The Impulsive Traveler: In sleepy Isle La Motte, Vt., nature takes its time

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 12, 2010; 6:55 PM

There are no traffic lights on Lake Champlain's most remote and least commercialized island. As longtime resident Linda Fitch told me, "Two cars meeting at the four corners of Isle La Motte constitute our version of a traffic jam."

Don't expect to find a huge selection of restaurants, hotels and shops on Isle La Motte, Vt., either. The first time I drove through, I missed the "town center," a crossroads with a country store, a post office and a library.

"It's like time stopped here," said Matthew LeFebvre-Bean, the innkeeper at Terry Lodge. "We're off the beaten path."

Way off. Just seven miles long and two miles wide, the island is almost as close to Montreal as it is to Burlington. But it feels neither here nor there. If you ever want to drop off the face of the earth for a few days, this would be the place to go to. Fewer than 500 people live on the island year-round.

But just because it's small and sleepy doesn't mean that there's nothing to do. In fact, you can argue that Isle La Motte offers the most unusual attractions of the Champlain Islands, which consist of five separate towns.

The southern third of Isle La Motte contains remnants of the Chazy Reef, which, at 480 million years old, is considered the oldest reef in the world where corals first appeared. It was formed in a tropical sea straddling the equator, and it once stretched 1,000 miles. Last year, the federal government designated the reef a national natural landmark.

It took scientists quite a while to figure out Isle La Motte's significance. Throughout the 19th century, five quarries produced black and gray limestone that was polished into a marblelike finish and used in building Radio City Music Hall in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Quarry workers found strange forms in the rock and couldn't figure out what they were. Finally, paleontologists identified them as marine fossils.

More than 100 acres of the fossil reef are now protected in two preserves: the Fisk Quarry Preserve and the Goodsell Ridge Preserve.

My mother and I started our exploration of the reef at the visitors center and museum at the 81-acre Goodsell Ridge site. There we learned that in the ancient ocean all those millions of years ago, organisms with hard calcium exoskeletons, including the first known species of coral, began building the reef. Giant sponge-shaped creatures called stromatoporoids joined them. Also found in the ecosystem: the trilobite, the ancestor of the modern horseshoe crab, and the cephalopod, an earlier form of the squid.

It felt like being back in high school science class. The lesson continued outdoors on four walking trails where you can peer into the rocks and search for cephalopods and gastropods and bryozoa and any number of organisms that I couldn't really tell apart. "There's something," I would say to my mom as I spotted an interesting shape. Then she'd find something embedded in the rock and point it out to me. It was a fun, scavenger-hunt-like excursion.

A short drive away was the 20-acre Fisk property. We took a brief stroll to the quarry, taking in the beautiful lake views. Fitch, who runs the Isle La Motte Preservation Trust, which manages the preserves, joined us. Since the quarrying activities ceased, a system of wetlands with ponds and marshes has developed on the land. The rock formations remain, creating a sort of mini-canyon that's a draw for local teens. Sure enough, we found two teenagers climbing the rocks. "I have to laugh. It reminds me of my boys at that age," Fitch told us. "Kids have always been fascinated by the quarry."

Thirsty after our walk, we found a fruit stand nearby where we indulged in some Vermont apple cider. Then we visited the island's other famous attraction: St. Anne's Shrine. The shift from the scientific to the spiritual was a little dislocating.

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