To understand why Squam Lake was chosen as the setting for the 1981 movie classic On Golden Pond, you need to visit the area in autumn. In a gentle fall breeze, the lake’s surface—dappled with orange, red, and yellow leaves—ripples softly, exploding in orbs of reflected light. The very air seems to glow.
Golden in every respect, no matter what the season, “Squam” is actually the collective name for two lakes—Big Squam and Little Squam—which are connected by a short, winding channel. The area’s natural beauty is overwhelming, and staunchly protected by generations of families who own the venerable lakefront “camps” one sees scattered along the shoreline. Squam is listed as one of the “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” and its watershed is on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Squam may be golden, but boating on New Hampshire’s second largest lake is not for everyone. For one thing, unlike nearby Winnipesaukee, it’s not a place for cabin cruisers or cigarette boats. There’s a speed limit of 40 mph during the day, 20 mph at night, and no rafting is allowed. Squam is also one of three New Hampshire lakes (Conway and Silver Lake in Madison are the other two) that restrict the use of “houseboats,” defined as any vessel with “a head and a bed.”
“There’s not a lot of open water,” adds Tom Klein, operations manager for the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center in Holderness and a lifelong Squam boater. “It’s dotted with lots of islands, rocks and ledges. People call it a ‘bony’ lake.”
Bony indeed. Big Squam is only 6½ miles long, yet it contains 67 islands, nearly half of them unnamed, plus the aforementioned ledges that prey on keels, props and lower units (who doesn’t recall the famous wreck scene in On Golden Pond?).
That means boaters—especially newbies—need to keep a close eye on their chart and the lake’s navigational aids. The standard freshwater marker system applies on Squam: Keep south and west of red-topped buoys; north and east of black-topped buoys. Stay between solid-red or solid-black buoys. Take it slow, pay attention, and you should be okay.
In terms of boating amenities, three full-service marinas and a public, state-run boat launch are located on Little Squam, although most of the popular boating spots are on the larger lake. To get from one to the other, you have to pass through the channel, which flows below a covered bridge that limits maximum boat height to around 22 feet.
As mentioned, Squam is a great lake for small boats, and there are several places where you can launch a kayak, canoe, sailboat or skiff, including the grounds of the Squam Lakes Association (SLA) conservation group. SLA also rents canoes, kayaks and sailboats, by the half-day, day, weekend or week, depending on season. You’ll find their headquarters off Route 3 in Holderness. Two marinas on Squam also rent boats, kayaks and SUPs, and you can dock-and-dine at Walter’s Basin, at the channel entrance to Little Squam.
Note that there are no quaint lakeside towns brimming with boutiques and galleries on Squam. In short, there’s not a whole lot to spend money on, which many folks find refreshing. After all, you can always find a secluded cove with a nice beach where you can go ashore, swim, and enjoy a family picnic or daylong adventure.
Fishing is also popular on Squam, whose crystalline waters are home to numerous sport fish, including largemouth and smallmouth bass. “Almost every weekend during the summer there’s a bass tournament on the lake,” says Kent Smith, Manager of Holderness Harbor Marina. “We also have landlocked salmon and lake trout,” he adds, conjuring up memories of the mythical “Walter” from On Golden Pond. These two species are typically taken in deep water on downriggers during the summer months, although the former feed close to the surface in spring, just after ice-out. As for bass, June is prime time to catch them on their spawning beds in shallow water. In July, the bigger fish move to the rocky drop-offs and deeper structure, where they can be taken on jigs, spinnerbaits, crankbaits, and weighted soft-plastic worms.
If you like to hike, there are trails that wind through numerous nature preserves around the lake. Nearby Rattlesnake Mountain is a easy climb, even for young children, and the summit provides sweeping views of the lake and surrounding countryside. It’s a wonderful family hike, especially in the fall.
If you want to get a taste of Squam before launching your own boat, consider one of the 90-minute summer cruises offered by the Natural Science Center. Another option is to book a private charter with Captain Cindy O’Leary, who offers a variety of tours aboard her 23-foot Sea Ray. These range from fishing trips to visits to Church Island, where the first sleepover boys camp in America once stood (it’s now the location of a seasonal church).
On shore, the Natural Science Center, a wildlife preserve with live animals, nature trails, and a variety of hands-on activities, has lots to entertain and educate the whole family. The nearby Loon Center provides a look at the area’s iconic birds, which are sometimes seen flying over Little Squam at sunrise and sunset. And if the idea of spending the night on Big Squam fascinates you, call the SLA to reserve a campsite on Moon or Bowman Islands.
No matter how you experience Squam, you’re sure to collect your own share of golden moments to cherish for a lifetime.