Icebreaker: When The Lake Is Frozen, Grand Isle Ferry Still Sails

Feb 25, 2015

Even in the dead of winter, the Lake Champlain Transportation Company runs ferries between Plattsburgh and Grand Isle, Vermont.

The drive between Plattsburgh and Grand Isle is about 50 miles if you take the bridge. The ferry cuts the trip to 11 miles. It’s a shortcut that a lot of people depend on.

If you’re not familiar with the ferry, the idea of a mid-winter boat trip across Lake Champlain might sound risky. But from the dock in Cumberland Head – a little peninsula in Plattsburgh – it’s no big deal. You buy your ticket, give the dockhand your receipt, and drive your car onto a boat like the Cumberland. It’s a huge, steel vessel painted blue and white – basically a floating platform with parking spaces on it.

“You just sit down, relax, and enjoy a cup of coffee,” said Louise Langley from inside her SUV.

“Watch as you go by, you see the ducks and that, and it’s nice. It’s pleasant,” said Bill Langley. He and Louise just came over from Canada on the New York side, and they were headed to Vermont to do some shopping.

Deckhand Liz Tedford guides passengers onto The Cumberland. The ferry cuts the 50-mile drive between Plattsburgh and Grand Isle to 11 miles across the lake.
Credit Zach Hirsch

The couple rides the ferry about twice a month. They could drive to Vermont – there is a bridge – but they feel safer on the ferry. It breaks up the trip.

“I think it’s great that it’s running 12 months of the year. When you see all the ice, you wouldn’t think they’d be able to cross on a day like today,” Bill said.

The day in early February was clear, sunny, and cold. The temperature was about zero, and the lake looked like a white, snowy field, littered with jagged shards of ice. You could make out the route – the a long column of slush, where boats had already broken up the ice.

Up in the pilot house, Captain Mark Duba said these conditions are normal. 

“We’ve got stationary ice north. Stationary ice to the south. And we’re running east and west in a channel,” Duba said. He watches that channel through his dark sunglasses, while he kept the Cumberland churning at about 10 miles an hour.

He has been working for the ferry company since the 1970s.

“Graduated from the University of Vermont, and decided to continue doing this instead of putting a coat and tie on and sitting behind a desk,” he said.

The Cumberland is an icebreaker as well as a ferry. The hull and propellers are heavy duty, and the engine has extra horsepower to push through the ice.

“First you shatter the ice, and then the actual weight of the vessel or the hull on the ice breaks it up,” Duba said.

Captain Mark Duba, who has been working for LCTC since the 1970s, explains that the Cumberland is both an icebreaker and a ferry.
Credit Zach Hirsch

Out on the deck, Dave Bracale idled in his car while he checked his email and enjoyed “a little quiet time” and “time to reflect.”

He said the ferry also gives him more than just quiet time. He used to own a company called Buck Supply, and he said his business wouldn’t have been the same without this service. 

“Sending my trucks back and forth for deliveries, regardless of the ticket price – at this point it was still better. Now that diesel’s dropped it’s probably a break-even, but still the convenience side of it, and time not lost is – it’s huge.”

On the other side of the boat, Lucian Roy was relaxing in his station wagon. Roy said the ferry makes it easier to visit his kids.

I have a daughter that lives on that shore, and a daughter that lives on that shore and I live in Canada,” he said.  

Lucian Roy said for him, the boat is not much faster than taking the bridge across Lake Champlain. But he likes the 15-minute ride, because it gives him a chance to take a nap.

Roy said for him, the boat is not much faster than taking the bridge across Lake Champlain. But he likes the 15-minute ride, because it gives him a chance to take a nap. “Couldn’t be any better. Sitting on the water. Sun,” Roy said with a laugh.  

Since I rode the ferry in the middle of the afternoon, I didn’t meet any daily commuters. But Captain Duba said he takes 700 to 800 people across the lake each day during the winter, and lots of them use the ferry to get to work and back.

Service between Plattsburgh and Grand Isle almost never shuts down. Duba said it happens only once or twice every three years.

“We continued to run through tropical storm Irene,” he said. “It didn’t affect us all that much. It means we had to take a slightly different route.”

As the Cumberland approached the Vermont shore, Duba said that docking is not hard, but it takes focus and experience.

“Actually when you’re landing in ice, the boat’s pretty much going to stay in the softer ice. Similar to what a – a train on a track. It’s going to follow the path of least resistance,” he explained while docking the boat with apparent ease. “It’s like chewing gum and walking. You can do two things at the same time,” Duba said.

“Actually when you’re landing in ice, the boat’s pretty much going to stay in the softer ice. Similar to what a – a train on a track. It’s going to follow the path of least resistance." - Captain Mark Duba

The Cumberland gently bumped up against the Grand Isle dock. Deckhands secured the boat with big straps, set up a ramp, and guided the passengers off.

After the next cars loaded up, the vessel went right back to the other side.

The Lake Champlain Transportation Company’s other year-round ferry runs between Essex and Charlotte. That service does shut down on some winter days. Since the boats do not run 24 hours, the ice can get too thick.