Travel

Vermont’s floating bridge a small marvel since 1820

The sculpture in Hippopotamus Park , near the floating bridge, in Brookfield, Vt.

The sculpture in Hippopotamus Park , near the floating bridge, in Brookfield, Vt.

As we drove onto the crossing of the newly reopened Brookfield floating bridge, we expected a sinking sensation, but instead enjoyed a smooth ride deliciously close to the surface of the lake. On that sunny day in June, my partner, Dan, and I slowly passed by anglers casting their lines and teenagers lining up on the wooden railings to cannonball into the glistening water.

The 321-foot-long, single-lane bridge that carries Vermont Route 65 over Sunset Lake in central Vermont is one of only three floating bridges in the nation and the only one east of the Mississippi. It replaces the 37-year-old timber crossing that was closed in 2008 when thin Styrofoam-filled plastic barrel pontoons were leaking and the slimy green bridge was sinking from deterioration. Engineering geeks may be excited to know it is the world’s first fiber-reinforced composite floating bridge with timber deck and railings that conceal five double-pontoon rafts connected as one monolithic beam-like structure under the length of the bridge.

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The modern bridge is the eighth version of the original floating log bridge built in 1820 after a resident fell through thin ice and drowned crossing the lake. The bridge has evolved in design from logs to wooden barrels, and later plastic barrel-pontoons, but has remained a focal point for the community. Despite improvements that have more than tripled the life expectancy of the bridge, some locals still complain they miss the fun of splashing through water on the sodden deck of the previous bridge.

We dropped our luggage at the Brookfield Bed & Breakfast before putting on our bathing suits and heading over to Hippopotamus Park for a swim. While gliding through the water, we chatted with a Yakima Indian US Army Ranger whose wife grew up near Brookfield. Soon he convinced Dan and me to hop up on the timber railing, and at the count of three we all jumped into the lake.

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After our delectable meal at Ariel’s — tender pan-roasted lamb loin for Dan and crispy chicken confit with fresh greens for me — we strolled back to the bridge as the moon was rising over the lake. Bart Whitcomb, a carpenter from Williamstown, showed off a 16-inch rainbow trout he had caught fishing off the bridge. “We came down to go fishing after supper,” he said. Whitcomb has been coming to the bridge with his son and friends for years to go swimming. “They love jumping off the bridge.”

Brookfield, 17 miles south of the capital Montpelier, is perfect for those looking for respite in a quiet hamlet. In Pond Village near the bridge and surrounding areas, you can see many historic Federal and Greek Revival buildings — including the Marvin Newton House (1133 Ridge Road) — a few working farms, including Fat Toad Farm, where the herd of Alpine goats provides for sweet goat’s milk caramel, and of course, the romance of the floating bridge. While the bridge will close to traffic from Nov. 6 until April, it is open to pedestrians year round.

Things to do

While the bridge attracts people for swimming, fishing, and kayaking in summer, fall is a perfect time to combine a foliage drive or bike trip with a visit to the bridge. If you’re in the mood for apple picking, Liberty Orchard (libertyorchardvt.com), a family-owned orchard in Brookfield, grows many varieties of apples, including a crisp and spicy Brookfield apple. In winter, consider attending the Ice Harvest Festival (watch for the date at brookfieldvt.org), a free family event in January with an ice-cutting demo, a snowshoe race, and ice skating.

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Just east of the bridge, stroll by the old Peck & Clark Co. (now a private residence) that in the late 1800s made hayforks, rakes, hoes, and cant hooks. Across from the Brookfield B&B on Route 65, look for the foundations of a whey (cheese) factory and a tannery. If you enjoy music, consider attending Vermont History Through Song on Oct. 26 at 4 p.m. (49 Ridge Road, 800-276-3927, brookfieldhistoricalsociety.wordpress.com).

Beyond Brookfield, the Rock of Ages Visitors Center in Barre offers tours of an old 600-foot-deep Barre Gray granite quarry. Quechee Gorge State Park in Hartford is home to Vermont’s 165-foot-deep Little Grand Canyon. Hike down to the gorge and out to the Ottauquechee Dam that powered the wool processor A. G. Dewey Co., which in the 1930s made uniforms for both the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. Nearby in Quechee, visit the Simon Pearce Mill to see hand-crafted glassware and enjoy a glassblowing demo.

If you enjoy charming old houses, consider staying at the Brookfield B&B (rates are $125-$150), a 112-year-old Italianate home and former parsonage near the floating bridge. Connie Karal runs it with her husband, George, a former dragster and Formula One racer. Connie can whip up a sumptuous breakfast and knows how to make her guests comfortable. The Green Trails Inn, run by cookbook author Jane Doerfer, is another option even closer to the bridge (rates $95-$135).

Ariel’s is the only restaurant in Brookfield, and is known for its creative cooking, fine wine, and fresh farm-to-table ingredients. Reservations are recommended. It’s a 15-minute drive to neighboring Randolph for other dining options, including the Black Krim Tavern (theblackkrimtavern.com/about.html) and kid-friendly Village Pizza (randolphvillagepizza.com).

Johanna Knapschaefer can be reached at jmknap@gmail.com.
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