Lake Winnipesaukee can deceive you at times. For a body of water billed as the state’s largest lake — and a glance at the map will confirm that it is, no doubt — the lake can feel much smaller than those maps suggest. Especially to the north, the many islands and peninsulas make you feel as if the mainland is never too far away. And if you trace the lake’s outer edges, you’ll encounter a few no-wake zones around the busy town harbors and choke points between the shore and the islands.
As you motor through one of these in particular, headed north from Meredith toward Center Harbor, you’ll notice a little outpost in the channel. It’s notably different from the homes and camps that occupy the shores of Bear Island; a long and wide dock fronts the water along the no-wake zone, with a tiny green-trimmed building flying an American flag built right at the water’s edge. A sign at the roof’s edge reads: “Bear Island Post Office.”
Your first thought is that it could be fun to jump from the roof into the water below, if it’s deep enough. Your second thought is, who delivers the mail here?
As it turns out, New Hampshire’s largest lake is the home of the United States’ oldest floating post office.
Picture Lake Winnipesaukee, and at some point you’ll imagine the M/S Mount Washington. From its pier in Weirs Beach in Laconia, the Mount Washington traverses the lake on a cruise route showing off major points of interest. While anyone can buy a ticket for a lake cruise, the Mount Washington is a popular venue for functions, whether corporate get-togethers or summer weddings.
The Mount Washington has two sister vessels that sail out of Weirs Beach. The smaller boat, the Doris E., is outfitted for small-scale gatherings and has a shorter cruise route that focuses on the islands to the north of the Weirs. The larger of the two, the Sophie C., bears a unique designation on the sides of the bow: “U.S. Mail Boat.”
The Sophie C. carries out a seasonal tradition that began in 1892, making two daily mail runs to the islands and summer camps around Lake Winnipesaukee. Some stops only have one or two residents receiving mail; others, like Bear Island, serve hundreds. The Sophie C. is a self-contained post office and store, complete with its own postmark for mail that passes through the boat on its way to the mainland. The boat also sells ice cream and snacks, not only for cruise passengers but for those on the dock when the Sophie C. comes into port.
The mail season for the Sophie C. is rather short, from mid-June through the first or second week of September. For those who have homes on the islands, it’s just about right, as the seasonal properties begin closing up for the winter not long after Labor Day.
The short season also means the Sophie C. never has to contend with ice. That hardly means the boat’s route is obstacle-free; last year’s dry conditions left the lake waters unusually low, and the boat hit an underwater rock near one of its mail stops last August. The Sophie C. was unharmed, but the story made newspapers all the same.
In many ways, the Sophie C.’s service to the islands around the lake seems like a quaint reminder of the past. In a world of online payments and emails, daily mail service to an island seems like overkill. But how else do you get the newspaper to the islands? How else do you get the occasional package? If you have the benefit of a summer getaway on an island, why would you want to go through the trouble of heading back to shore and driving downtown when the post office can come to you instead? (And if you’re a kid at a summer camp, that’s not exactly an option for your “hello Mother, hello Father” letter back home.)
But the Sophie C. is about more than mail delivery. In fact, there’s so much the boat delivers — waves from cruise passengers, news from the shore, a treat for some kids on the dock, a social opportunity for those who aren’t merely visiting the island for a couple days — that can’t be stamped and stuffed in a mailbox. For those who live on the lake during the summer, the Sophie C. delivers a little piece of what’s going on back home, with residents never having to leave the dock to find out. And that’s quite a luxury to imagine, especially for those of us who can never completely escape the always-on, always-connected world of today.
The Sophie C. is one of those elements that makes a vacation home seem like a vacation.