The Door of the Country and The Lake in Between

Rich K., Day Hiking Ambassador

Wind dominates the clearing, and the Champlain Valley drops out below.

This is the top of mount Philo, a one thousand foot mound of granite that rises over the lakeside town of Charlotte, Vermont. Beneath a quick and shifting sky the cold cobalt of March is being overtaken by April’s lavender haze. Winter is ending, but not without a late snowfall. Kristin and I have taken advantage of the new snow for a midday sojourn up the mountain.

We lean into the wind to gaze from the overlook, and what the view lacks in altitude it makes up for in drama. The mountain abruptly plunges into the surrounding farmland, some of the only flat land to be found in Vermont. The fields of Charlotte stretch out before us and terminate at the Lake Champlain waterline. Beyond the lake the Adirondacks of New York dominate the opposite shore.

Lake Champlain. On the western shore the Mohawk of the Iroquois League called it “Caniaderi Guarunte, meaning “Door of the Country.” On the eastern shore the Abenaki called it “Petonbowk” or “Bitawbagok,” depending upon who you asked; both words translate to “The Lake In Between.” In 1609 the French explorer Samuel de Champlain settled the issue and, in the tradition of European exploration, named the lake for himself.

The lake remains frozen over, and the new snow makes it look like a bed of salt. It is a fitting illusion. As the glaciers receded between 13,000 and 10,000 years ago, the melted water formed a brackish sea, the Champlain Sea, filling this entire valley and spilling throughout present-day Quebec. Whale bones discovered north of here in the Plains of Abraham serve as proof of this period. When he wrote his own name on his map, Champlain the explorer was surely unaware that this geologic event would likewise bear his moniker.

The waves of that inland sea rolled across the lowland now in view and lapped against the slopes of Mount Philo. But it was hardly the first time this mountain had seen salt water. It is common in Vermont to call all of the state’s mountains “Green Mountains,” and the bias is clear; the French translation “Verd Mont” is where the state takes its name. Yet Mount Philo is actually a northern point of the Taconic Range, geologically distinct from the range of the Green Mountains that runs north-south along the spine of Vermont. The Taconics lie to the west and parallel to the Greens. They began forming 450 million years ago as a  prehistoric ocean closed. The rock we stand upon is the upthrust floor of that ocean, and it is still possible to find the imprints of trilobites and other long-extinct sea creatures fossilized on the granite mountaintops. Mount Philo was part of a range as high as the Rockies, but the stone eroded quickly. 75 million years later, the eroded sediment of Philo and the other Taconics would be used again in the building of the Greens. In this way the Greens are the progeny of the Taconic Mountains.

This is an old mountain, and it offers an excellent view. But I would be less likely to come here were it not for the winter. Founded in 1924, Mount Philo State Park is Vermont’s oldest. Far from protecting it, this status has merely expedited its development. A well-maintained toll road leads all the way to the top, where are provided barbeque pits, lean-tos, bathroom facilities and showers.  In the comfort of climate-controlled interiors four-wheeled explorers can drive to the summit, cook hamburgers over bagged charcoal, and drive back down again, all with a minimum of footsteps. For these individuals nature is experienced only from behind metal and glass, and is available only for a fee.

The development of nature happens in the name of making it accessible to all. In the confused era of the automobile access has become conflated with drivability. Freedom to experience nature has come to mean the freedom to experience it without hardship, and so nature is diluted with the conveniences of civilization. This is done with the objective of maximizing the number of people who experience nature, and certainly more people have been to the top of Mount Philo than would have without a gravel road. But this approach is like a chef who attempts to feed more people by adding water to a soup; more bowls can be filled, but there is less substance for each person, and both quality and balance are altogether lost.

But in the snow the mountain is remade. The road is impassible, the showers are padlocked, and the barbeques are filled in. Mount Philo tops out in the transition zone from the lower-altitude hardwoods to the evergreens, and the absence of leaves has left the mountaintop inhospitable and exposed. All the better. There will be no barbeques today; there is only the rush of the landscape and the roar of the wind.

I never cease to be amazed by the capacity of snow to alter a landscape. I am seeing Mount Philo as it was meant to be seen, this mother-mountain to the beloved Greens, rejuvenated by cold and restored by storm. This mountain was here before animal life crawled out of the oceans. This mountain will be here long after the road. And for the time in between, there will be winters to snowshoe and remember what this mountain is.