Someone in your family probably remembers a time when receiving a letter was unusual. The message was typically handwritten and personal, and it told you that someone in another part of the world thought enough about you to sit down, organize their thoughts and craft a message, just for you.
There are still places in New Hampshire where getting mail is just as special, mostly because of how it's delivered.
On several islands of Lake Winnipesaukee, summertime residents and seasonal campers have been known to plan their whole day around the arrival of the Motor Vessel (M/V) Sophie C., the oldest floating post office in the United States. When it arrives it brings news, connections and ice cream – all things that can change the warm, gentle pace of island life.
From mid-June through mid-September, Mondays through Saturdays, the state’s only official U.S. Mail Boat departs from a dock in Weirs Beach twice daily to make a total of nine island stops on the state’s largest lake. Over the course of a summer, she can deliver up to 40,000 pieces of mail to everyone from campers at the YMCA kids camps on Bear Island to wealthy families that are sole owners of their own island retreats.
Postal Clerk Annie Nix has been part of this scene all her life. “I’d always spent my summers here on the lake and when I had a son I wanted him to have the same experience,” she says. Nix lives on Bear Island in the summer and in Vermont the rest of the year, where she works as a registered nurse.
Nix starts her day around 9:30 a.m. She boards the Sophie C. and sorts out the mail that’s been left earlier by the Laconia Post Office. Nix once walked a rural route in Vermont so she was familiar with the work when she took over here 15 years ago.
“This is considered a rural route,” she says, explaining how the U.S. Postal Service designates her job. “It’s similar to other rural routes, or what a foot carrier does. The only difference is we don’t walk.”
Nix says she’s commonly asked how the mail boat makes deliveries when it rains.
“Sometimes we put on slickers. The only time we didn’t make it all the way through was about eight years ago, when there was a tropical storm warning in the area and they told us to come in before we finished the afternoon route.”
The Sophie C. is part of the Mount Washington Cruises fleet, which also owns the huge M/S Mount Washington cruise ship. Sophie C.’s Skipper Bob Amann began working as a dishwasher on “the Mount” when he was 14-years-old; Nix worked as a young “galley girl” on the big ship until she graduated from college.
Like its sister vessel, the Sophie C. serves as a tour boat, sometimes bringing more than 100 passengers along on its mail route. But it’s a very different experience than riding the Mount.
The Sophie C., originally built in the 1940s, has a seasonal, homey feel. The lower deck has varnished wooden benches. Up top, passengers can sit outside, taking in the sun and the open air. There’s a small store onboard where snacks, souvenirs, ice cream, soft drinks and postcards are sold; you can buy a postcard here and have it stamped with the official “Sophie C.” U.S. postmark.
As the time for departure approaches, the Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad train pulls into its nearby station, tooting its horn. At 11 a.m., Skipper Amann blows the Sophie C.’s air horn and the ship heads out from the Weirs.
Amann gives a running commentary about the lake, the boat, and the area’s history as the 350 horsepower diesel engine putts away, moving the boat along at about 12 miles per hour. People wave from passing speedboats and pontoons. A canoe with a Dalmatian sitting atop rides by one side while a personal watercraft zooms past on the other.
Loon Island is an early stop on the route. As the boat approaches, Amann blows the horn and three people dressed in casual summer clothes emerge from a large house and amble towards the dock.
They’re all members of a family that has owned the island for generations, Nix explains. Now divided between Tennessee and California, they still gather here every year to catch up and slow down, easily falling into the ebb and flow of island living.
Amann and Nix greet them familiarly, chatting about how their summer is going. The man sips coffee from a mug while Nix talks to a women who has just arrived at the island. After about 15 minutes, the boat begins to pull away and Amann urges the passengers to “wave good-by to the only residents of Loon Island.”
Not long afterwards, the Sophie C. pulls into Bear Island, one of the largest islands on Winnipesaukee. It’s one of the busier stops because there are nearly 200 seasonal residences and two YMCA camps here. There was once a post office, a hotel, a general store and a church on Bear, Amman tells us.
A small crowd of about 15 people and two dogs wait at the dock, with more arriving as the Sophie C. ties up. The tiny old wooden post office building is still standing nearby but now it’s used primarily as a kind of community library, filled with books, games, VHS recordings, and other summertime diversions.
Nix jumps off the boat to fill up the mailboxes that are now attached to the back of the building. Meanwhile a group of island children – and a few adults – come aboard. The kids head below where a small freezer holds the ice cream treats. The adults chat with the passengers and approach the bridge where Skipper Amann hands them a copy today’s Laconia Daily Sun newspaper.
Next stop is Three Mile Island where the Appalachian Mountain Club has a multigenerational camp. Families rent small lakeside cabins and share three daily meals in a large central building. (A bugler daily announces the afternoon meal.)
“Online” is, if not forbidden, greatly discouraged on Three Mile Island. Amman says he was on the island several years ago talking with one of the managers when his cell phone rang.
“He asked me not to get the call,” he recalls. “I thought he was kidding at first but he wasn’t.”
As we tie up, a small crowd gathers to catch the only diversion they may see all day. Some put their fishing poles aside to take it all in. Both adults and children come aboard and head for the ice cream freezer.
The trip soon slows down into a gentle pattern, touring between islands and making shorter stops. On the eastern side of Bear Island, Nix simply drops a small bag on a dock and waves to a man who’s heading down to it as the Sophie C. pulls away.
During the afternoon, the boat approaches its Birch-Steamboat islands station. The small footbridge that attaches the two pieces of land is visible from the deck. “This is the highlight of the day,” seasonal resident Sarah Warren of Amherst calls out as we approach.
Nix goes ashore, greeting people and handing out copies of the Sun. There are just two mailboxes on the dock: one for the 14 Birch Island residences, and one for the Stoner family, sole residents of Steamboat Island.
Before she leaves, Nix has to pause for a group of dogs gathered around her, intent on getting one of the biscuits they know she has in her pockets.
“The dogs know our horn,” Skipper Amann says. “They’re as excited to see us come as the kids are.”
Finally the Sophie heads back towards Weirs Beach. Closer to shore, boat traffic picks up. Skipper Amman blows the horn and, minutes later, the boat gently bumps into the dock.
As passengers disembark, Nix talks about her family’s six generations on Bear Island.
“When I go home tonight and walk around, I’m surrounded by second and third cousins. We talk, we catch up. If we didn’t have this time together, I don’t know when I’d see them. That’s what I like about island life,” she says, “I think it keeps families together.”
Ray Carbone is a longtime Lakes Region writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe, New England Boating and various other regional websites and publications. His manages a blog, that reports on the Lakes Region lifestyle; it’s an ongoing sequel to his 2009 book, “The Lakes Region of New Hampshire: Four Seasons, Countless Memories.” Carbone is currently working on a new book, “Legends of the Lakes Region.”