Twenty-six years after the film, the image still lingers: Henry Fonda and Kate Hepburn, in the twilight of their lives, come for another glorious summer on Golden Pond. The movie and its 10 Oscar nominations created a valentine to a certain kind of timelessness, and a certain kind of lake.
It was based on screenwriter Ernest Thompson’s memories of summers growing up on a big lake in Maine, but the filmmakers found the essence they were looking for among the glittering blue waters of central New Hampshire, on Squam Lake. Locals worried that the publicity would ruin the lake.
Writer and conservationist Dick Ober wrote about Squam a few years ago in Yankee, when the state finally completed a public boat launch on what had traditionally been an exclusive (some said elitist) lake. “It’s an intricate and treacherous lake, with 80-foot drop-offs falling sharply from boat-shredding reefs in a matter of yards,” he wrote. “It’s not a place to be without a decent chart.”
I had been around some of that intricate water — my wife, Kristen, and I had paddled the length of the lake in a wood-and-canvas canoe to mark our first wedding anniversary — but it was Dick who introduced us to Rockywold-Deephaven Camps on the northern shore of Bennett Cove, and it was through those camps that the lake became part of us. Around the rustic cabins and centuries-old pines, our daughter picked her first blueberries and first swam in water over her head. Our son heard his first loon. The quiet views and satiny water set our standard for lakes everywhere, and for summer in New England.
Six years after the opening of the new public landing, predictions of increased noise and boat traffic have turned out to be mostly wrong. The natural treachery of the navigation, not to mention the limited parking and Squam’s 40-mile-per-hour daytime speed limit, have conspired to keep the big powerboats away — at least most of them. And the fallout from the movie didn’t happen in big enough numbers to fundamentally change the character of the lake. Those high-profile worries proved to be red herrings alongside Squam’s true threat: the inexorable, often invisible forces of a changing culture.
As the old families on Squam have passed on or sold their properties, a long-held ethic of low impact and unobtrusiveness has given way to a new generation of owners who favor four-person Jet Skis and glassy, 20,000-square-foot vacation homes in full-on view from the water. Fertilizer from manicured lawns now leaches into the surface water; road salt runs off through once-wooded buffers. The invasive milfoil weed has shown up in several of the shallower basins, almost certainly carried in on the propellers of visiting boats. The nesting loon population, which had been increasing and stable over the past three decades, has recently been in troubling decline. There’s acid in the rain and mercury in the air. Squam’s famously clear water is slowly being clouded by factors far beyond its shores.
New visitors to Squam remain awed by how pristine it seems. But the incremental changes have not gone unnoticed by those who know the lake. An extraordinary number of individuals and organizations have staked a claim in its future. From land conservationists and legal watchdogs to loon biologists and water-sampling volunteers, a small army of citizens is trying to do something that may, in the end, prove impossible: preserve the character of a rare public jewel in the midst of a changing world. Kristen and I have a personal stake in that future, as well — for the transformative power of place, for the sake of our children’s children.
For general information about the area, including boating on the lake, activities, lodging, and dining, go to squamlakeschamber.com. Learn about open spaces, trails, and conservation around Squam at squamlakes.org