Friday, June 17, 2005

Lake Willoughby, Vermont

Lake Willoughby is one of my favorite places in Vermont. It's the sort of place where legends easily become believeable.

Willoughby is located in the town of Westmore, a town so small that it doesn't even have its own school. It's out in the Northeast Kingdom, part way between Lyndonville, Island Pond, and Newport. The community church along the lake has chimes that ring at nine in the evening. I can imagine children being lulled to sleep by them after packed summer days in the sun and water.

The first few times I'd heard of the lake were from several people saying it was the most beautiful spot in Vermont. I'd also heard that the sister camp of the boys camp where I worked summers during college used to be located there. Photographs of the now relocated Songadeewin showed broad fields leading down to a lake surrounded by sharp mountains.

Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of Lake Willoughby is the way it is surrounded by peaks pushed up by the glaciers as they carved the lakebed deep into the ground. The main two peaks that surround it have names that lead to their own stories, Mt. Pisgah and Mt. Hor. In places, these peaks fall directly into the lake as sheer cliffs.

I've heard the lake is located at about the southern edge of the advance of the glaciers during the last ice age, and that this is what makes the lake so deep. On a visit to a friend's camp there earlier this spring, her boyfriend and I traded stories on the depth of the lake, making up progressively wilder scenarios, and feigning disbelief when another friend brought over a map of the lake, indicating that it is only about a hundred feet deep.

I'd heard it was over 300 feet deep.

Well, I heard that it was so deep, that the government couldn't measure it when they tried to back in the '40s, that their submarines got lost in the clouded depths.

Didn't it used to be a dumping ground for the mafia? A great place for someone in cement shoes never to be heard from again?

The girlfriend chimed in: they say there's an underground waterway that connects this lake with Caspian Lake and Lake Memphremagog, and that's how sea monsters travel between the lakes.

Like Willy? (Willy being Willoughby's local sea creature, akin to the Loch Ness Monster or Champ on Lake Champlain.)

Its depth and its sheltered location between the mountains add to its renown as the coldest lake in Vermont. I felt blessed to swim in Willoughby for the first time last summer, when a classmate and I broke away from the sweltering August heat during a course in AP English we were taking at nearby St. Johnsbury Academy. At the northern edge of the lake is a state beach where all sorts of folks--locals and summer people--mix, take in the sun, and catch a swim. In August, it was cool and refreshing, but not impossibly cold. Another nice feature of the lake is that it takes a while to drop off along the northern and eastern edges, so one can easily wade out at quite a distance to cool off.

The length and breadth of Willoughby also make it a fine place for canoeing and kayaking, though its location between the mountains can turn it into a bit of a wind tunnel. Exploring the edges of the lake is worthwhile, though, especially as the terrain varies from frightening cliffs to calm, rolling hills. While parts of the lake are surrounded by camps, a few garishly new, many other sections are completely undeveloped, and the hills and mountains all around are, in summer, an uninterrupted expanse of green.

I have barely begun to explore the area on foot. I hope to make it to the top of one of those mountains--Pisgah or Hor, I don't know which is which yet--to get a new view on the amazing expanse of the valley. On my last visit, a short, moderate hike brought me and friends to a waterfall where the pooled springs must offer a tempting dip in the summertime. I've heard the the lake offers several other hikes, from moderate to strenuous, and even a nude beach.

I expect I'll make it up there at least once more this summer. For me, Willoughby has become a sort of pilgrimage destination, one I must make from time to time, both for its own beauty and power, and to indulge in the sense of gratitude that I feel for living in this beautiful state.