From White to Blue: Taking Flight in Alton Bay
Note: In 2022, I've decided to focus my blogging efforts more on regional travel. Realistically, that's what most of my posts were about anyway. Of course, if opportunity should arise to travel farther afield, I will write about those experiences as well. Other bloggers have told me that it's important to specialize in a niche, so for now it will be 'Points Northeast', which can be interpreted however you like :)
When New Hampshire's Lakes Region rolls out its icy white carpet each winter, I usually respond with a polite "thanks but no thanks". I don't have a snowmobile, I've been retired from skiing since 2009, and my aging body is affected by the cold way more severely than it used to be. My strong preference is to be floating upon Winnipesaukee's summer waves or taking to a winding rural byway, sunroof open.
However, when February 11, 2022 came around and the forecast called for 45 degrees and clear skies, I wanted to check out one of the many unique aspects of winter life in the Granite State. My destination was Alton Bay, the skinny southernmost point of New Hampshire's largest lake.
I had, of course, been to this tiny outpost countless times, by land and sea. For a few weeks each winter, though, you can also arrive in Alton another way: by air. As the only FAA-approved ice runway in the lower 48 states, it presents an extraordinary opportunity for pilots and spectators both.
I wended my way northeast on NH Route 28, passing through towns such as Chichester and Barnstead. New Hampshire sets a high bar for scenic driving, and this has never been my favorite road, punctuated as it is with ho-hum gas stations and shabby industrial parks. The snow cover somehow made it more pleasant, however, stretching away into the distance on the occasional farm, bare branches scratching skyward.
When arriving in Alton from the south, one would have no idea that there is tremendous bayside scenery so close by.
The village itself is pleasant enough, punctuated by a tall white steeple and fortress-like brick town hall. Alton Bay is an even smaller settlement a mile or so north. The setting is spectacular, astride its namesake bay. Merely a cluster of mom-and-pop eateries, a marina, mini golf course, and cinder-block public restrooms, it lacks the refined, hub-like feeling of Meredith or Wolfeboro. In that sense though, I suppose it represents New Hampshire nicely - a casual, "it is what it is" type of place that nonchalantly embraces its lakeside setting.
In any case, I enjoyed a casual lunch at Shibley's at the Pier with my parents before taking to the ice. Planes buzzed by just outside the windows. Even though one knows it's a runway, it is somehow still incongruous to see planes landing and taxiing on frozen water.
Speaking of incongruous, how about the feeling of stepping onto ice on a 45-degree day? There was open water but 50 feet away at the docks, and yet 2-ton trucks and airplanes sat in front of me, causing a sprinkle of apprehension. We carefully stepped onto the foot-thick ice to get a closer view of the aircraft. When I'm around planes, I revert to being an excited little boy, pointing in awe at these miraculous flying things.
There was an impressive variety, from a helicopter that had taken to the sky during lunch to high-wing and low-wing aircraft, a tail-dragger, and even an experimental-looking plane with its propeller facing backwards, right behind the cabin.
Takeoffs and landings continued despite a moderate wind. Several planes nearly landed but then didn't like what they saw, adding power to rise back up from a dozen feet above the ice. Landings are, evidently, the most difficult part of being a pilot (other than emergencies, of course).
Toward the end of our time there as I talked to my parents, one of the pilots in a silver, unlabeled bird did a low-altitude, high speed pass, "buzzing the tower" before pulling the stick back and acrobatically rising, sharply into the blue. It was a mini airshow that put smiles on the faces of a family with young kids standing in front of us.
For a quick day trip wedged between other busyness on a Friday off, visiting the ice runway had been a perfect choice. With warm weather ahead, surely it won't be around for more than another month or so. If you get a chance, check it out for yourself. Grab some lunch at Shibley's. Walk around on the ice. Let your spirits soar.