Riding the Island Line

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Not being particularly adept at bike riding, my first experience with a bike in Burlington was short lived. Chris and I had rented our bikes from the Local Motion Trail Center in downtown Burlington after deciding to try a few popular bike paths. I spent a few minutes getting used to the beach cruiser that would be my faithful steed for the next few days. I rode in circles in an empty parking lot next to the center before we set off for our next destination. Not even one minute later, the clouds buckled and unexpected rain dumped down around us. The streets became rivers. Cars became boats drifting every which way. With every new obstacle, my bike became more difficult to handle. Without bike lanes on the main streets and with drivers making erratic decisions, we got off and walked our bikes on the sidewalk.

An experienced rider wouldn’t have thought anything of this experience and would have been out of there in minutes. I, on the other hand, was terrified. The last time I had ridden a bike with any confidence was when I was ten and my father and I rode the dusty empty streets of Prescott Valley, Arizona to a tiny video rental store and the park. On a busy day, two or three cars would pass us on wide paved roads. I didn’t have any idea how to maneuver a beach cruiser in the rain on a skinny two-lane road with parked cars on either side during rush hour. We were soaked when we finally arrived at our destination, 40 minutes later. Shoes and clothes full of water, my spirit struggled to stay afloat.

When we started our second Burlington bike journey on the Island Line Trail, I was quaking in my tennis shoes for fear that my inexperience would leave me stranded ten miles into the trip. Thankfully, my worry was in vain. The Island Line Trail wasn’t anything like the crowded narrow streets of downtown Burlington. No cars, no motor bikes, no honking, no speeding obstacles to avoid. Just walkers and fellow bikers on smooth wide trails.

The Island Line Trail stretches out across Lake Champlain and connects with South Hero Island. The ride down this unique trail is one that is hard to forget.

Starting at the Auer Family Boathouse, we walked our bikes up to the paved path and started our journey with a swift heave of our pedals. Soon, we were crossing over the Winooski River Bridge, built just for bikers and pedestrians. The sun filtered through the thick, red, iron web above and warmed our hands and faces. After only a moment, we were on the other side and following the path through forests, quiet neighborhoods, parks, fields and out onto Lake Champlain itself.

The path stretched three and a half miles onto the lake and the view went from breathtaking to dangerously distracting. Miles of blue water stretched on either side of us. The air was fresh and cool, the kind of air your lungs get used to when on a boat or kayak. The dirt path was wide enough for three bikes at once; although most everyone rode single file, leaving the middle section of the path open for passing bikers. Turn offs were found along the way and many bikers had stopped to take a break and admire the lake. Giant squares of white marble littered the sides of the trail and made it appear as though it was held up by strong angular clouds. The marble was a relic of the railroad that had occupied the coast long ago.

As we drew closer to the end of the 13 mile trail and an island called South Hero, we noticed that the trail came to an abrupt end in the middle of the lake. Between us and the rest of the trail was a wide expanse of water known as “The Cut.” The only way across was on the Bike Ferry Link operated by Local Motion. For five dollars, a person could hitch a ride and get across within a few minutes. Since its first day in operation nearly 10 years ago, the ferry has carried over 100,000 people across “the cut.”

Instead of hopping on the ferry, we parked our bikes and met Brian Costello, Island Line Coordinator and co-founder of Local Motion. Brian is a man dedicated to preserving the Island Line Trail and encouraging the growth of alternative transportation options. It was his love of Lake Champlain and passion for making sure everyone had access to the lake that prompted Brian’s partnership with Local Motion.

“We serve tens of thousands of visitors and locals just from our Trailside Center [located in downtown Burlington] with rentals and free maps and information,” said Brian. The Island Line trail was originally a rail trail constructed from white marble in 1901. “This trail has a long history of booms and busts,” Brian said. “It goes three and a half miles across the lake, so it certainly has its trials with mother nature.” The trail normally sees a good amount of wear and tear during a normal weather year; however, in 2011, the lake rose to an all time historic high, swallowing the trail. “The lake came up to the level where we are standing now and stayed there for a couple of months. And with the occasional three foot waves on top of that, you can imagine what it did to this surface,” said Brian tapping his foot on the gravel. “It just wiped it out.”

Hearing the news about the trail, FEMA stepped in and offered to cover 80 percent of the costs to rebuild. The two towns of Burlington and Colchester came together with Local Motion to raise the rest of the funds needed and within a year or so, riders were back on the trail.

Now, Local Motion has new projects that are propelling it forward. “We are working with a grant from the regional planning commission to study the opportunities for extending this trail further north all the way to the Canadian border, connecting with Quebec’s extensive network of paths.” Brian gestured to the trail on the other side of “the cut.” “If we can get more sections of the rail bed into public ownership, we can link trails from here to Montreal and we’d be closer to realizing our goal of creating a historic interpretive recreational corridor between Burlington and Montreal, which is about 100 miles.”

Another project that Local Motion has spearheaded is called Bike Recycle Vermont, a project that puts affordable bikes in the hands of those who can’t afford commuter bikes. Affordable repair prices and maintenance classes also allow bike owners to maintain their bikes. Every bike in the program has been donated or found abandoned.

“Local Motion is a non profit that was founded around the idea of a bike ferry that linked Burlington to Colchester and provided access to this amazing causeway,” said Brian. “But throughout the years, we’ve grown to be a voice of the community for sustainable transportation and the creation of infrastructure needed for that. During the 15 years that we’ve been working on that, Burlington has really turned into one of the best places in the country to bike.”

After wrapping up our interview with Brian, we grabbed our bikes and rode back the way we came, passing bikers and pedaling quickly to get to our next destination. I was finally getting used to Local Motion’s apparatus underneath me. I was feeling like I could push myself, take corners a little more sharply, pass others more quickly, stop on a dime and not fall head-first into the dirt. While I was making this revelation, I came up on a family that was enjoying the view of the lake more than worrying about what side of the trail they were on. I leaned forward a little in my seat and gripped the bars of the beach cruiser. This was my moment to test my confidence. I applied more pressure on the pedals and increased my speed. There was another group of bikers coming toward me and with as much of the trail as the family was taking, I had only a few seconds until the two groups would cross paths and I would be squished between them. I flicked my thumb against the little metal bell attached to the right handlebar and a cheery “ding” announced my approach.

Nothing happened. No one moved over. The space between the two groups was closing in and I needed to either slam on the breaks or pick up the pace. Glancing behind me, I saw that another biker was hot on my rear tire with the same intention of getting past this slower family. Slamming on the breaks wasn’t an option. Striking the left pedal with all my strength, my bike and I shot forward. Ding, ding, ding. The family still wasn’t getting the hint. “Passing on the left,” I called as I came up behind the leading member of the family, a large man with a sweat-soaked black t-shirt and a fixed expression on the trail ahead. The traffic on the opposite side was seconds away from being too close for comfort. I kept pumping my legs, all too aware of the sound of the person’s bike’s tires behind me chewing up gravel. At the last moment, the father moved to the right and I pushed past him and darted in front. The approaching bike whooshed past and the bike behind me continued to streak ahead as if nothing had happened. In all fairness, the episode probably wasn’t anything memorable for anyone else involved; however, that didn’t stop me from doing a celebratory finger dance on the handlebars.

Cruising along the lake with my heart beating quicker than usual, I followed the trail off the causeway and into a patch of forest. I thought about how much of the world I miss when I drive. As if to prove a point, the trail opened up to a sprawling meadow, then plunged into a tunnel of thin branches reaching up either side of the path. Sunlight splashed on my face and I slowed down to enjoy the moment. This is why Burlington was ranked as one of the best cities to bike in. This is why everyone should have access to trails like these.