(Blueberry) Lake of Dreams

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One man's dream for his children becomes a reality for an entire community.

About six years ago, Reid and Laurie Greenberg moved with their three young children to the threshold of paradise, to take up residence on a patch of idyllic turf. They could walk out their front door to see layers of mist drifting over lake waters, illuminated by the sun rising above the low mountains to the east. Waxwings, woodpeckers, osprey, and bald eagles would be going about their daily chores, and migrating ducks and geese would circle overhead. Laurie would head out for a morning run “and just suck in the majesty of the view,” according to Reid. 

In the lake’s waters, trout as large as twenty inches long flourished. Beavers could be seen collecting material to use in various construction projects. In the evening, Reid and Laurie might head out for a short paddle to a tiny island to enjoy the alpenglow of the setting sun followed by the darkening of the skies and the gradual emergence of a starry firmament. It was all “pretty magical,” says Reid.

That paradisiacal place was Blueberry Lake, at the foot of the Roxbury range in the southeastern corner of the Mad River Valley. The Greenbergs have since moved on to live elsewhere in the Valley, but the lake remains for them and for hundreds of other Valley residents and visitors an exceptional—and magically beautiful—recreational asset.

As natural phenomena go, however, Blueberry Lake is almost literally a babe in the woods. It is barely thirty-five years old, the brainchild of Lenord Robinson, now eighty-five, whose family has lived near the lake site for several decades. For more than twenty years, Robinson had been thinking of creating a lake on a tract of marshy land that lay cradled in a high basin beneath the Roxbury ridge.

Although he had abstract (and never realized) ideas for revenue-generating development, his primary motivation was to provide a space for his nine children to fish and swim. But he was also driven by a primal, deeply imbedded urge simply to build something cool. “I think I always had water on the brain,” says Robinson. “And I like to build things.”

Robinson partnered with the out-of-state investor Jack Keir in the late 1970s in the purchase of hundreds of acres, including the proposed lake site, at which point the creation of a forty-five-acre lake might have seemed fairly straightforward. Get the state and federal permits, build a dam in the right location, let the lake fill in. But as often happens with land transactions and development, it was a complicated legal and financial process, one that did not go Robinson’s way. 

When he partnered with Keir, says Robinson, “it seemed like a perfect match. I had the [earth-moving] equipment, he had the money.” But Robinson and Keir were almost literally on different pages. Not surprisingly, Keir required that lawyers draw up paperwork, while Robinson wanted to do things in the old-fashioned manner—“I had always done business this way,” he says, extending an arm as if for a handshake. But eventually an agreement on paper was reached, and the new partners proceeded.

When a test hole dug at the original dam site envisioned by geologists and engineers produced what Robinson calls a “gusher,” the site of the dam was relocated nearly 1,500 feet away, to where it is today, on the lake’s northwestern edge. Peat as deep as twenty-five feet was moved from the dam site, and tree stumps were bulldozed to build a base layer, to be covered with peat and sand, for the island that would later become the Greenbergs’ sunset spot.

The lake, says Robinson, filled up in surprisingly rapid order after the dam was completed, in the winter of 1981. Filled by numerous springs, the lake was fully formed in just a matter of months. “It was the cleanest lake in the country as far as I was concerned,” says Robinson proudly. “It was all spring fed.”

But if the lake itself was finished business, determining who owned it was not. After various legal negotiations and an encounter in court, Keir ended up with full ownership of the land. That outcome, says Robinson, was “a bitter pill to swallow,” although he was able to hold on to land just down the road, where he had laid out the trail network of the Blueberry Lake Cross Country Center.

Eventually, in 2001, Keir’s family sold 370 acres—the lion’s share of the property previously owned by Keir—to the Trust for Public Land for $1.1 million, and the U.S. Forest Service acquired the land from the TPL for about the same amount a few months later. 

While the building of the lake may have been a financial Waterloo for Robinson, he has no regrets about what he created. “I drive by it almost every day, and it pleases me to see all the people enjoying it. It was something I had to do,” he says, sounding almost as if he had been prodded into action by some mystical force of divine providence.

The acquisition of the land by the Forest Service in 2001 was greeted by Vermont’s political leaders—U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy and Jim Jeffords and Representative Bernie Sanders—with a chorus of joyful hallelujahs. “This land will make a great addition to the National Forest,” said Jeffords. Sanders chimed in: “The protection of Blueberry Lake is good for the people of Vermont.”

“Protection,” however, would not mean a door slammed entirely shut for future use of the land. It was a concept to be applied somewhat loosely, in keeping with the Forest Service’s somewhat vague mission (“to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests”) for public land use. The Forest Service acquisition was a means “to stave off potential development around the lake,” according to Whitney Hatch, who was the New England regional director for the Trust for Public Land at the time. But, Hatch said, the lake was a valuable resource “for public use and enjoyment.”

In other words, the lake would become protected from development, but not from public use. Since then, the Forest Service has stated that its twin objectives for the land are to provide “better access and better recreational opportunities,” according to Holly Knox, district recreation program manager for the Forest Service office in Rochester. (Knox also acknowledges that, while unlikely, future logging on the land cannot be ruled out.)

The main focus of the first objective has been simply to improve parking areas at the main north and south access points for the lake. The main focus of the second objective has been far more compelling: the creation of a multi-use mountain bike trail system, primarily on the land to the west of the lakeshore.

Over the last few years, the Forest Service has teamed with the Mad River Riders, the Vermont Mountain Biking Association, the Mad River Valley Planning District, and Sustainable Trailworks, a Vermont company that specializes in the design and construction of multi-use trails. Sugarbush President Win Smith was also a key partner in the project. It has been, by all accounts, a job well done; the first phase of the trail network—about five miles—earned awards from the Forest Service as well as the International Mountain Biking Association. “I wish all of our trails could be built this sustainably,” says a USFS representative.

Sustainability, however, was just one objective of the trail network, and a somewhat secondary one at that. The main objective was to create trails that would be accessible and fun for a wide variety of users. The Blueberry Lake trails, relatively “nontechnical” in mountain biking terms, filled an important void in the overall Mad River Valley mountain biking picture, according to Atkinson. The Mad River Rippers, a group of young and often novice mountain bikers, had “no place to go without Blueberry Lake,” he says.

Now here was a relatively easy set of trails that kids and families could enjoy, and not just as mountain bikers; according to Atkinson, about 50 percent of all users are on foot, whether in sneakers or snowshoes. So successful was the first phase in the trail-building effort that three more phases are now in the works. A big piece of the puzzle is expected to be a trail down to Route 100 and Warren Falls, and an around-the-lake trail is a future (though challenging to realize) possibility.

But if the trail network has been a terrific recreational addition to the Valley, it is only a part of the overall recreational asset that the lake and its environs represent. In the entire Valley, stretching twenty-five miles from Granville Gulf in the south to Moretown in the north, there is no body of water comparable to Blueberry Lake. There are other mountain biking trails in the Valley, but for stand-up paddleboarding, flat-water kayaking, still-water fishing, and swimming in comfortably warm water (thanks to the relative shallowness of the lake), where else are you going to go?

The lake is a popular site for picnics, for barbecues, for outings with the family canine, and for birding, especially in the spring and fall. According to the Mad Birders, migrating waterfowl include mergansers, scoters, loons, and long-tailed ducks, with American redstarts, northern parulas, and magnolia warblers also frequent visitors.

And sometimes the lake has surprises up its sleeve. In January 2014, when the natural snow cover was thin, the best recreational entertainment in the Mad River Valley was cross-country skiing on the frozen lake, covered by an inch or two of pliable snow that made for skiing conditions comparable to those on a well-groomed trail. That added one more way to enjoy the lake for the Greenberg family, who were out there frequently as enthusiastic cross-country skiers.

So from Lenord Robinson’s water on the brain, this is what has come to pass. It can be thought of as something so grand as a piece of paradise or something as down-to-earth as a place to grill burgers on a warm summer evening. It is, simply, a beautiful body of water in exquisite surroundings. Blueberry Lake may be new, but it’s hard to imagine the Valley without it.

August is blueberry season at the lake.

A Women's Wednesday Night Ride, organized by the Mad River Riders. Hannah Flynn leads the way along the Tootsie Roll trail at Blueberry Lake.

Ansley and Matt Emelett practicing some mountain biking technique. 

Lenord's Loop trail at Blueberry Lake.