Wild ride for ferries this winter on Lake Champlain

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ESSEX – If the weather has felt a little frenetic this winter with lots of low lows and high highs, you are not alone. Tyler Shafer has been a deckhand for Lake Champlain Ferries for the past four years and he’s noticed it too.

“It’s just weird weather. We were just in the 50’s. And then we’ll be in the teens tomorrow. It’s just a back and forth. It’s whiplash. seesaw, sure.”

He says tough days have been really common this winter, as have ferry closures and changes. Shafer confirmed there’s a lot more going on than “normal,” particularly for the 24-hour service between Plattsburgh and Grand Isle.

“The North Crossing has actually had a really tough time. The ice has built up and made it almost impossible for the boats to go through. [This is] Most of the ferry has closed in the last 20 to 25 years. [The Northern] Intersection normally never closes. So it’s very rare.”

It’s not the extreme cold that’s to blame, as the ferries are used to sailing through a frozen Lake Champlain. It’s the cold days mixed with the warm periods we’ve experienced and all the wind that accompanies large temperature swings.

“It’s the winds. It’s just like this strong north wind, strong south wind and back and forth. No quiet days this winter. Each time ice formed in the bays, it was simply blown out of the bays and pushed all the way north. So it’s just compacted like four feet deep of shards of ice that you can’t get through.”

I take the southern ferry from Charlotte, Vermont to Essex. It seems pretty restless to me: Big waves are sloshing against the boat and we hit chunks of ice left and right. But Shafer laughs when I call the waves big. He says that’s pretty mild: “Oh, that’s a bright day. I will say that. [There’s a] North wind is indeed coming now, soon. And we get four or five feet [waves] get out.”

He says the work on the ferries can be quite intense in winter, especially in such conditions. “You’re out in this weather, even if it’s raining, storming. I mean when water gets on the boat and immediately turns to ice and ice flakes off all day. Its hard.”

But Shafer is undeterred because he loves being on the water. He has operated a ship in the Navy, has his captain’s license and will soon be taking on one of the captain’s positions for Lake Champlain Ferries. Then it will be his job to make those tricky crossings.

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