Lake Winnipesaukee, Sebago and Chiputneticook

May - June 1997

By Reinhard Zollitsch


There comes a point in every canoeist’s life when you feel you have done enough small stream, river and pond paddling and are yearning for a more open horizon to canoe into. If you are not quite ready to venture out into the bights and bays of our New England coast or take on some stretch of the Maine Island Trail, what about our big lakes?

Trust me, they are challenging enough for an intermediate and even expert paddler and will teach you all you want to know in the boat-set-up and handling department as well as teach you to be prudent. But best of all, they are beautiful, majestic and beg to be circumnavigated. What an opportunity, what a trip! You can go for 100+ miles without a car shuttle. Put-in and take-out are the same. Great for a small group, ideal for a solo paddler.
So, where do we go?

I thought it might be interesting to do one big lake each in NH, ME and New Brunswick and find out how Maine and its neighbors to the west and east are treating their biggest or most popular lake. (Sorry, once a teacher, always a teacher. I can’t just bang around a lake or down a river without having something for my mind to work on.) And here is what I found out.

The choice of lake in NH was easy. Even before the movie “What about Bob?” did I want to canoe around this wonderfully lobed lake surrounded by mountain ranges on all sides. Just studying the map (and there is a very good one from deLorme) you get real excited and you can’t wait for school to let out to pack your gear.


Middle of May is a good time on Lake Winnipesaukee. The vacation season has not really started yet, I am told. So I packed my 16’ open Wenonah canoe, an old solo white water racing canoe that can handle waves and has plenty of volume to carry my gear and still is efficient to paddle. My personal note is a skeg rudder, an idea I borrowed from Olympic style racing kayaks. (Parts are also easily available for do-it-yourself installment.)

Full of anticipation I put in at Alton hoping to find 4 ideal overnight camp- sites with a view on my four and a half day – 100-mile clockwise circumnavigation.
The lake and its backdrop were just as breathtaking as my map suggested. Big open stretches, wooded islands, inlets and bays; and always mountains in the background. A closer look, however, towards the immediate shore I was paddling past, revealed a completely different picture.

Lake Winnipesaukee
A view towards Center Harbor on Lake Winnipesaukee

From Alton all the way up to Meredith and on around to Center Harbor, real estate agencies must have bought up the shore. Except for small stretches of natural shore, most of the shoreline was wall-to-wall condos. I must admit, most were the well-designed expensive kind that appeal to affluent city folks on vacation. But nevertheless they are condos, time-share apartments and marinas, all the “private, keep out, no trespassing” kind. No way to land for me, no place to pitch my little Timberline tent.

Where were the public campsites anyway? My map did not show them and I did not find a single suitable spot. So I hid in a corner of Weirs Beach near the entrance to Paugus Bay for the first night, then just outside of Center Harbor. My third night I spent way up in Moultonborough Bay on a tiny piece of real estate I had to share with a beaver, and my fourth night on a small beach just outside of Wolfboro. I felt I was the only canoe on the lake, causing problems for all the many motor boaters in their high-powered speedsters, all the way up to off-shore racing boats.

I had the distinct feeling of being unwelcome on this lake. From a canoe-camper’s point of view, this lake was gone. The surrounding communities must have decided to cater to the new kind of vacationer, the condo-power-person who brings lots of money to the community. This may be the way of the future, it may be progress, but I hate to see it happen. It’s the end of an era. So I sadly packed up my gear and left for Lake Sebago in Maine.


Lake Sebago in Maine is not the biggest lake, but it is the most popular and most populous and most accessible lake and therefore would be a better comparison with New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee, than say Moosehead, Flagstaff or the Rangeley Lakes.

It’s only 50 miles around, half the distance, but one big chunk of a lake. Only Raymond Neck and Frye Island jut into the lake from the North like a crooked finger flicking a crumb off a big round picnic table. The rest of the shore has few bights and sheltering islands. It can therefore get very windy and very rough on this lake and one should not attempt to cross it in a small boat.

Since there is a State Park with ample camping facilities near shore on the NNW point of the lake, I decided to put in at the Sebago Lake boat launch near Route #237 at the south end of the lake. The 20 odd miles north following the western shore of the lake are quite different from Lake Winnipesaukee. It isn’t wilderness, but it isn’t condo-land either. It seems to be frozen in time, as in the movie “Back to the Future”.

Sebago Lake
Sebago Lake State Park

It still looks like the early 60s, when I first came to Maine: white clapboard family camps with some modest additions like sky-lights and sun decks and docks all made of pressure-treated wood. But expensive vacation condos are rare and on a much smaller scale than on Lake Winnipesaukee. While I was not impressed with Birch Island near South Casco, which is chock full of house trailers for rent, I like that the town of Raymond, the biggest community along the lake, is neatly tucked away and by no means overpowers the landscape. Even the marinas are out of sight from the lake traveler like me.

The view around the lake is not as spectacular as Lake Winnipesaukee, but from the eastern shore I got a great view of the distant still snow-clad White Mountains.
All in all, Sebago does not seem to have changed much, but I am sure the old-timers of the lake would not agree with that. (If they want to see what it could have been, let them look at Lake Winnipesaukee.)


After two and a half days on the lake I was back in my trusty VW Golf to look at New Brunswick’s biggest set of lakes, the Chiputneticook Lakes along the American/Canadian border. But for variety’s sake I decided not to go around these lakes, but rather follow the St. Croix River for 125 miles from North Lake through Grand Lake and Spednic and all the way down the St. Croix to its mouth at Lubec/Campobello Island, in other words, follow that squiggly line, our easternmost international border.

North St. Croix River
Put-in on North St. Croix River, New Brunswick

And what a different world from both Lake Winnipesaukee and Sebago Lake I found here. While Lake Winnipesaukee reflected the ultra modern vacation world for city dwellers and while Sebago Lake tried to maintain its family weekend camp character of the fifties or sixties, the Chiputneticook Lakes on the other hand took me back to what I picture early pioneer days must have looked like. There were no condos anywhere, some very small communities here and there, mostly on the American side, but mostly isolated fishing camps on the Canadian side.

In the middle of Spednic Lake near Drykai Island, I could not see any sign of human habitation: no house, no shack, no boat-house, no dock, nothing. No Skill-saw or chainsaw, no logging equipment, no dog barking, no music, no kids screaming: no sound other than the swish of my paddle and the constant splash of my bow dividing the waters. An eagle soaring over its (protected) nest on Ned Island - what an experience, what a special moment in time.

Chiputneticook Lakes
Lunch break at Chiputneticook Lake

While Lake Winnipesaukee sported the biggest and fastest powerboats imaginable with names like Exterminator and Thunderbolt, Lake Sebago had somewhat older and distinctly less powerful boats that could pull a water skier or take the family out for a spin and a picnic, you know, boats like the old lapstrake Grady/White. The boats on the Chiputneticook Lakes, however, were mostly lake canoes, canvas over wood with a square transom, green of course, for fishing.

And while the boaters and people around the Chiputneticook Lakes were very interested in my solo canoe and asked very technical questions about my rudder and other features on my canoe, the Sebago people I met mostly nodded, waved and smiled smugly, saying that they would not be caught out there in that wind without a motor. Winnipesaukee boaters I did not really hear over the roar of their engines, but their gestures and body language did not sound too happy to me because they had to slow down in order not to swamp my canoe. I was definitely in their way, a nuisance and a thorn in their precious fun time, a black fly in their ointment. (One thing is sure, I would not want to be on this lake in a canoe at the height of the summer season.)

One early summer I paddled three lakes and ended up experiencing three different worlds: the Chiputneticook Lakes reflected a time you hear about in stories from your grandparents or read about, a world as intact as it ever was (including insects), with hunters and fishermen going about their business quietly. Lake Sebago to a large extent still reflects the world of our childhood, the time when people invented leisure time and weekend family retreats.

As for Lake Winnipesaukee, even though you can still find the beauty of a large lake surrounded by an impressive silhouette of mountains, this lake community seems to have decided to cater to transient, affluent mostly city vacationers; most of the shore-line has been taken over by real estate developers. Condo complexes are the dominant feature of the lakeshore. Public access is minimal; overnight campsites, such as those on Spednic, are non-existent.

In a nutshell: Winnipesaukee is a lake to have canoed, Lake Sebago you would not mind revisiting, but you cannot wait to get back to Spednic. Three big lakes in three adjoining states/provinces - and they could not be more different.

© Reinhard Zollitsch