The Mountain Times

°F Sat, April 19, 2014

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Silver Lake Hydro Project, a great winter hiking destination

Photos by Julia Purdy
Penstock above the trail, with Lake Dunmore visible in the distance.

On a late midwinter afternoon the 3,000 foot-plus peaks of the Green Mountain ridge above Lake Dunmore-Moosalamoo, Worth, Monastery, and Romance mountains-glow frosty-white against a pale pink sky. Golden sunlight slants through the stands of mature pines and hemlocks along the trail, contrasting dramatically with the blue sky light pouring down onto whipped-cream mounds of snow. To the left, the black waters of Sucker Brook plunge downhill between caps of snow and submerged boulders.

This is the Silver Lake Trail, which winds up the steep escarpment to Silver Lake in the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area.

The Silver Lake Trail parallels the scenic Falls of Lana, but this cascade was not named for someone's lost love. During the patriotic fervor that accompanied the Mexican War of 1848, the cascade was christened in tribute to General John E. Wool, a war hero of that conflict. ("Lana" means wool in Spanish-much more romantic than Sucker Brook!) The trail traces the 1878 carriage road that once brought fashionable guests to the religious retreat known as Silver Lake House-a self-sufficient compound that included a rambling, three-story building, boathouses, and 2,500 acres of fields, orchards, and woods.

Silver Lake House was the divinely-inspired dream of Frank Chandler, who envisioned uplifting camp meetings at Silver Lake, which he had inherited. Silver Lake House's glory days lasted into the 1920's, when financial woes and ill health forced Chandler to move into town. The unoccupied building burned to the ground in 1938, possibly during a Middlebury College fraternity hazing party. In 1949 Frank II deeded the hotel's lands to the Green Mountain National Forest.

All that remains of the hotel are a few half-buried foundation stones and the beach itself. Today, the site is free and open to the public for camping, swimming, canoeing, and picnicking, although it is closed to motorized vehicles below the parking area on Silver Lake Road off the Goshen-Ripton Road.

One hundred years ago, Silver Lake was at the heart of an ambitious hydroelectric project of the Hortonia Power Company. This homegrown system was an impressive feat of engineering at the time. The vertical elevation between a reservoir and the generating station is known as the "head" - the higher the head, the stronger the force of the water that drives the turbines at the bottom.  At the time of the system's construction in 1916-1917, Silver Lake's 676-foot head was the highest one east of the Mississippi, and it is still the highest in Vermont.

Then, as now, a mile-long, 3-4' diameter tube called a penstock carried water to the tiny brick power station on the shore of Lake Dunmore. The Silver Lake Trail passes under the impressive, elevated penstock, which hums faintly, like a distant beehive. The tall water tower at Silver Lake absorbs temporary spikes or "burps" in water pressure due to seasonal fluctuations in stream flow. With another mountain stream, Dutton Brook, added more recently to the water supply, the expanded Silver Lake system draws from a watershed of 10 square miles.

Eventually needing to access more water, Hortonia began construction on the Goshen Dam, which bankrupted the little utility company in 1923. At that point Central Vermont Public Service Corporation (CVPS) acquired the system. They finished, the Goshen Dam created Sugar Hill Reservoir on Sucker Brook, resulting in a 3-tier gravity-feed system. This system has remained in place since then, with some modernization and upgrades. It qualifies for the National Register of Historic Places.

With more folks getting into the backcountry for recreation, and with the recent creation of the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area, Silver Lake and Goshen Dam have become popular destinations to access whether by bicycle, snowmobile, or foot power.

Today, Green Mountain Power (formerly CVPS) and the USDA Forest Service partner to offer a network of trails, fishing, swimming, picnicking, and camping within the setting of a clean, perpetual energy resource. Generation Asset Manager Mike Scarzello considers providing safe public recreation at these sites, the "fun part" of his job.

5--#5---snowman -at -Goshen -Dam

Photos by Julia Purdy
Snowman surveys Sugar Hill Reservoir from the top of Goshen Dam.

The Silver Lake station is one of twenty hydro plants that contribute about 6.5 percent of GMP's total power production throughout Vermont. Mike Scarzello says that the Silver Lake station can handle 60-70 cubic feet of water per second and operates 12-16 hours per day, depending on seasonal stream levels. An upgrade in 1988 enabled remote operation from GMP's Rutland headquarters. Its generator produces 5.3 million k.w.h. annually, or "enough to turn on at least 50,000 100-watt light-bulbs," according to Beth Eliason, environmental engineer at GMP.  The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) estimates that the same output by other means would cost an extra $62,500 per year.

The Silver Lake station is licensed by FERC, which imposes rigorous permitting requirements, including a Historic Properties Management Plan. Biology, aesthetics, water chemistry and quality all go into the mix. In addition, Silver Lake is certified as a small, low-impact project by the Low-Impact Hydropower Institute, a non-profit organization that oversees environmental issues involving hydropower production.

Silver Lake itself is a 110-acres serene water at 1,300-foot elevation. It's a known site of previous Native American activity-many artifacts have been discovered here.

On this particular day, snowmobilers picnicking at the dam built a snowman and watched as pools of water formed on the ice on Sugar Hill Reservoir through the afternoon. A group of cross-country skiers from nearby Blueberry Hill Inn dropped by to admire the view. Earlier, a lone moose had wandered across the access road, made a loop, and wandered back. Porcupine, raccoon, bobcat and bear make their homes here, as well as grouse, owl, hawk, and hosts of migratory birds.

To reach the Silver Lake Trail/Falls of Lana Trail: From Rochester or Brandon, take VT-73, then VT-53 from the general store in Forest Dale and drive 5.5 miles.