Paradise on the Water: the Newfound EcoTour
Story & Photos by Kathi Caldwell-Hopper
There was a time when summer just wasn’t summer for me without a canoe ride on Newfound Lake. I grew up in the Bristol, NH area and Newfound Lake was the water body of choice for don’t-go-many-places folks like my family. By my teen years I was busy with a summer job, but my brother and I always took a day to rent a canoe at a local marina and row around Newfound Lake before summer came to a close. The canoe rental was affordable and do-able for two boating limited teens. I recall the hot sun, getting the hang of rowing and being out on the beautiful lake.
Newfound Lake is indeed a gorgeous body of water and I still stop my car at any place I can safely do so and gaze at the water whenever I am in the Bristol area. There is a way to get out on the lake and to learn something about the natural world on the EcoTour, run by the Newfound Lake Region Association (NLRA).
The boat tour is just what the name says: a chance to get out on Newfound Lake in a boat (in this case, a pontoon boat) and learn about the ecology of the lake. (Newfound is known as among the cleanest lakes in the country.)
“I love pontoon boats and I will finally get the chance to get back on Newfound Lake!” I thought to myself as I contacted the NLRA to set up a time to go on an EcoTour, with narration by Newfound Audubon Center naturalists.
I spoke with NLRA’s executive director, Boyd Smith, who was happy to talk a bit about the tour, where it launched from and the days it goes out. He told me it is a popular way to see Newfound Lake and participants even get to help take some water samples and learn more about the geography and wildlife in the area. To take a tour, you must make reservations at least 48 hours in advance at www.newfoundlake.org/ecotours and pay by credit card online, or pay in cash or check at the dock before boarding the boat. The boat dock is located at Grey Rocks Conservation Area on North Shore Road in Hebron. (It is very easy to find: take Route 3 north from Bristol toward Plymouth. Turn onto North Shore Road – a left turn – and drive about a mile or so. You will see a large wooden sign on the left for Grey Rocks with a parking lot. Park your car and walk a few steps to the dock where the pontoon boat waits for passengers.)
When I arrived for the tour, I gathered my bag, camera and notebook and walked to the little dock where the EcoTour pontoon boat awaited. There were six people already on the boat and they looked excited to be getting out on the lake. Geoff MacDonald, an Audubon naturalist, also was on board. He would be leading the tour along with our captain, Andy Connelly.
Captain Andy gave a brief safety talk and showed us where life jackets were kept, and he also told us a bit about the pontoon boat, named Madeline.
He went on to explain that Newfound Lake is one of the cleanest lakes in the world - it is unofficially in the top 10 cleanest.
Geoffrey jumped in with more information about Newfound’s waters, telling us that Newfound is a watershed with two major rivers – the Cockermouth and Fowler Rivers providing much of the water for the 4,000-acre lake. He went on to say the property (Grey Rocks) where the EcoTour ties up was donated to the NLRA by the McLane family. The NLRA restored much of the property to its natural state and the channel where the EcoTour launches has lots of fish, including perch, trout and small-mouthed bass. You can launch non-motorized, carry-in boats such as kayaks from the boat ramp. For those who love to walk, there is a 1.5-mile trail system with bridges and observation platforms. As would be expected, wildlife viewing on the trail is abundant.
As the boat glided into the waterway, Geoffrey pointed out a mallard nearby and a turtle sunning itself on a rock jutting out of the water among the lily pads. “The Hebron Marsh is an important habitat,” Geoffrey told us. “The water in this area is just two-feet deep and you can see fish quite easily.”
He pointed out the Hebron town beach on the shoreline as we made our way out onto the lake. I found the tour to be a great way to see the area from the vantage point of the water, something I had not done for years. Nearby was Grey Rocks and Geoff and Capt. Andy gave us some interesting history, telling us it was a children’s camp, and donated to NLRA. Not far away we saw the shoreline of Paradise Point, a NH Audubon property.
I was amazed to see how forested and sometimes rocky the shoreline was and how unspoiled it looked even in this day and age of development. Capt. Andy pointed out that the Audubon property offers great walking trials, tall pines and even a nesting bald eagle. My fellow passengers were thrilled to learn that an eagle calls this area home. “Since 2012 the eagles have been here,” added Geoffrey. He stood and spread his arms wide to indicate the wing span of the amazing creatures.
He also mentioned that Audubon’s Paradise Point location (also on West Shore Road in Hebron) is a great place to rent kayaks.
The iconic Loon Island was spotted next and Geoffrey told us it is often seen in photographs of Newfound Lake. We all were surely dreaming of the heaven it would be to spend summers in the little white, well-kept but old-fashioned cottage surrounded by pine trees, the lake lapping at the shoreline.
Geoffrey told us, “The cottage owners on the island create their own solar power. In Hurricane of 1938, did quite a bit of damage.” One would never know it now when gazing at the tiny island and its one home as we traveled by in our pontoon boat.
We spotted Camp Mowglis, and Capt. Andy mentioned the name was from the Rudyard Kipling book, and used by special permission from Kipling himself.
Geoffrey told us that the lake is deep and rocky, which is probably why there are only five islands, unlike Winnipesaukee with its many islands. “The underwater topography is quite interesting,” commented Capt. Andy. “There is even a sunken island that is about 39 feet down.”
We soon passed Camp Onaway, and Pasquaney, with the distinction of being the oldest camp in the U.S. Summer campers are often on the lake, and their bright sailboats can be seen on a clear day.
Geoffrey told us that although we would see some boathouses near cottages, at this time building a boathouse on Newfound is no longer allowed. (The concrete used in boathouse construction impacts the lake water; this attests to the care and awareness people have for taking care of the precious natural world and the lake.)
When I commented that the shoreline looked in its natural state and heavily forested, Geoffrey explained, “The north shore of Newfound Lake is not so developed. Some areas are more populated than others.”
Capt. Andy told us that someplace in the area we were in, the old Stella Marion vessel lay at the bottom of the lake. (A bit of history provided by Geoffrey and Capt. Andy related that the vessel caught fire and sank many years ago.) Steamboats were widely used for carrying mail across the lake and for logging at one time.
Geoffrey pointed out Bear Mountain and told us when the sun hits the mountain at just the right angle, an outline of a bear can be seen on the cliffside! He also mentioned peregrine falcons have been in the area since 2006, producing nine offspring in 10 seasons.
“NH Audubon has made a great effort to resort the falcons,” Geoffrey said.
Soon we passed Tree Islands, known as the smallest island on Newfound Lake. Indeed, it lives up to its name and looks like a narrow strip of sand with some trees and not much else. It is, however, part of the natural charm of the lake.
We passed Mayhew Island and Capt. Andy said it is a camp for inner city boys and that Franklin Roosevelt Jr. was once a camp counselor on Mayhew.
We passed, in the distance, Cummings Beach and Nuttings Beach, and Geoffrey commented it was a popular area for waterskiing. He also pointed out Cardigan Mountain and the Wellington State Park boat launch and Belle and Cliff Islands.
We stopped at the ledges area, where the water is very deep. On the nearby shore, we gazed up at the rocky ledge area, which gives that part of the lake its name of the ledges. At the spot, Geoffrey and Capt. Andy prepared to do water quality testing. Geoffrey asked for two volunteers and two passengers wanted to help. Not to get too scientific and spoil the fun for those who want to take the tour, suffice to say we used various instruments to test depth and water temperature. Indeed, the water is quite clear as we all suspected.
Geoffrey told us that scientifically, every spring and fall the lake water “flips” on itself, but I will admit I was a bit out of my personal field of knowledge at that point; he can explain it much better when you take the tour.
We also viewed plankton in a magnifying jar. Geoffrey told us the little creatures are very important to the ecosystem and that the health of Newfound is good, which is great news for everyone. I think the tour’s stop for water testing would be fascinating to any younger passengers as well.
It was a glorious day on Newfound Lake, but all good things must eventually end and we eventually found ourselves back in the Hebron Marsh area.
My head was full of all I had seen and learned about Newfound Lake and the natural world we so often take for granted. My fellow passengers were very impressed with the tour as well and thanked Geoffrey and Capt. Andy as they exited the pontoon boat.
Geoffrey and Andy took a few minutes to chat with me and to answer further questions. The EcoTour boat is handicapped accessible and tours last about two hours and run through late August on Monday, Thursday and Friday from 10 am to noon and 1 to 3 pm. If the weather forecast is for rain/unsettled weather, the tour will be cancelled. The boat may be chartered for private tours, which include a docent and captain.
For further information about an EcoTour, call the NLRA at 603-744-8689 or go to www.newfoundlake.org. for boat tours and events, as well as in-depth information about protecting Newfound Lake, one of our most valuable resources.