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- Snowmobile trail on a frozen lake
Earlier this winter, the brother of a Seven Days editor asked her why she had never mentioned Vermont's "ice highway," an alleged shortcut running between Burlington and Plattsburgh, N.Y. Because the brother's source for this fabled freeway lives in Georgia — the Peach State, not the Franklin County town — the editor assumed that he must have been misinformed. Or perhaps the man had taken a wintry, white-knuckled drive across Sandbar Causeway and had mistakenly assumed that he was traveling on frozen Lake Champlain.
Alas, Vermont never could have qualified to be on "Ice Road Truckers," the History Channel's long-running hit TV series — at least, not in the 21st century. However, as recently as the 1920s, recreational and commercial ice travel between Vermont and New York was fairly common. As the Plattsburgh Sentinel reported on March 2, 1923, "The ice bridge between Willsboro and Burlington is quite extensively used, many visiting the city for both profit and pleasure."
For more on the history of ice bridges, we spoke to Caperton Tissot, author of the 2010 book Adirondack Ice: A Cultural and Natural History. A retired writer and publisher, Tissot spent three years researching her 360-page book, which covers virtually every aspect of the North Country's winterized waterways, from annual ice harvests to "freight by skate" to ice castles of yore. In fact, each year Tissot helps build the ice palace featured at the annual winter festival in Saranac Lake, N.Y., where she and her husband live.
According to Tissot, the Adirondacks have about 3,000 lakes connected by more than 30,000 miles of rivers and streams. For centuries, those waterways served as travel corridors throughout the winter, carrying food, livestock, timber, stone, and military troops and supplies.
"I wrote about all aspects of ice, and I find it absolutely fascinating," Tissot said in a recent phone interview. "I concluded that ice has been an even more important influence on the culture, the economy and the natural history up here than snow."
Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century, she noted, horse-drawn sleds and stagecoaches ran regularly scheduled trips across the ice between New York and Vermont.
Among the more interesting ice crossings Tissot discovered was one by Mitchell Sabattis, a famous 19th-century Abenaki Adirondack guide. Sabattis, who had an alcohol addiction, had not paid the mortgage on his Newcomb, N.Y., house and was about to lose it when Lucius Chittenden, a Burlington banker, lawyer, politician and peace advocate, offered to pay off the debt in exchange for Sabattis' promise to stop drinking.
According to an October 15, 2020, story in the Adirondack Almanack by Gary Peacock, Sabattis was so grateful for Chittenden's gesture that the following winter, he loaded a horse-drawn sled with furs, venison, bear meat and more than 100 pounds of trout to thank Chittenden. Then, as Tissot noted, he drove the sled up Lake Champlain from Crown Point, N.Y., to Chittenden's house in Burlington. As Peacock wrote, "Sabattis not only made good on his debt, he never touched a drop of alcohol again."
According to Tissot, the seasonal practice of ice travel didn't subside until road plowing became commonplace. Nevertheless, she's met North Country residents who still access their homes throughout the winter by traveling across frozen waterways.
In 2010, the practice was briefly resurrected after the 80-year-old Champlain Bridge, which ran between Chimney Point, Vt., and Crown Point, N.Y., was demolished on December 28, 2009. That winter, Tissot said, some interstate commuters made their daily crossings by snowmobile. Most, however, opted to take the ferry or the longer and safer drive around.
Tissot, who grew up on a lake in Massachusetts and spent much of her childhood venturing onto the ice, noted that previous generations were far more ice savvy than people are today.
"When I did this research," she said, "I was absolutely astonished by the number of people who've drowned going through the ice, people who should have known better or were just naïve."
Tissot said she still remembers her father chopping through the ice with a steel bar to gauge its thickness. But as she learned years later, even that method cannot account for underwater springs, channels and currents that can make the ice thin and unsafe.
Tissot also noted that, while many locals are familiar with pressure ridges, which are fissures caused by the ice expanding and shifting, there's a phenomenon by which the opposite occurs: Instead of the ice pressing upward, it shoots downward, allowing water to pool on the surface. Then, a subfreezing night will create a thin skim of ice on top that's easy to mistake for a solid surface. It's one reason, Tissot added, that veteran ice travelers would routinely loosen the bindings on their skis or snowshoes, which they could kick free in the event they fell through.
In her research and subsequent book tour, Tissot also met pilots who still land on frozen lakes in the Adirondacks. She asked one how he determined whether the ice was thick enough to support his plane. The pilot explained that he'd make a landing run across the ice without stopping, then lift off and fly over his wheel tracks. If he saw slush forming, he wouldn't land.
Unsurprisingly, Tissot's research turned up plenty of stories about cold-water fatalities. While she still ventures onto the ice each winter, she confessed, "I have a lot more second thoughts since I wrote this book."
As longtime Vermonters know, Lake Champlain's "ice highway" is open to motorized traffic whenever conditions allow it. By law, the lake is considered a public thoroughfare when it's frozen. But unlike terra firma roads, the ice isn't inspected to ensure that it's thick enough to support a pickup truck — or closed when it's not. Every year, thousands of people venture onto the ice in vehicles and, invariably, a few take an unscheduled polar plunge.
Incidentally, the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife is reminding people that all ice fishing shanties must be removed from the state's lakes and ponds by March 27.