A view from the Islands: seasonal life

08/06/03 12:00AM By Neal Charnoff
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(Host) For the long-timers and the newcomers, life on the Champlain Islands has special meaning perhaps because of the water, the weather, the fishing or the farming. VPR's Neal Charnoff takes a look at an unusual melting pot in part three of our series, "A View from the Islands."


(Charnoff) There are really two societies that co-exist in Grand Isle county: the year-round inhabitants and the summer tourists and residents. Herb Kestenbaum, visiting from Pennsylvania, neatly sums up the attraction:

(Kestenbaum) "Well, when you live in a metropolitan area like Philadelphia and you get a chance to come out here and look at broad expanses of water, green trees, clean air - what could be better?"

(Charnoff) Donna Larose vacationed in the islands for about 30 years, before becoming a year-round resident of Alburg 13 years ago. She suggests that Island culture is directly tied to its history.

(Larose) "I think one of the unique things about the islands is each one is very different, the dynamics of them. South Hero and Grand Isle are in some ways bedroom communities, they work out of Burlington. And you get up here into Alburg, and there's not a whole lot of places to go to work. There are things to do, but I find that every island is different, and I think that's even due to the history of the islands, that at one time you couldn't guarantee passage from one island to the other. So each island town had to be totally self-sufficient, and somehow the history has never gotten beyond that point. They still try to be to be totally self-sufficient."

(Charnoff) Kay's Restaurant is located on the main Alburg strip, and it's where the locals gather for lunch. Claire Aldridge is a waitress at Kay's, and a seven-year resident of Isle La Motte. She says the restaurant's customers reflect the year-rounders of the northern islands.

(Aldridge) "Farming, I think there's a lot of truckers, and then we have a lot of mechanics, and there's some electricians and plumbers that do come in."

(Charnoff) Aldridge says she'd prefer that Island gentrification remains in the southern areas.

(Aldridge) "I mean it's more heavily populated by people than it is up here. It's much more rural at this northern end, and I'd like it stay that way."

(Charnoff) Change in the northern islands might be hard to avoid. Anita Bruley has lived most of her life in Isle La Motte.

(Bruley) 'Well for one thing the farms are all gone in Isle La Motte. We have no more farms, there's just open space or else it's all built up into houses."

(Charnoff) Irving Blackwell has lived on one of the last remaining Grand Isle farms for 60 years. Blackwell is 91 years old, his wife Alice is 87. Blackwell says the island air and clean living contributed to their longevity.

(Iriving Blackwell) "Special grass we eat!"

(Charnoff) Alice Blackwell says that age hasn't slowed down their enjoyment of recreation.

(Alice Blackwell) "Oh sure, we were fishing last week. Although there was no luck, since we have so many weeds in the lake now, it's really hampered fishing a lot."

(Charnoff) Despite the weeds, recreation is one of the Islands' main attractions. Flat roads and spectacular scenery have made the islands a prime destination for bicyclists. Beachgoers and windsurfers flock to the Sandbar beaches in South Hero. And in the winter, the surface of the lake is dotted by ice fisherman and their shanties.

Bill Champagne is a Grand Isle business owner and fisherman. He says that besides the geography, the weather extremes are unique to island life in Vermont.

(Champagne) "Of course we get a lot of wind in Grand Isle County. It might not be blowing at all in Burlington but come up here and it's 25-mile an hour winds. And it's funny if you here the forecast of a nine-mile an hour wind in the Burlington area and it's blowing up here and you got three foot chops on the lakes. So the weather transition is huge coming across that causeway into South Hero, into the Islands. And say on a summer day, it's 95 in Colchester-Burlington area and coming into the Islands it cools down because of the lake effect."

(Charnoff) Geese are among the wildlife that share the island with the humans. There are also the usual assortment of cows and goats, but the influence of the water is always present. Gulls glide through the sky. And on the ground, frogs are so prolific a special fence prevents them from hopping into the busy human traffic on Route 2.

For Vermont Public Radio, I'm Neal Charnoff.

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