Sunday, June 1, 2014

Where the Waters Meet

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
1 Jun 2014 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - FZY (Fulton, NY) - 4B6 (Ticonderoga, NY) - SDC 4.1 1282.6


In the pre-dawn of May 10, 1775, on the shore of Lake Champlain, a lone British sentry stood at his post. He was undoubtedly bored, standing guard at the gateway of a ruined fort while a small garrison of British soldiers and their families slept within. Vicious battles occurred there during the French and Indian War, but no attack had been visited upon the site in sixteen years.

Imagine the soldier's surprise when he detected movement in the darkness. Shapes of men emerged, wraith-like, from the shadows. His verbal challenges went unanswered by the ghosts converging on the fortress gate. Fleeing inside, he failed to secure the door. Behind him poured a force of Rebel militiamen led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold. Bloodlessly, the surprise assault succeeded in capturing the slumbering British outpost.

It was the first Rebel victory of the American Revolutionary War.

Puddle Jumping

Two hundred and thirty-nine years after the American capture of Fort Ticonderoga in Upstate New York, Kristy, The Bear, and I circled the Oswego County Airport in Warrior 481. We were on a quest for fuel, both for ourselves and for the airplane. NOTAMs (NOtices To AirMen) listed two of the four runways as closed along with a plethora of taxiways. Visualizing the taxiway closures while still at home was virtually impossible because there is no FAA taxiway diagram available to identify which taxiway is which. We launched anyway because there was nothing in the litany of NOTAMs to suggest that the fuel pump or parking ramps were inaccessible.

With a single fly-over, the available routes on the surface were self-evident. We landed on runway 15, back-taxied to an available taxiway, then made for the fuel farm. Kristy and The Bear walked to the airport restaurant, Puddle Jumpers, while I fueled the Warrior.

Approaching the restaurant, I spotted The Bear waving frantically from her window seat and indicating her breakfast choice on the menu. Confetti pancakes, again. My blood sugar levels undulated just contemplating them.

As we waited for our breakfast, The Bear decided that Kristy seemed tense and moved immediately to remedy the situation with a shoulder rub. She is a very perceptive little Bear; Kristy had not undertaken an aeronautical journey of any distance since our return from First Flight and the Outer Banks last fall.

The Bear's pancakes arrived in all their candy sprinkled, sugary splendor. As we ate, our own meals skewing healthier than The Bear's, I briefed my family on our mission for the day. We would proceed east from the Oswego County Airport to Piseco, nestled among the lower peaks of the southern Adirondacks. From there, we would turn northeast to Ticonderoga for a visit to the historic fort. The route would keep us away from the highest peaks of the mountains.

The Bear savored her last triumphant bite. In hindsight, I can hardly believe she ate the whole thing. All I can say is that I am glad that we demand she eat better at home.

In compliance with GAPs (Good Aviating Practices), we each visited the restroom before departing for the Adirondacks. When it was The Bear's turn, we could hear her singing the Alaska state song at the top of her lungs through the restroom door.

Magnificent Desolation

Northeast of Syracuse, the population density dwindles abruptly toward zero and acres of emerald green forest extend as far as the eye can see, rippling over gradually rising terrain until reaching the roots of the Adirondacks.

Off in the distance, each ridge line grew taller than the previous, leading up to the Adirondack High Peaks that surround Lake Placid. It is a vista viewed more crisply through a monochromatic lens.

Nearer to Piseco, the ridges grew more substantial. Cumulus appeared just above our cruise altitude and the Warrior bumped in occasional updrafts. At Piseco, we turned northeast and followed the lower terrain toward Lake Champlain and Ticonderoga.

As we crossed Schroon Lake in the eastern portion of the Adirondacks, I was reminded of my first visit to the somewhat challenging little airport located at the north end of the lake.


Lake George (foreground) and Lake Champlain (background)
"Ticonderoga" is adapted from an Iroquois word meaning "where the waters meet" or "the place between waters" (or any number of synonymous variants depending on one's source). It is located on a river portage between the northern end of Lake George and the southern end of Lake Champlain.

As we cleared a final ridge to descend toward Lake Champlain, the location of the fort was obvious. It is positioned on a peninsula formed by a bend in the lake, strategically positioned to shell any ships foolhardy enough to attempt a northern foray on Lake Champlain.

Originally named Fort Carillon, the French constructed this fort in 1755 to dissuade the British from venturing north into "New France". It was the site of intense fighting during the French and Indian War. In 1758, 3,700 French and Canadian soldiers based at Carillon under the command of Montcalm threw back 17,000 British troops.

Under British General Amherst, a force returned in 1759. The French abandoned Fort Carillon, leaving behind a damaged stronghold that the British captured and renamed "Ticonderoga".

Fort Ticonderoga remained under British control until 1775 when Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold stealthily captured it. The next year, in 1776, Henry Knox and his men removed most of Ticonderoga's cannon and transported it to Boston in a remarkable sixty days. Ticonderoga's captured artillery was a critical component of General Washington's success in ending an eight year occupation of Boston by British soldiers.

Although Fort Ticonderoga was later used as a base to outfit Benedict Arnold's navy on Lake Champlain, it eventually fell into disuse. Early in the twentieth century, a restoration effort (still a work in progress) resulted in the structure that passed beneath our wings.

Ticonderoga sits on high ground overlooking the lake, towering over approaches from the south and east. However, the flat land approaches from the west and north leave the fort vulnerable to ground attack. To counter that threat, the designers of the fort constructed two outlying demi-lunes, heavy triangular stone structures connected by bridges to the main fort. These were to shield the stronghold wall from breaching by direct cannon fire. Bristling with cannon themselves, the demi-lunes would sacrificially bear the brunt of any artillery assault. If the demi-lunes were destroyed, the defenders could fall back to the main structure via the connecting bridges.

One of the volunteers wryly noted that the restored demi-lunes were built too high to be truly authentic. Whereas they should have been lower than the fort walls to allow cannon fire from the citadel proper to pass overhead, they were at the exact same height. Indeed, cannon on the fort walls were pointed directly at the backs of any defenders that might have stood on the demi-lunes!

As I stared at the rebuilt eighteenth century edifice below, I realized that Warrior 481 had become a time machine once again.

Looking south over Lake Champlain. Lake George is visible in the rear right of frame.

We flew over the modest Ticonderoga airport, consulted the windsock, and entered a right downwind for runway 20.

Ticonderoga Municipal Airport is a simple facility that lies in the eastern shadow of the Adirondacks. The runway is in excellent condition and connected to a parking ramp by a serpentine taxiway. Once the engine was stopped, we contacted Cy from the Adirondack Cab Company to pick us up as arranged the previous day. As it turned out, he was already outside the airport gate waiting for us. One-way fare to the fort was $6; we offered $8.

Back in Time

To visit Fort Ticonderoga is to travel back in time. Tailors and other craftsmen fabricate and repair everything from clothing to the fort itself using the techniques available to those who would have manned the site when it was active. Each season, the volunteers choose a year of the fort's history to recreate. For the duration of the 2014 season, Fort Ticonderoga will be steeped in 1776 and the volunteers were all outfitted as the Pennsylvania militiamen stationed there over two hundred years ago.

The Bear charged boldly in, searching for the main gate on the south side of the fort.

Fort Ticonderoga bristles with cannon barrels, particularly pointed southward toward the water.

We arrived shortly after the musket demonstration, but Gordy was kind enough to give us a personalized lesson in its operation.

Even from outside the main structure of the fort, the site commanded an impressive view south of Lake Champlain.

Although it was poorly defensible to the north and west, approaches to the fort over water would have been daunting for any aggressor.

We learned that many of the cannon on display at Ticonderoga came from Spanish fortresses in the Caribbean. Though they are not the exact artillery that would have been at the fort while it was active, they are comparable in technology and vintage.

Looming over the site to the west is Mount Defiance. When the British successfully hauled artillery to the peak of this hill overlooking Ticonderoga in 1777, the Americans had little choice but to abandon the fort. Although it is strategically situated to control the waterway, Fort Ticonderoga is quite susceptible to attack from higher ground.

Footsteps of Greatness

Having explored the outer terrace around the fortress, we set our sights on the main gate.

Within the portal, a plaque reminded us that we were treading in the footsteps of greatness, where George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allan, Benedict Arnold, Henry Knox, and many others who directly affected the course of the American Revolution had trod.

Within the protective walls, three structures bordered the parade grounds. To the right is the officer's quarters and, to the left, barracks for the enlisted men who manned the cannon. Riflemen would have lived outside the main wall in tents.

From atop the main wall, more cannon stood vigil over the southern waterway approach to the fort.

In addition to cannon, the fort was outfitted with revolutionary war era mortars.

Officer's Quarters

A museum resides within the former barracks for enlisted men. The windows are surely not original to the structure, but some contained flaws for the appearance of authenticity.

The museum contains an impressive amount of revolutionary war era weaponry, from Ethan Allen's musket (above) to the elegantly crafted swords of the Scottish Black Watch to arrowheads from indigenous tribes. All of the relics were relevant to the site and the battles fought there.

From within the barracks, the rich blue water of Lake Champlain made for a lovely vista. Those peering from these windows would have been well protected from a waterside attack behind two rows of cannon. Of course, no one was ever foolish enough to mount such a direct frontal assault on the fort.

Although much of the fort is a relatively modern restoration, portions of the wall are showing their age. Fort Ticonderoga is neither a state nor a national park and relies solely on ticket proceeds to maintain the site. Given their independent funding, I was impressed with the entire operation.

Cranky Pants

The approach of midday was heralded by crankiness on behalf of The Bear. Lunchtime was drawing near.

Within this door, a tailor was fashioning a new uniform using era-appropriate tools. I asked if he had the means to mend The Bear's cranky pants, which were beginning to show more explicitly than usual. Sadly, the fine art of fixing cranky pants was beyond his ken.

To rectify the crankiness, we temporarily departed the fort at midday in search of lunch.

The American Fort Cafe serves up reasonable fare at a not-unreasonable (if higher than average) cost. When the elderly cashier asked me how I enjoyed my lunch, I offered that it was far superior to the museum food of my childhood. This earned me a pleased smile.

After lunch, with crankiness vanquished, we returned to revolutionary times to observe a live musket demonstration.

We learned about the drill militiamen would have followed to load and fire their weapons without bumping into one another or inadvertently shooting their compatriots.

After the demo, we explored the remaining areas of the fort, including the Mars Center (the building was funded by the candy company) which, among other things, had actual uniforms on display from the late 1700's in a carefully climate controlled room.

We departed Fort Ticonderoga in the late afternoon once the sun passed sufficiently west that the barracks were cast in shadow.

As we waited for Cy, The Bear enjoyed some old fashioned stick candy. Kristy remembered these fondly from childhood visits to Greenfield Village. More sugar. I suppose if you're going to go in, you might as well go all the way.

When Cy appeared, he remarked, "I was going to give up on you!" Indeed, we spent several hours at the fort. En route to the airport, Cy chose a course that allowed him to show off his hometown, including a beautiful park along the LaChute River occupying the former site of a paper mill. Back at the airport, we paid our fare and tipped him well.

The Voyage Home

From the air over Ticonderoga, Lake Champlain could be seen winding north toward Montreal.

To the south, Lake George pointed the way to Glens Falls, NY.

We cruised home at 8500 feet. Chatter on the intercom was minimal as the smoothly humming airplane bore us through the sky. The Bear soon dozed off and, frankly, I was envious. We had a fun, but long day.

We retraced our route home across the lower Adirondacks, occasionally diverting around clouds that encroached on our altitude.

Descending toward Sodus, I looked over my shoulder at the shoreline and Sodus Bay, marveling at the magnificent return of summer. As our journey to Ticonderoga capably demonstrated, the return of good weather means more opportunity for voyages to exotic places, visits to family, and even occasional indulgence in time travel.