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A foliage flight of fancy

Whether viewed from land or sky, Vermont's autumn beauty inspires

Email|Print| Text size + By Diane E. Foulds
Globe Correspondent / September 15, 2004

BRISTOL, Vt. -- On a long stretch of Route 17 in western Vermont, a yellow sign reads "geese." In foliage season, however, it's not as if you need to be told. Masses of the migrating waterfowl rise and descend into the valley like great moving meadows, honking in a cacophonous chorus that is all but deafening to those on the ground.

The highway intersects the Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area, a 400-acre bird sanctuary near Addison that supplies food and wide open space to what is probably New England's largest transient population: arctic-nesting snow geese. In April and late October, upwards of 20,000 birds touch down here before continuing south.

"It's quite a flight from the [arctic] tundra down to the Chesapeake Bay area, so we try to limit the disturbance while they're feeding and resting," says David Sausville, a state wildlife biologist who manages Dead Creek.

Yet travelers are welcome to explore the creek and observe the birds close up.

From a special parking area off Route 17, you can watch whole fields of squawking birds flap and roost. A display describes the 250 species of birds and animals that pass through, including eagles and blue herons. For an even closer look, take the half-mile dirt road next to the bridge that extends south along the cattail marsh. The best viewing times are just after sunrise or at dusk. Canada geese are most populous from mid- to late-September, while the snow geese -- named for their white plumage -- start appearing the second week of October and gradually thin out by mid-November. As if to greet them, state officials hold a wildlife festival here each year, including talks, bird-tagging demonstrations, and field walks. This year's is scheduled Oct. 2, 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Admission and parking are free.

Canoeing Dead Creek is probably the best way to see the birds up close, though canoe rental facilities are scarce. To see the landscape the way the geese do, though, nothing beats the view from the sky. Since the flocks arrive during peak foliage season, there's that colorful bonus: crimsons, oranges, maroons, chartreuses, and deep forest greens.

"It's gorgeous. You can't beat it," said Random Dudley, a pilot for Vermont Skydiving Adventures, which operates next door to Dead Creek

Dudley climbs to about 11,000 feet for his passengers to jump. First-timers go "tandem" with an experienced buddy who guides them. They free-fall for just under a minute, then open their chutes for a five-to-seven-minute float under brightly colored canopies.

"You can see Montreal, the Adirondacks, Mount Washington, the whole length of the Green Mountains, and the [Lake] Champlain Valley," he said. "A lot of people come from the local area to see what it looks like from above, or to see their own house. The parachutes themselves are rainbow, pinks, some black; you name it, they have everything."

The views along Route 17 are hardly disappointing if you stay earthbound. The 15-mile drive to Bristol passes red barns, cornfields, and hay rolled up like carpets. In the distance, mountain ridges loom in graduated layers of blue, and as the road dips and curves, you begin to understand why motorists shine their headlights in broad daylight: to jolt rubberneckers' attention away from the scenery.

Bristol is as scenic as it gets. With a mountain backdrop, old-fashioned common, and single traffic light, this sleepy town of 3,788 has somehow eluded chain stores, housing developments, and commercialism. It's a village of church suppers, movies in the park, and Wednesday-night band concerts. The next-day cleanup crew consists of a horse-drawn wagon, just as it did a century ago.

More important, Bristol is the gateway to Green Mountain National Forest. Stay east on Route 17 and it will take you over the 3,637-foot Appalachian Gap, a twisty corridor of mountain vistas deepened by the shadows of passing clouds. About 10 minutes of the drive is devoted to steep switchbacks, making it rough going for anyone prone to car sickness. But there's a reward at the top: a pristine mountain pond, a lookout with spectacular long-distance views, and the confluence of the Long and Appalachian trails. Governor Jim Douglas drives it every day to work. Word got out last March and when a fellow commuter's carpool fell through, he rang the governor and asked for a lift. The governor obliged. Though it puts your car brakes to the test, the "Ap Gap," as the locals call it, is tamer than the Lincoln Gap farther south, which is impassable in winter.

Once over the top, you descend into a different side of Vermont. The clues appear almost immediately: ski lifts, chalets, hotels with Swiss names, plows sitting idle. In Waitsfield, everything seems to beckon the passerby: shops, cafes, boutiques, massage centers. Suddenly, you're in a sales-driven environment, a contrast to Bristol's serenity. Yet Waitsfield and Warren, its Mad River Valley twin 5 miles south, have something Bristol lacks: towering mountains etched by graceful ski trails. In autumn, it makes for a visual feast.

Three spots are particularly breathtaking. The Inn at the Round Barn sits astride one of the region's most beautiful views. From Waitsfield's historic center, tiny Bridge Street, go through the covered bridge and up the hill on East Warren Road. You'll see the yellow barn on the left in its exquisite setting: cows grazing on an elevated meadow, a hillside pond, and memorable fields of color.

The second must-see is the crest of Bragg Hill Road. Driving north on Route 100, take the first left after the intersection with Route 17. The blacktop turns to dirt and winds past apple trees and grazing horses to a tiny hilltop cemetery with panoramic mountain views. The valley's three tallest peaks are laid out before you: Mad River Glen, Mount Ellen, and Lincoln Peak. Turn off the ignition and there's no sound or movement but the chirping of crickets, an occasional birdcall, and cattails nodding in the breeze.

A third delightful spot is Warren Airport. It's so small and old-fashioned that professional pilots might dismiss it as cute if it were not so scenic. Driving south from Waitsfield on Route 100, turn left onto Airport Road. It's a dirt lane that spirals up into the woods past ponds, remote homes, and a working farm. Go left at the airport sign and you begin to see the whole valley, shaped vaguely like a saddle. A paved landing strip divides the field into two perfectly mowed halves. All around are blue mountains edged by forest. As luck would have it, there are plenty of ringside seats. Anchor yourself at a picnic table, grab a seat on a bench in front of the airport building, rock on the worn wooden swing that hangs from a tall tree, or watch from Diner Soar Deli, the self-service cafe upstairs. The show begins when a vintage biplane starts growling down the runway with a sailplane hitched to its tail.

The gliders begin their "flights" at around 5,000 feet, and on a clear day, passengers can see New Hampshire's White Mountains to the east, Killington to the south, and the Adirondacks to the west.

"It is much quieter than being in a car," airport manager Bill McGinty noted, describing the view in one word: "ideal."

No wonder home sales boomed around here after 9/11. You get a sense of being safe and protected, of being, somehow, above it all.

Diane E. Foulds is a freelance writer in Burlington, Vt.

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