Lake Sunapee is a favorite destination for iceboaters from all over the Northeast. But often there's perfect ice and no wind. Don't forget to bring your skates!
Lake Sunapee
Lake Sunapee is a long, narrow lake stretching 10 miles north to south through the towns of New London, Sunapee and Newbury in west-central New Hampshire. The south end of the lake is dominated by 2700-foot Mount Sunapee, home to a large downhill skiing resort. The remainder of its shoreline is rugged but not mountainous. There's a small cluster of islands just south of the middle of the lake. A good access point is Blodgett's Landing off Route 103-A, halfway up the east shore of the lake. From Blodgett's Landing, it's easy to reach the islands, and two of Sunapee's three lighthouses. Georges Mills in the north is also convenient because of its proximity to Interstate 89.
Sunapee is a deep lake, 140 feet deep in spots, and it rarely freezes before January except for shallow coves and harbors. Once frozen, it becomes quickly snow-covered in a typical winter, but it stays frozen until April or even May. The best skating is often in late February and early March when freeze-thaw cycles can create spectacular smooth ice. Once I skated a round trip from Georges Mills to Newbury Harbor and back in 1 hour 17 minutes. More typically, smooth ice on Sunapee is a good excuse to explore coves, harbors and islands and take lots of photos.
Compared to Squam Lake, Sunapee is more developed, but it still has a wilderness aspect, especially in the winter when most of the lakefront cottages are deserted. The lake's three lighthouses have their lights switched off. Most of the docks are pulled up out of the water so the ice won't destroy them. Boats are safely tucked into their boathouses, but the boathouses themselves need protection from the ice, and the typical solution is to rig up an agitator, bubbler or pump to keep the water moving so it won't freeze. As a result, every boathouse is surrounded by a small patch of open water, and a large sign reading "Danger - Thin Ice" is nailed up on the outside wall facing the lake.
Away from the boathouses and docks, the ice thickness was more than adequate: 14 inches (35 cm), according to a local ice fisherman (right photo) who had drilled several holes through the ice with his power auger. Fishing over a deep hole, he and his partner had already caught their daily limit of lake trout and were packing up to head home. Their collapsible tents were mounted on platforms that could be hitched to the back of a snowmobile or ATV and dragged across the ice back to shore.
A fleet of iceboats were out testing the wind. These contraptions slide across the ice on three metal blades, and they can reach amazing speeds in a strong wind. On my trip north to Georges Mills, these sailors were walking and pushing more than they were sailing, but on the return trip to Blodgett's Landing, the wind came up and they rocketed past me at about 30 MPH.
The ice was definitely not smooth -- it had a pebbly texture, and there were many "fossilized" snowmobile tracks to contend with. Approaching Georges Mills in the northwest corner of the lake, the ice became crusty, snow-covered and unskateable. But everywhere else, the skating was effortless.
There were very few cracks, but there was one large pressure ridge running west to east, from the mouth of Sunapee Harbor to the vicinity of Soo-Nipi Park. As pressure ridges go, this one was not especially dangerous, and I was able to easily find safe crossing points.
My favorite part of the lake is cruising around the islands, particularly Great Island and Burkehaven Island, which have some sizeable summer cottages. Burkehaven Island can be reached by a rickety wooden bridge from the mainland, but Great Island is accessible only by boat in the summer. In the winter it's a different story, and the ice displays the frozen evidence of a variety of crossing methods -- on foot, on skis, on snowmobiles, and in cars and trucks. You need a truck to tow your ice fishing hut, or "bobhouse", out across the ice to your favorite fishing spot. These bobhouses (left and below) were part of a "fishing village" off Blodgett's Landing.
On March 16th, a sunny, warm and windless day, I attempted one last excursion on the ice. Plowing through the snowdrifts with difficulty, I passed the north tip of Great Island and skirted the south shore of Burkehaven
Island to the wooden bridge, then retraced my route back to Blodgett's Landing. The return trip was much faster, as I could skate in my outbound tracks, to the extent that my imprecise footwork allowed. I saw just one ice fisherman that day, a retiree from Massachusetts who was enjoying the ultimate in peace and quiet and beautiful scenery. It's hard to imagine a more perfect setting.
Copyright © 1998-2006 by Jamie Hess. All rights reserved worldwide.
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