A visit to Vermont’s northern wonderland is the ideal way to unplug and refresh yourself and your family. By Steve Wyman
The Abenaki names for the myriad lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams scattered throughout Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom are as original and mysterious as the waterbodies themselves. Names like Ticklenaked, Memphremagog, Namagonic, Passumpsic, and Menenbawk inspire adventure, and adventure was what I sought for my family on a vacation trip to this beautiful corner of New England.
The Northeast Kingdom comprises over 40,000 acres of lakes and ponds and 4,000 miles of rivers and streams, making it a vast, aquatic playground for boaters, paddlers and fishermen, as well as adventure-seeking families like mine. In doing some research on the area, I discovered that Jacques Cousteau also enjoyed a formative experience in this sweet-water paradise. In 1920, Cousteau attended summer camp on Harvey’s Lake, where he used a hollow reed to take his first underwater breath. Harvey’s Lake is also considered a fisherman’s paradise, with deep, cool waters harboring trophy trout. Public boating access is available via a ramp on its southeast corner, off Roy Mountain Road.
Harvey’s is just one of hundreds of lakes and ponds in the Northeast Kingdom (NEK), many of which offer small-boat, kayak, and canoe access. Many powerboaters and sailors set a course for Lake Memphremagog, which stretches 31 miles from Newport, Vermont, to Magog, Quebec. The lake’s wide-open sections are perfect for waterskiing, wakeboarding, tubing, and sailing, plus there are several islands to explore. The small, lakeside town of Newport is packed with shops, restaurants and a handful of cozy B&Bs for boating families that want to plan an extended stay. Trailer-boaters can launch at the concrete ramp on South Bay or at Whipple Point, both in Newport. A smaller gravel launch is located on the John’s River in Derby.
Naturally, “Magog” boaters need to be aware of the U.S.-Canadian border that divides the lake. If you plan on crossing, you must file a float plan and check in with U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP). This can be done at the Newport City Dock via videophone or on-site inspection of your vessel. In 2013, Vermont’s CBP introduced a Small Vessel Reporting System that streamlines the process. You can fill out an online application at svrs.cbp.dhs.gov or schedule a visit to an enrollment center.
While Memphremagog is the largest of the Kingdom’s lakes, many consider Lake Willoughby to be the region’s crown jewel. Covering over 1,643 acres below the watchful eyes of Mount Pisgah and Mount Hor, Willoughby’s Caribbean-clear waters plunge to a depth of 308 feet, earning it apt comparison to Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne. Willoughby also offers good fishing, as evidenced by the 34-pound, state-record lake trout taken here in 1981.
Visiting boaters will find a convenient launch area in the town of Westmore, off Route 5A. A white-sand beach to the north offers a scenic spot for a picnic and a swim, while the southwest portion of the lake is bordered by Willoughby State Forest and its miles of hiking trails.
Fishing Thy Kingdom
As mentioned, fishing is a major draw, but it helps to have some professional advice if you want to score. The Village Sport Shop is a great place to start, and the staff there can offer valuable advice or set you up with a local guide. In my case, I was lucky enough to meet fishing guru Chris Raymond, a retired game-warden-turned-history teacher and Vermont guide.
Raymond was direct when I asked him how to catch fish in the NEK. “You want brookies, you want rainbows, you want lakers, you want bass, you want pike? What do you want to fish for?” he asked. When I told him I had a 14-foot aluminum boat, a couple of medium-light spinning outfits, and a tackle bag of lures for bass and pike, along with two kids who liked fast action, Raymond designed a five-day flight plan. We would spend a couple days fishing the Moore Reservoir on the New Hampshire-Vermont border, another day on Lake Willoughby, and a few days on some local streams, brooks, and small “sun ponds.” I couldn’t wait to get started, and I did so on the mighty Connecticut River.
The Connecticut, which flows from northern New Hampshire to Long Island Sound, offers many terrific places to boat and fish as it winds along the border of the Northern Kingdom. Among them is 3,500-acre Moore Reservoir, which is shared by Vermont and New Hampshire, and offers stunning views of the White Mountains. PG&E National Energy maintains several access points on the reservoir, and there are plenty of spots along the shore where you can beach a boat.
In our case we launched just above the Frank D. Comerford Dam at the western end of the reservoir. The launch area here is perfect for small craft, and offers ample free parking. Despite the beautiful day, we had the place to ourselves, and the reservoir’s population of smallmouth bass proved hungry and willing. Over the course of a few hours, my daughter and I caught fish after fish on a “wacky-rigged” Senko worm that proved irresistible to the local smallies.
The next day, we switched gears and headed for the town of Westmore. Here, we hiked through Willoughby State Forest, where we found beautiful Mill Brook, which flows from Long Pond to Lake Willoughby. It’s peppered with swimming holes and even features a couple of natural water slides, which my kids enjoyed to no end. No powerboats are allowed on the pond, but there’s an excellent canoe and kayak launch off Long Pond Road. Best of all, like most small ponds in the Kingdom, Long Pond is full of trout!
From Mill Brook, we headed south to a granite formation called Devil’s Rock, on the Mount Pisgah side of Lake Willoughby. As its name implies, the imposing edifice presents the profile of a devil’s face, and is a popular diving spot for daring locals and vacationers alike. Here, my wife and I watched as our kids repeatedly launched themselves off the devil’s “forehead” and plunged into the lake, some 20 feet below.
Our day culminated with an off-road odyssey through East Burke to the Moose River, in the town of Victory. As I slipped and stumbled over slippery river boulders, flipping worms into quiet pools for native brook trout, I was transported back to my childhood days of wading New Hampshire streams.
It was then, with my kids flopping and sliding behind me like river otters and completely unplugged from the world of electronic devices, that I finally discovered what it meant to be a “one-percenter.” Visit the Northeast Kingdom and you can be one, too!
Where to Stay: Harvey’s Lake Havens
Named after Colonel Alexander Harvey, one of the original settlers of Barnet, Vermont, Harvey’s Lake is a spectacular hideaway in the heart of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. During our visit to the lake last summer, our family stayed at The Cabins on Harvey’s Lake, at the northern end of the lake and near a public park with a quarter-mile of sandy beach.
Owned by Michael Vereline and tended to by his daughter Kathryn, The Cabins on Harvey’s Lake consist of 14 unique, post-and-beam units on 39 acres of private, communal land. Each cabin is equipped with pots, pans, dishes, glassware, silverware, a toaster, a coffee maker with filters, cleaning supplies, trash bags, toilet tissue and paper towels. Also included are pillows, mattress pads, and blankets for the comfortable mattresses or futons. Outside you’ll find a fire pit, picnic table and lawn chairs. Note that bedsheets, pillowcases and towels are not provided, so you must bring your own or rent them from Harvey’s. Also, the cabins do not have telephones, microwaves or televisions. A shared dock offers enough room for a small aluminum boat.
The Cabins on Harvey’s Lake rent between Memorial Day and Columbus Day. Groups and families may rent up to all nine cabins for retreats, reunions and other special events.
Northeast Kingdom Boating Resources
Boaters born after January 1, 1974, must have a boating education card in their possession when operating a motorboat in Vermont. Also, many of the lakes and ponds have powerboat restrictions and speed limits, so check local regulations before launching.
Terrific resource for launch ramp and water-access sites in the NEK.
Bathymetric charts of Vermont’s lakes and ponds.