Going back to Burton Island


When I was a kid, I remember watching my grandfather pilot the “Big Splash,” a 40-foot Mainship my grandparent’s kept in Mallets Bay, with total awe. He had a natural way of navigating the tricky waters of Lake Champlain and could make the colossal ship spin on a dime into the tightest of marinas.

My grandmother, a gifted leader in her own way, operated as the first mate. Her hospitality and ability to create fun out of nothing were unmatched on the choppy water of Vermont’s largest lake.

Each summer, they would take my brother and me to Burton Island State Park in St. Albans Bay. I took for granted the privilege of having access to a boat large enough to support two bedrooms and bathrooms, but who wouldn’t at that age?

The ride from Colchester to Burton Island was a long and epic adventure for a kid. To complete the trip, we would have to wait for the North Hero Bridge, a drawbridge that connects the islands of Lake Champlain, to grant us passage around North Hero and into St. Albans Bay. I loved waiting and watching for the huge structure to stretch it arms to the sky and wait as our fellow boaters would file through one by one.

Sadly, the boat has been gone for some time now. My grandparents sold due to the fact that, I assume anyway, boats are a pain in the ass to maintain. Now in their early eighties, they still look back on the visits to Burton Island with my brother and me fondly. Visiting Mike and Nancy Jarrett is always a real treat. I am their oldest grandchild and I like to think that I am the favorite of the bunch, but it is hard to know that for a fact.

Gramp, Mike, is a tall dude. Standing at 6-foot-2, he is nearly the tallest in the whole family. His green eyes and (mostly) full head of hair would make him quite the catch were he not so smitten by Gram. The former president and owner of Citizens Oil is often referred to as ‘the nicest man on earth’ by his friends in the community, and he has certainly earned that reputation. Not once can I recall an instance of Gramp losing his temper. I am also proud to say that he is a very progressive guy and always seems to be caught up on the news.

Gram is the mistress of fun. A chatty bird, she is never at a loss for words. Her dark brown eyes have a way of betraying her fun side and dealing out hairy eyeballs to all who cross her. Her high cheekbones and glowing smile earned her the title of Miss Bennington back in the day, and it is still easy to see why she deservedly held the honor. Fearless in her words, she pulls no punches when she feels she has been dealt an injustice. That has always been my favorite part of her.

She spends much of her time quilting, employing her wealth of creativity to make thoughtful gifts for her family.

I have always held their marriage as the standard of what I should aim to achieve in a long-term relationship. They were married in October of 1959 and have been together ever since. Together, they bought a house, raised a family, retired, and have lead a happy, healthy life thereafter. They are the old school definition of the American Dream.

My grandmother likes to reminisce about so many pieces of my childhood that I was too young to remember, but some memories of Burton Island stand out with translucent clarity. I remember kissing a pretty girl behind a tree, despite the massive zit that was erupting from my chin that day. I remember skipping rocks on the north beach until my elbow hurt so much I couldn’t lift it over my head for the rest of the day. I also remember making five bucks from a drunk guy at a campfire for fitting some large number of marshmallows in my mouth that he thought would be impossible.

These memories are all gifts from my grandparents that I will keep with me forever. Since the sale of the Big Splash, Burton Island only exists in my memory, and while certain memories remain vivid, the details of the island itself are beginning to drift away. Burton Island exists in my mind as a faraway place that can’t be revisited any more, like the 90s and early 2000s of my youth. This summer, I will be challenging that notion by returning for the first time since I was fourteen years old, in 2004.

The fun part of this trip is that my girlfriend will be joining me. She is very attractive, and I like to show her off at beaches as much as I can. The less fun part of the trip is that I will be visiting the island without the company of my grandparents. I cannot think about Burton Island without thinking about them.

I still remember the exact location where I heard Gramp say “fuck” for the first and only time. He dropped a hot charcoal briquette on his foot and shouted the profanity as he kicked it away from himself before it could harm him. On that same trip, I heard Gram use a number of uncharacteristically harsh words when I happened upon her sneaking a cigarette on the bow of the boat.

While I’m sure new memories will be made, there is no replacement for the magical memories of childhood, where everything seems bigger and more important.

I’ll be sure to take lots of pictures for my grandparents and draft a lengthy email detailing the changes that have been made at the state park since our last visit. I’m excited to wander all the paths on which they let my brother and I roam unsupervised for hours on end. We only had to be back at base for lunch, dinner, and nighttime. The lack of supervision was something that our parents were, wisely, cautious to grant us. Now my biggest fear is whether my back can handle sleeping in a tent for two nights.

My grandparents are responsible, in part, for instilling a sense of fun and adventure in me. Burton Island itself is not a magical place. Even as a kid I was able to recognize the chipped paint and tilted structures that dotted the landscape. My grandparents made it magical with card games, campfires, storytelling, fishing, hikes, and legendary snack runs to the island store seconds before closing. Burton Island is where I became, and still am, the best left-handed rock skipper in Vermont. Legend has it that my 2003 throw on the eerily calm and windless day is still skipping somewhere up in Canada.

I hope to embody the spirit of my grandparents when Josie and I make the trip in June. Bringing fun, snacks, and a sense of wonder to the days and nights that we spend in our little waterfront lean-to together. Mike and Nancy taught me well.