Good News For Bicyclists: Island Line Bike Ferry To Get A Bigger Boat

Jul 2, 2014

This week approaching Independence Day marks a time when Vermont is hosting a lot of visitors and many locals are taking some time off. For people who like to recreate on two wheels, a popular destination is the Island Line Bike trail, which stretches from Burlington to South Hero.

I hopped on a bike provided by the non-profit Local Motion and met up with Emily Boedecker, the group's executive director, to hit the bike trail and see what it has to offer on a beautiful sunny day.

We started our ride at Airport Park in Colchester. The bikes that Local Motion rents are geared toward beginning riders, and Boedecker says the trail itself is a kind of one-size-fits-all.

“It’s the kind of riding that just about anybody can do,” Boedecker said.

The trail is mostly flat surface, and from Colchester, it’s just three miles out to the bike ferry.

“Definitely keep an eye out for rough spots on the trail and all that,” Boedecker warns.

The Colchester causeway crosses Mallets Bay. It was built in 1899 by the Rutland Canadian Railroad to provide a quicker route to Burlington.

“This is part of the 14 mile Island Line trail. It starts in Burlington in Oakledge Park. And you have about ten miles from downtown Burlington three beautiful miles out here on the causeway. The causeway is actually a Colchester park as well. And with the bike ferry that gives you the hop and the jump you need to get over the cut and to South Hero and everything the islands have to offer,” Boedecker said.  

The cut is a 200 foot gap in the causeway that allows boats to pass through. Soon the trees give way to a spectacular open water view on both sides of the causeway.

Kevin Rose also joined us on the ride. He runs Local Motion’s trailside Center.

“We do get the young folks who think I’ll just jump it or I’ll swim with my bike. Not knowing how much floatation you’ll get out of a narrow tire, I try to dissuade them by telling them it’s like trying to swim with a 30 pound anchor in your hand,” Rose said. But he understands where the wild ideas come from.  “It just looks so close.”

There was once a swinging bridge across the cut, but it’s gone now. And the channel is extremely busy with boat traffic throughout the summer.

When bikers arrive at the cut, the causeway drops off into the water, and barriers keep bikers and walkers from going in. The story of the causeway is a comeback story. Many people worked to make it a park after it fell out of rail road use, but in the spring of 2011, the causeway was damaged by flooding.

Boedecker described the scene of the devastation. “If you look at the photographs you can see a few lumps of the marble that were left but really, most of where we’re standing right now was covered in water. And the flood stage of lake Champlain is 100 feet, The prior record was 101 and change,” Boedecker said. “And in the spring of 2011, the lake level was 103 feet and stayed there for a number of weeks, the combination of the water the wind, the moving sediment and rocks really destroyed a lot of what we’re standing on today.”

Through some private donations and other collaborative work, the causeway has re-opened and other improvements are now being made, thanks in part to a campaign called The Big Fix.

“It was assisted by FEMA funds to rebuild the causeway, by VTrans for the transportation infrastructure for the docks and the ferry that we have today, incredible support from the three downs involved, South Hero as well because this helps to connect there, and more than 500 individual donors and businesses who all helped support this, and in total we raised $1.5 million, which will culminate this summer when we got to seven day a week bike ferry service and later when we even have a new bike ferry coming online,” Boedecker said.

“What you can see here today is the new docks that we have and these are wave attenuating docks. There’s a vertical structure going about 5 feet down into the water and this means that we can have a stable loading and unloading platform even on some of the high wind and wave days,” she said.  “But the boats you can use today are the two workhorses, they’ve been in service for a number of years. And each one can carry six passengers, as part of the overall project, we were able to order a new bike ferry. It’s actually just arrived in Vermont, and once that’s fully outfitted and fully certified by the Coast Guard, we’ll be able to carry 20 passengers and 30 bikes at a time.”

Rose said the upgrades will make the service better.

“The combination of the new ferry, the new boat, and the new docks with the wave attenuators, the previous operations that we had out here were limited to days when the wind, particularly the south wind was below a certain speed, whenever the south wind would get up to speed, we would have to shut down the operation,” Rose said. “Now with the new wave attenuators we can operate in all weather conditions and that allowed us to not only operate on all weekend days, but also expand the service to week days as well.”

A deckhand helps take payment from passengers and load the bikes as the captain, Gary Kessler, gets things ready to go. Two friends out for a day trip are also board with us.

“Now we’re required to swim, right?” they joke.  

Rita Walker and Kathy Tilley are out enjoying the sunshine and Vermont scenery. It was Walker’s first trip on the ferry, and she’s surprised by the brief length of the trip.

Boedecker points out how stable the new ferry docks are, thanks to the attenuators.

“When we have lots of different riders coming through when we have bikes loading and unloading to make sure we can accommodate as many people as possible, it’s important to have this stable platform to dock,” she said.

Gary Kessler, the captain, agrees that stability is critical.

“The weather at the cut goes from everything, beautiful placid like this sun out and warm, and several hours later clouds, thunderstorms come in and we have to wait for the weather to pass.” He said bikers don’t intend to come out in bad weather, but are sometimes caught off guard,” he explained.

But on this day, luck and sunshine were on our side. Boedecker said the trail is “one of the jewels of Vermont that everyone should discover.”