This Island Life

“Life’s burdens fall, its discords cease, I lapse in the glad release of Nature’s own exceeding peace.”
— John Greenleaf Whittier

Bear Island mornings belong to fishermen, polar bear swimmers and natural world philosophers.

Lake Winnipesaukee breezes carry the scent of pine to solitary figures holding cups of coffee on docks, and loon calls are the only sound to pierce the stillness. When the water is so calm it resembles an oil painting more than liquid, early risers feel as the poet John Greenleaf Whittier did during one of his visits to Lake Winnipesaukee in the 19th century: “Life’s burdens fall, its discords cease, / I lapse in the glad release/of Nature’s own exceeding peace.”

At 780 acres, Bear Island is the second largest island on Lake Winnipesaukee, but it is the largest freestanding island — Long Island, the largest island, is connected to mainland by a bridge. How many islands there are in New Hampshire’s largest lake is a matter of debate. One source states there are 253; another says there are 244; and yet another claims there are 274. The disparity is due to the uncertain criteria for differentiating an island and a large rock. As such a vast space, accessible only by boat, Bear Island’s isolation and size has made it a ground for rich history and has given it the unique position of being both as solitary a retreat as Thoreau’s Walden and as much a community as the downtown pub where everybody knows your name.

Bear Island, so named by Indian guides and explorers who were shocked to come face to face with four ornery bears during a surveying expedition in early 1772, has transformed from its roots as an austere farming community to a seasonal vacation haven. It has been home to a resort hotel, a post office, summer camps, a church, sheep and cows — of these only the summer camps and church remain. Where once there were farms, there are now summer homes. Some families have been on the island for multiple generations and across centuries, and some are still putting wood stain on new porches. Mike Taranto and his family fall somewhere in between the two.

The Tarantos started renting island cottages on Bear Island in 1951. The first summer they started with two weeks, the next summer it was four and the summer after that it was eight. Now the family is not unlike many other families on the island: they bought property, kept it in the family and are in their fourth generation to live on the lake. Mike Taranto was 11 when he started making the journey to New Hampshire from New Jersey each summer, and now that he has his adult children and a grandchild coming to the lake he concedes that he has indeed seen changes on Winnipesaukee, but at the same time much has stayed the same. He and his wife Teddy keep the unchanged, simple schedule his parents kept before him. He is an avid fisherman and president of the St. John’s Church Association on Bear Island and she is a voracious reader and a quilter. “As for the island, I consider it a time warp, this is the way it was in the 1950s. You come back year to year and the island stays pretty much the same.”

As much as Taranto and his family enjoy their solitude, they also enjoy hosting neighbors for cocktail parties, introducing friends to Bear Island for the first time and the sense of community among islanders. The Taranto family and many of their neighbors are only residents of New Hampshire from Memorial Day to the end of fall foliage, but curiously, the transient nature of island living seems to inspire greater community among folks who only live side-by-side a set time each year, as if the brevity of the season heightens the collective appreciation of the simplicity and beauty of living on the water. Bear Island’s vast trail system running through the interior of the island and maintained by the Bear Island Conservation Association, the historic non-denominational St. John’s Church and the old Bear Island Mail Dock, where island residents can greet the Sophie C. mail boat and receive their letters and packages, all provide arenas for island residents to bump into each other and organizations to keep them involved in community life.

The Bear Island Mail Dock was originally called the Bear Island Wharf. It was the main point of entry to the island and where supplies were delivered from the mainland. It also housed a one-room post office that, when it was closed by an economic move to close many small rural post offices by President Eisenhower and Congress in 1954, was alleged to be the smallest in the United States. Today the dock may no longer serve as a post office, but it is still a place where people congregate and receive their mail. Once a day the Sophie C., the oldest floating post office in the nation, docks at Bear Island as part of a tour run through the Mt. Washington Cruise line, and residents can pick up their packages. For adults, greeting the mail boat is an opportunity to catch up with neighbors or pick up a book or a board game from the exchange now housed in the old post office building. For island children the 11:30 a.m. docking of the mail boat is an opportunity to scramble aboard and buy ice cream before the captain shoves off for the next island and the next delivery.

On Sundays, the normally tranquil Deep Cove of Bear Island hums with boat motors as Bear Island residents and members of the larger Winnipesaukee community make their way to the St. John’s Church docks for Sunday morning service. After a 15-minute walk up to the highest point on the island, the elegant wooden tower and sturdy stone hall with its intricate stained-glass windows looms into view. The St. John’s on the Lake Association maintains the church and plans the services, and president Mike Taranto is not surprised by the popularity of the Sunday service in a time when national church attendance is dwindling. Speaking of the historical significance of the church he muses, “Everybody came. The religion was part of it, but the religion was only part of it. It was more than the religion. It was the place, the tradition, the spirituality of the space.”

There is a waiting list for ministers who wish to lead a service despite the uphill hike to get to the church, and each August, Bear Island’s Camp Nokomis for girls — their brother YMCA camp is also on Bear Island, Camp Lawrence for boys — orchestrates a service. Only when there are weddings, where the bridal party hikes up the hill in heels, arriving with pine needles clinging to their dresses, are church guests required to dress up. For Sunday services the St. John’s Web site encourages people to wear shorts and sneakers and to bring their well-behaved canine companions. Some Sundays the sound of the organ blends with the deep barks of Golden Retrievers and the higher yips of a Welsh Corgi or Scottie.

However, even islands are not without their politics, and Bear Island, like the rest of the Lake Winnipesaukee community, is struggling with the divisive issues of boating speed limits, conservation and development, and the soaring cost of island living. The movement to have a boating speed limit on Lake Winnipesaukee of 45 mph during the day and 25 mph at night gained enough momentum to pass the N.H. House in early 2006, but drowned once it hit the Senate floor one month later.

Members of the Senate argued that the boat speed on Winnipesaukee was not the ultimate safety concern, but that current rules needed to be better enforced. They also expressed concern about how speed laws would impact New Hampshire’s tourism industry. Currently, the speed limit bill is being revaluated and two zones of Lake Winnipesaukee will be designated as speed zoning area test sites, where Marine Patrol officers will enforce the speed laws debated by the House and Senate and will gather statistical data to present to legislators for when they continue to explore the implications of a lake-wide speed limit.

The Bear Island Conservation Association (BICA) was formed in 1975 as part of a 1960s reaction to the post-World War II surge in tourism and development in the Lakes Region and because island residents recognized the need for a charitable trust to manage the conservation land in the interior of the island. The entire center of the island is restricted from being developed and is laced with trails maintained by BICA and enjoyed by all Bear Islanders.

Current BICA President Wayne Towle has served for about two years and attributes much of the Bear Island community spirit to the trail system and protected land.

“There are lots of little spots to walk to. They are just destinations, and when you have kids these destinations become adventures.” But like other island residents, he worries about lake development and the high cost of island living. He and his wife Debbie, BICA treasurer, would like to leave their island home to their daughters, but he expressed concern about Winnipesaukee’s future and affordability. “The biggest issue with the island is the cost of living out here. I think just years from now this lake is going to be out of the reach of most people.”

One long-time Bear Island resident and her family have taken it upon themselves to guard Bear Island plants and animals in a subtle yet eye-opening way. The term “green living” has become part of the contemporary vernacular, and when Randa Steblez and her family decided to explore the green life on Bear Island and, in consultation with experts and other island residents, identify and catalog the shoreline plants as seen from a canoe, they put a new spin on its meaning.

The result of their work is a booklet published in 2001 and titled “Shoreline Plants of Lake Winnipesaukee: A Canoeist’s Journey,” which they enthusiastically distribute free of charge. Steblez plans to publish a similar booklet identifying the plants that line the path from the church docks to St. John’s Church itself. “When you know what it is you’re dealing with,” Steblez explains, “you might take the conservation of what you’re protecting more to heart.”

Steblez’s publications are not the only books to be inspired by Bear Island. BICA members published “Bear Island Reflections” in 1989 and it gives a rich account, not just of Bear Island history, but of the history of the Lakes Region as well.

Soon DSL Internet will be available on Bear Island and home computers will connect residents back to the mainland and the world at large on new level.

Perhaps the arrival of fast Internet access will mean that Bear Islanders will have to leave their retreats even less, or perhaps it will mean their summer homes will not be the same withdrawal into simple living for their grandchildren as they were for them.

Despite what changes the future will bring, there is an element of Bear Island living that will keep it always a community of renewal and nostalgia. Bear Islanders tap into the collective consciousness of Lake Winnipesaukee and the island and that is why people return to this isolated patch of land feeling like they have never left: they carry the lake water with them in their veins and the island in their fondest memories. John Greenleaf Whittier knew how to say good-bye to Lake Winnipesaukee at the end of the season, by looking forward to what experiences the lake would give to the next generation: