to take their boat and get more gas for us. In the meantime, we snacked on whatever we could find. David entertained himself and us by catching reptiles. We watched a snake slowly devour a frog. Not the most appetizing thing before dinner but for 2 curious kids running on empty, I took what I could get.

Steve and Gale delivered our gas and we cooked up some camp grub. This was the second time they bailed us out. I can’t remember if they stayed for dinner. I don’t recall much of what we did for the rest of the evening for that matter. I do remember some eerie storm clouds to the Northwest that glowed from the sun which was about to set. They eventually became two fireballs that were extinguished by the night sky. I was hoping that was a good sign.

Sunday morning arrived! The storm clouds had cleared out, giving way to brisk but sunny skies. A feeling of a fresh new start blew through the campsite. We cooked breakfast, used the primitive privy and took a swim in the lake. I have a humorous appreciation for outhouses and couldn’t resist having some fun with my camera, despite my daughter’s disapproval.

The temperature came up as the day progressed. We took advantage of the warm rocks and laid out on the beach. Kim waded out into the lake and tried her hand at fishing. I inflated a raft and David paddled around in it. In between enjoying my kids, I snapped a few pictures of them and the rugged coastline. This was the day we were looking for!

The good weather stayed with us all day and we were getting excited about seeing the St. Albans Bay Day fireworks. I realized that our site wasn’t the best place to see the fireworks. After a brief reconnaissance mission I came back with a place to see the show. The area was not far and appeared to be an unofficial campsite, complete with a stone built fire pit. Perfect! In the meantime mother nature treated us to a fantastic sunset. For good measure, she threw in a full moon rising over Mount Mansfield. These were the rewards I was looking for.

We invited Steve and Gale to watch the fireworks with us. With a fire in the pit and our chairs in place, we were poised to watch the show. I remember being surprised how far away St. Albans Bay actually was from the island. Fortunately for us it was a clear sky and the fireworks were high enough to see them all. Every color imaginable exploded into the sky with quick bursts. It was fun anticipating when the loud bangs would reach our ears. Each one echoed across the lake with authority. The lake reflected the colors like a giant mural. Being on this remote island and watching the show made me feel like we had our own private theatre.

The show eventually ended. Steve and Gale retired to their campsite and we went to bed. It was a full day without so many challenges. We slept like logs underneath a clear but chilly sky. Monday was our last day of camping. The weather remained clear but windy. I don’t remember much about that day. I do remember bringing down all our gear to the beach so that I could pack. I have learned to use every inch of space wisely. The kids say I would be good at the video game Tetras. I took one final hike up the hill to scour the campsite for forgotten items. From high above I could see our gear lying by the boat and the kids occupying themselves. Looking down on the beach reminded me of an opening scene from Gilligan’s Island.

The waves were still too choppy. I felt it was a lot to ask of the kids to help paddle in such seas. Kim and David had been troopers all weekend and they deserved a break. I’m not sure how it came about but Steve and Gale towed us back to Kill Kare State Park where we loaded up and headed home. Unlike the cast from Gilligan’s Island, I was sad to leave. The challenges strengthened our character and showed us that we don’t give up. I learned a lot about camping in remote sites that I have since used. The memories that we made are still a topic of discussion between the kids. I will always be grateful for the help of our friends Steve and Gale. If it wasn’t for them the trip would have gone in the crapper!


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