Letters on the lake: Veteran mail carrier Alexander McKenzie delivers mail via boat on Lake WinniBy BEA LEWIS
Union Leader Correspondent July 20. 2018 10:14PM
If you goWhat: Want to join Capt. McKenzie on his route? Here's how:
Where: Dive Winnipesaukee, 4 N. Main St., Wolfeboro
When: Departure time, 10 a.m., subject to delay
Tickets: Reservations required. $35 for adults; $20 for children ages 5-12; free for kids younger than 4
WOLFEBORO — For the past 52 years, Alexander “Sandy” McKenzie has enjoyed a summer job that most would consider ideal.
As a private contractor for the U.S. Postal Service, he captains the U.S. Mail Boat — Blue Ghost III — on Lake Winnipesaukee and takes paying passengers along for the ride.
The 13-week season begins on June 15 and concludes Sept. 15. He spends on average about 400 hours per season at the helm and during the more than half-century that he has served as a floating post office, he’s worn out eight boats since retiring his original 24-foot Lyman — Gray Ghost.
His latest launch is a 24-foot tri-toon, the design of which makes for smooth sailing even in rough weather.
His watery route covers the eastern half of the 44,000-acre lake, making stops in Wolfeboro, Tuftonboro, on the Alton islands and on a few of the Moultonborough islands. Typically, deliveries are equally split between mainland and island addresses, and occur six days a week.
McKenzie is no stranger to the nautical life. He grew up on the ocean at his parents’ Rhode Island boat yard and learned to sail on Point Judith Pond. He graduated to Narragansett Bay. His father regularly sent him to rescue sailors who got disoriented in the fog on Block Island Sound or encountered trouble navigating what McKenzie termed “fairly fierce” currents.
The state’s largest lake offers its own set of navigational obstacles, and McKenzie recounts that when there is a 30- to 40-knot wind from the northwest, Winnipesaukee will produce 4-foot waves in the broads, its widest expanse of open water.
“It’s rather challenging on those days,” he said.
The 72-square-mile lake is also dotted with 1,200 navigational buoys warning boaters of rocks, shallow water and other hazards. As he weaves between a chicane of multi-colored buoys, he offers that the black topped markers should be passed on the east or north side. Red topped buoys need to be navigated on the south or west side.
“The best thing is to buy a lake chart which shows you which side of the buoys to go on,” he said.
In his years on the route, McKenzie said he never tires of seeing loons, eagles, an occasional swimming deer or the natural beauty of the lake. His favorite view is leaving Winter Harbor, looking across the profile of Rattlesnake Island with the Belknap Mountains beyond.
McKenzie says the type and quantity of the mail he ferries has changed. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, kids spending the summer at Camp Alton, Camp Kehonka and Camp Belknap would mail their foot lockers stuffed with dirty laundry home to be washed and then sent back. Today the bulk of his mail is Amazon Prime packages.
As to the most unusual item he has delivered, McKenzie said, that milestone came just last week when he encountered an addressed and stamped potato headed to Camp Belknap. The spud cost $3.50 to mail.
Campers can be creative in which mementos they try to mail home, and McKenzie concedes he has liberated beach sand and rocks from envelopes that are so overstuffed that they leak. He recounted once handling a camper’s letter home and feeling a sharp jab that cut his finger. The offending item was a lost tooth, poking through the envelope.
At private homes, McKenzie maneuvers into the dock, and his deckhand, James Michaud, 13, who has spent the past four summers working aboard the Ghost, scrambles to the bow or stern and deposits the mail into what would be an otherwise ordinary mailbox, were it not for its location on a piling attached to a dock.
While dogs and mailmen typically don’t mix, on the water things are different.
“That’s Sunny,” announces McKenzie as he nears a dock with a golden retriever tongue lolling and tail wagging, without so much as a woof. Michaud puts the mail in the box and then feeds the dog a biscuit.
At another stop a brace of terriers, a West Highland and a Yorkshire, race to the end of the dock to meet the boat and get their treat after their owner accepts a package from Michaud. When the boat is met by a child, the mail is handed off along with a lollipop.
Passengers riding with McKenzie will discover that he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of many of the 170 islands on the lake.
One island of note is Melody. Originally known as Mud Island, it was renamed in the late ’40s or early ’50s when a New York couple bought it and opened a music camp. It eventually migrated to the mainland and morphed into what has become the New Hampshire Music Festival.
Sixty-acre Barndoor Island got its name from serving as summer and fall pasture for a dairy herd from the 1800s until the 1930s. The cows would be transported to the island by barge. The milk would be brought in by boat daily to the Wolfeboro town docks to meet an awaiting train. After the island was sold, the island’s cows were replaced with deer and it became a private game preserve before it was eventually developed.
One of the places his passengers most frequently ask to see is the “The Ledges,” the lakeside home of Mitt Romney and the neighboring manse built for his son, Tagg. Interest in the Alton estate of Bob Bahre, the former site of Camp Alton, McKenzie said, has abated since Bahre sold New Hampshire International Speedway and returned to his Maine home.
“I get a lot of repeat customers, vacationers who come every summer. I’ve been seeing some families for 20 to 30 years,” McKenzie said.