An excursion on Squam Lake brings to mind the lines of 19th century poet, Christina Rossetti. “Tread softly! All the earth is holy ground.” The lake hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years. So says Jim Hall, who has lived on or near Squam all his life. Jim attributes the preservation of Squam and the surrounding area to local families, the Squam Lakes Association, and the surrounding towns’ protective zoning. People who, according to Jim, are from “the old school and have a great respect for the lake.”
The towns of Holderness, Sandwich, Ashland, Center Harbor, and Moultonborough border Squam Lake. Big and Little Squam are spring fed and connected by a channel. Big Squam is New Hampshire’s second largest lake with 61 miles of shoreline and 6,791 acres. It was first known as Keeseenunknipee, which means “the goose lake on the highlands.” After several other variations, “Asquam” was finally shortened to “Squam” in the 1800s.
The non-profit Squam Lakes Association in Holderness has been one of the guardians of the lake for many years. The SLA was founded in 1904 and ever since has dedicated itself to protecting Squam’s water quality and encouraging preservation through conservation, youth, and outreach programs. The association owns islands and areas open to the public for low impact recreation and camping. Access to the lake for kayaks, canoes, sailboats, and boats with 25-horsepower or less is located at the SLA facility. Visitors can consult the website for information.
Real estate on Squam is extremely desirable, in part due to the building laws implemented to protect Squam’s unspoiled beauty. A natural buffer of native vegetation must be maintained within 50 feet of the lake. The idea is “see but not be seen.” SLA’s guidelines specify that limbs and shorefront vegetation should be selectively thinned “so that you can see the lake from selected vantage points but also screen your buildings and yard as much as possible from viewers on the lake.”
If you want to know about the happenings on Squam, Jim Hall is the person to ask. As he put it, “I’ve been in it, over it, through it, and on it all my life.” Jim’s grandfather, Joe Taylor, was one of the last men to captain the mail boat streamers that carried mail and passengers to the islands on Squam. In the late 1940s, Jim’s father purchased property on Big Squam at Livernore Cove next to Finisterre Point and that’s where Jim grew up learning to swim and fish. He lived on Livernore Cove for 25 years with his wife, Laura, and children, Michelle and Craig. Jim has a great love for all the New Hampshire lakes, forests, and wildlife, having worked for the State as a biologist, followed by 16 years with New Hampshire Fish and Game. But Squam is special to him and represents a lifetime of memories.
According to Jim, there are many points of interest the public can enjoy with or without a boat. There are spots where you can drop your anchor for the day without a fee. The SLA allows day use of its Mooney and Bowman Islands. Chorcora Island, also known as Church Island, holds non-denominational church services and has become an enchanting venue for wedding ceremonies. For those without a boat, Jim suggests a hike up Rattlesnake Mountain. “It’s an easy hike and the view of Squam justifies putting it on your bucket list.” Red Hill, Mount Morgan, and Mount Percival are other climbs that afford fantastic views.
Jim also suggests a visit to the Squam River covered bridge. This bridge replaced a steel and concrete one that was condemned by the state. After the condemnation, a steel bridge was proposed but the citizens of Ashland decided they would prefer a covered bridge. The town placed $35,000 in a fund for the new bridge and the balance was raised by the Ashland Historical Society and spirited citizens through bake sales, dinners, and direct contributions. Milton Graton and Sons of Ashland constructed the bridge. Yankee Magazine called Arnold Graton “the man who saves covered bridges.” Of all the bridges Graton has worked on, the Squam River Bridge holds a special place in his heart.
Squam Lake is host to one of the most unique lodging experiences in New England. Since 1897, Rockywold-Deephaven Camp in Holderness has been offering simple, rustic vacations. Their 60 cottages are tucked in amid the pines. Each has its own fireplace, screened-in porch, private dock, and antique ice box where ice from Squam is delivered daily.
Other attractions worth visiting include Walter’s Basin Restaurant, the Common Man Restaurant, and the Sandwich Fair. The Squam Lakes Natural Science Center is an area favorite. It offers boat tours on Squam, including a spectacular fall foliage tour. The center itself is an extraordinary walk through the woods where you see NH wildlife in its natural setting.
Jim has many stories about the wildlife he has encountered over the years. He talked about a blue heron rookery on one of the private islands where he counted over a hundred nests. “You figure, two adults for each nest and the chicks, that’s a lot of herons…a noisy, squawking rookery.” There was also a family of bald eagles on one of the islands. Jim said you could cruise by and see the activity around the nest. He noted that the nest was abandoned a year ago and a new one was built on another island.
And then, of course, there are the loons made famous by the movie On Golden Pond. With mention of the 1981 film, Jim let out what may be little known secrets. Walter, the infamous fish, was “dreamed up for the movie. At the time, there were no rainbow trout in the lake to speak of. Fish and Game divers hooked a fish on the line for the movie people.” He added that the lake is now well stocked with trout but is really a bass lake. As far as the movie’s “Purgatory Cove,” it was “just a ‘no name’ rocky inlet on Big Squam.”
Being a lifelong fisherman, it was no surprise that Jim’s favorite memory centers on fishing – “hornpoutting” to be exact. He recalls many a night renting a rowboat with his father to legally fish after dark for bullheads. “We used hand lines and hooks, a fading art, to pull in hornpouts like crazy. The legal limit was 40 back then.” His description of lanterns flashing on and off around the lake as other fishermen joined in the catch invoked a magical scene.
Then came the obvious question. “Where’s the best fishing spot on the lake?” For the first time, Jim became vague in his answer. “You can drop a line wherever there’s a rocky reef and make a catch.” For a man who has treated Squam Lake as “holy ground” his whole life, it seems some things are too sacred to share.
This article was written by Mary O’Neill.