HOLDERNESS — Squam Lake’s 62 miles of shoreline lacks commercial development and is mostly in private hands. All but two of its 33 islands are privately owned. And it has only one free public boat access.
Recreational opportunities might seem scarce on the 6,791-acre lake, but not if you know where to look.
Squam Lakes Association Executive Director E.B. James took a skiff out on the lake one day last week to display some of those opportunities.
The 114-year-old association, located at 534 U.S. Route 3 in Holderness, is dedicated to conserving for the public benefit the beauty, peaceful character and resources of the watershed.
Kayaks and canoes are rented from its docks for those who want to explore the lake, including Moon and Bowman islands, which are owned by the association and available for overnight camping through a reservation system. The docks are also used by rowers of a crew organization and by a sailing group.
It’s a paddle of about a mile and a-half from the docks to the islands. Travel time varies depending on the skill and strength of the paddler and the condition of wind and water.
“We have a deed restriction on the property, so nothing goes in here that’s got more than a 25 horse,” James said. “Culturally, as a conservation group, we prefer the canoe, kayak thing. We don’t rent motorboats, so you could be in for an all-day to get to an island.
“It really depends on your skill set. JSLA went out there this morning, our summer camp, the 8-year-olds. I suspect it took them 3 hours. I could do it in about 35 minutes.”
The skiff had a 25 horsepower motor, making for an easy, 1.5 mile crossing to Moon Island on calm water under broken clouds.
After he throttled up, James explained the look of the shoreline.
“The shoreline density is about the same as a lot of Winnipesaukee but the way that it has evolved is that people tend to use more blending paints and they leave screens up so that they don’t pop in quite the same way that Winnipesaukee pops. So it allows for this really heavily developed, heavily used lake to have this wilderness feel, which is rare.”
Many people make the crossing for a day trip, giving them a destination and an island to explore.
“The nice thing about these islands is even if you don’t get out on the island, you can tuck yourself right up into the island and no one is going to look at you askance,” he said.
The other nice thing about Squam is that while some areas can be crowded at times, depending on the hour of the day or the day of the week, you can seemingly have the lake to yourself.
“It’s 1 o’clock in the afternoon on a beautiful summer’s day and it’s like it’s ours,” James said as the skiff approached Moon Island. “The weekends are very crowded but even the weekends, if you fish for instance, I go on the lake at 5 o’clock in the morning and I come off at 8 and I haven’t shared the lake with anyone.”
He said that Lake Winnipesaukee was once known for its prevalence of fish, while Squam was known for larger-sized fish. In the movie, “On Golden Pond,” a large fish named Walter is part of the plot. In real life, a restaurant called Walter’s Basin is a mainstay in Holderness.
“Fish and Game has done an exceptional job in the last three years of balancing out the population,” James said. “I’m sure there are big fish out there but you could now go out with reasonable expectation of catching one any way.”
Landlocked salmon and trout are among the fish that are stocked.
“Our summer camp went out with Fish and Game yesterday and electro-shocked one of the streams coming into here and they found 36 naturally reproduced salmon,” he said. “It would not be a fishery without stocking, but apparently they are getting the job done all by themselves.”
He said the shock process stuns the fish so they can be counted, but does not kill them.
He spotted a bald eagle in a tree on the island, and then a loon began its wail, almost sounding like a wolf’s howl.
“That’s the loon alarming and letting everyone know there is a bald eagle,” James said. “There’s one that nests right around this island. Most of the hauntingly beautiful loon sounds are them complaining about something.”
An eagle would have a hard time taking an adult loon, but would be able to swoop down and carry away a loon chick.
Waterfowl have a keen awareness of birds of prey.
“In the wintertime, our little cove freezes up last so you get tons of waterfowl in there and the eagles come by,” he said. “An eagle will come down and all the ducks will disappear below the water and they pop back up like bobbers. A goose will disappear under the water.”
After tying up at the dock, James provided a tour of 30-acre Moon Island, which was purchased by the Squam Lakes Association in 1986.
The island has three campsites and a toilet facility. There are several small beaches which may be used for landing nonmotorized boats. There are two docks – one is reserved for loading and unloading only, while the other dock is reserved for camping.
A plaque on the island explains its history.
“In 1902 Isabella Curtis purchased Moon Island and on this site in 1904 she built her summer camp. Eighty years later, when owned by her niece Fanny Curtis Ham and her niece’s husband Thomas Hale Ham, it was destroyed by lightning.
“The Hams shared Moon Island with friend and stranger, and when the time came to sell it, they offered it to the Squam Lakes Association so that their tradition of sharing would continue.”
A short boat ride across a narrow channel from Moon Island is 23-acre Bowman Island, which has been owned by the association since 1994. It has three small campsites, a group site and toilet facilities. There is also a primitive cabin.
On the way back to headquarters, James pointed out a Great Blue Heron in a forested area. The bird excels at catching fish by wading along the shoreline and using their sharp bills to stab at prey. They are graceful in flight and can glide at speeds of up to 30 mph.
With all the forest land around Squam Lake, it is hard to believe that all this vegetation once did not exist.
Dave Katz talks about this history on boat tours he conducts for the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center in Holderness. The center also has animals that were orphaned, injured or otherwise could not survive in the wild, including river otters, mountain lions, bobcats, deer, bears, birds and foxes.
“I talk about how the lake has been used over time,” he said.
“It starts with the glaciers. They came in and they pushed all the useable soil down to Massachusetts. When the settlers came in after the French and Indian War, they tried agriculture. That didn't work because of soil conditions.
“They went to livestock and raised 800,000 to a million sheep between Vermont and New Hampshire. The railroads came in during the 1850s and took the sheep business away. They went to where the land was flat and more green.
“Then logging took over and the entire watershed was clear cut from the Civil War to 1900. Tourism came after that.”
One of the private islands in the lake is called Sheep Island. Nearby is Chocorua Island, also known as Church Island.
This was the site of one of the first boys camps on the East Coast. It went out of business in 1889. The property was purchased and rededicated as a sanctuary, Katz said.
Church services are held there every Sunday. During the week, people can dock on the island and walk through the sanctuary.
He also points out Rockywold Deephaven Camps on the shore of the lake in Holderness. It’s a camp for families and has been operating for more than 100 years.
If you go:
Reservations are needed through the Squam Lakes Association for Moon and Bowman islands, as well as for those in Chamberlain-Reynolds Memorial Forest, a 157-acre forest with over a mile of Squam Lake waterfront that was donated to New England Forestry Foundation in 1953.
The association manages its shorefront area, which includes several public beaches and hiking trails that start on College Road in Center Harbor.
There are four campsites in the forest at Wister Point, which are accessible from land and parking is available at the West Parking Lot on College Road. Another campsite at Heron Cove can only be accessed by water.
The association also has 90-acre Belknap Woods in Center Harbor at the mouth of Dog Cove and along Route 25-B. People can carry in canoes and kayaks and paddle to the Chamberlain Reynolds Memorial Forest. There is a network of trails.
Hiking trails out of Holderness, including on West Rattlesnake Mountain, provide breathtaking views of the lake. Nearby, Five Finger Point trail takes hikers to the water’s edge.
On the web:
Squam Lakes Association: www.squamlakes.org
Squam Lakes Natural Science Center: www.nhnature.org
New Hampshire Fish and Game: www.wildlife.state.nh.us
Rockywold Deephaven Camps: www.rdcsquam.com
Chocorua Island Chapel Association: www.churchisland.org