Kayaking the Length of Lake Champlain: Teen Expeditions in 2020

This month, nineteen teenagers and two trip leaders have accomplished epic kayak expeditions, kayaking the length of Lake Champlain and reaching the Canadian border. An epic goal in a standard year, these voyages feel even more significant having been accomplished safely and successfully during a pandemic! We couldn’t be prouder of these intrepid teens and wanted to share their amazing feats with you.

Traditionally, we run two teen expeditions each summer: Champlain Discovery and Expedition Champlain. One is normally a hybrid program starting with a 3-week boat-building project followed by a ten-day kayaking expedition from Whitehall to Burlington, VT and the other is a week-long rowing expedition that sets out from the Museum’s campus. With the COVID-19 pandemic hanging over us, and after checking in with the participants and our staff, we determined that it was safer and much easier to follow the state’s COVID-19 guidelines to change both trips into overnight kayak expeditions. All participants had pre-trek guidelines to follow to ensure each expedition would be a safe bubble and we changed our expedition prep, drop-off, and pick-up procedure so families could still be a part of these important experiences without putting anyone at risk. We’re grateful to all our expedition families for working with our new trips and guidelines – it truly was worth it to make sure our teen participants got to have these once-in-a-lifetime adventures.

Below is a peek into each expedition, along with photos from our trip leaders, Ally Tanaka and Mandy Smith.

Champlain Discovery’s nine intrepid teens embarked on a 14-day, 135-mile, end-to-end, Lake Champlain adventure. And what an adventure! On top of the standard daily balance of kayaking, setting up camp, cooking, cleaning, and setting out the next day, these teens had to contend with intense heat, lightning, torrential rain, and high winds along the way. Many mornings they were up before dawn to take advantage of better weather conditions in the morning. The last paddle of the trip was a ten-mile morning jaunt from North Hero State Park to Louie’s Landing on the Missisquoi River, with a stiff head wind for the final four miles on the river. Parents and Museum staff waited for them patiently at the landing, until suddenly a parent yelled, “Here they come!” Looking a half mile down-river you could see the multi-color assemblage of eleven kayaks. A few minutes passed and we started to hear singing and chanting. The group was yelling “Whitehall to Canada” and singing songs. As they pulled into the river bank the enthusiasm and smiles told the story. This group of nine teens had accomplished something significant. Not very many people can claim they paddled the length of Lake Champlain in one shot, and then throw in a pandemic for good measure. We are very proud of all of them and hopeful that this experience will help guide them as life’s many choices approach them rapidly.

Trip leader Mandy Smith shares her own memories from Champlain Discovery:

One of the most memorable moments of Champlain Discovery for me will be the few days we got stuck on Valcour Island due to intense wind conditions. The way these kids learned how to roll with the punches on a trip like this was awesome. On Valcour we found a beautiful balance between entertaining the group in the craziest ways and giving the participants space to reflect and be with themselves. One minute we would be watching the waves, finding them meditative, and the next we’d be playing a round of “Good Day Bruce,” one of the kids favorite games. This balance gave participants precious time to authentically connect with the outdoors, themselves and each other without their phones. 

Champlain Discovery image gallery:

Expedition Champlain’s ten adventurous teens undertook an 8-day, 85-mile kayak trek from the Museum to the Canadian border that was packed full of interesting challenges, adventures and great group decision-making. Right off the bat, day one of the expedition presented a challenge with a looming threat of thunderstorms and 15-knot head winds. The group scrubbed their original departure plan and instead loaded the kayaks on a trailer and departed from Kingsland Bay State Park.

Over the next several days, the group traveled north along the lake, stopping for overnights at Shelburne Farms, Schuyler Island, Valcour Island, Knight Island, and North Hero State Park. From their final campsite at North Hero State Park, the group’ final stop and family pick-up was set for the following morning at Sandy Point Ramp right next to the Alburg Bridge. Our kayakers had an enthusiastic desire to truly reach the Canadian border, though, so it was decided by consensus to rise at 3 AM, pack up the boats, and head to Canada at daybreak. They made it, had a great morning swim on the border, and then headed south 3 miles to journeys-end. Arriving to the exuberant applause of parents and Museum staff, waiting safely-distanced apart on shore, the group of ten teenagers and two trip leaders sorted out all their personal gear, loaded the boats on the trailer and said their emotional goodbyes. Sore muscles will heal quickly but this was clearly an experience that is etched in their memories for a lifetime.

Trip leader Mandy Smith shares some fun memories of this trek:

On Expedition Champlain I’d say the funniest moment was when the participants realized we bought maple syrup from New Hampshire during our pancake breakfast. This ended up fueling the young Vermonters to start a prank war that lasted all day. In an odd way, these counselors vs campers pranks actually really bonded the group together. It was great to see how they all pulled each other in to work for a common goal. Although the overall common goal of this camp was not to prove a point of Vermont pride, this time together really extended into their paddling and working together as a team to get to Canada.

Expedition Champlain image gallery:

Special thanks to Mandy Smith and Ally Tanaka for leading this eclectic group of teenagers on an adventure of a lifetime, overcoming a multitude of obstacles, and helping them have what can be honestly called a transformational experience. And many thanks to our participants and families for a truly unique summer of expeditions.