A monarch butterfly, one of the last bastions of summer, clings to a milkweed at Point au Roche.
Winter comes with little warning in the North Country. The season hits fast, like a match strike, and it burns slowly with the steady luminescence of all the whites, blues and grays the cold has to offer. It seems that just yesterday I was exiting the forest under the warm and brilliant twilight of 9 p.m., but now the days are short and night always seems close by, creating long shadows in the mid-afternoon as it hovers over us, its round yellow face grinning from the dark infinity of outer space.
At Point au Roche the meadows and forests are preparing accordingly—they have hunkered down, ready for the Big Freeze. The wind, now unimpeded by foliage long fallen, will soon push through the naked vegetation like water passing through a sieve. Tree branches will crackle in response, coyote tracks will be reduced to powder as quickly as they are made, and Lake Champlain will heave with ice and broken timber.
But for now, all is calm.
I visit this place almost every week, sometimes sticking to the trails and other times foraging a path between them. I know the blue jay on Long Point well—he emits a hawk-like shriek at me every time I enter his meadow hangout. And the belted kingfisher, the one that snatches fish from the great open wetland near the bike path, is not a stranger, either. I love that I can visit this place when the days are short and never have to worry about running out of time. I love that I can visit after working all day in the summer and still get to be outside for a couple of fleeting hours. There is a lot to love here, and a lot to see.
Along the trail to Middle Point I often take the right hand path, following its descent into a primeval forest of vine-draped white cedar. Unlike other areas at Point au Roche, this place looks nearly the same year-round. The vines hang like bloated serpents and the understory, even in the middle of summer, is almost non-existent, so when the snow finally penetrates the splayed leaves of the cedar boughs it simply turns the forest floor’s summertime brown to white.
Out on Ram’s Head, the cliffs that define the point drop sharply into Lake Champlain, giving a fine view of the open water and some of the mountains in Vermont and the Adirondacks. In the summer the bay here is as relaxing as it is rugged, and in the winter its location secludes it from some of the worst of the lake’s wind. The walk back follows the shoreline — a jumbled mess of logs and broken stones that is transformed into a crude ice-sculpture garden as spring begins to break the lake’s frozen surface. Every aspect of the landscape is decorated, from the upturned shelves of jagged ice to the great icicle fangs that hang from branches and rock overhangs and have been bent sideways from constant exposure to the wind.
It is somewhat unreasonable to play favorites with nature, but I do find myself constantly drawn to that spot in the meadow on Long Point, where the blue jay likes to perch. It is wonderful and open and dotted by stands of both red and white cedar, juniper, elderberry and all of the other things that flourish in open spaces.
Walking through the waist-high vegetation two weeks ago, a flicker of campfire orange lit up the corner of my eye. I stopped and, upon closer inspection, found a monarch butterfly clinging to the stem of a milkweed plant like the last warm days of autumn beating back the encroaching frost-cloaked mornings. It was a strange sight this late in the season, seemingly left behind by the annual monarch migration.
I left the creature as I found it, slowly opening and closing its wings, and made my way up a small rise in the field, where I could see over the trees and on to Lake Champlain. Maybe we all cling to summer a little bit, but the seasons will go forth regardless of our wishes. Emitting a cloud of frozen water-vapor breath I turn away from the monarch, and the summer, and head home with the setting sun against my back.
For information, visit friendsofpointauroche.org
Shaun Kittle is a reporter at Denton Publications and an avid outdoor enthusiast. He can be reached at email@example.com.