After 32 years as a Massachusetts state trooper, Ron Guilmette’s toughest days should be behind him.
But retirement hasn’t stopped this very active 65-year-old, who recently completed quite the odyssey with his nephew Jay Leccese. The pair visited all 253 islands scattered throughout New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee.
This enormous quest, achieved in only nine days of paddling, might be Guilmette’s latest kayak adventure, but it certainly wasn’t the first for the retired lieutenant colonel who raised four children with his wife, Ann Marie, during their decades as residents of Salisbury Beach.
“I started kayaking when I was 10 years old,” Guilmette said. “Being from Lawrence, we’d bike up to Ballardvale, which is near Andover. We’d rent a kayak for 25 cents an hour back then, and we’d paddle the Shawsheen River. We’d spend all day there, then go back home before dark. I loved kayaking.”
And since then, there have been many trips, several to the Isles of Shoals, in the new kayaks that Guilmette purchased after leaving the state police for supposedly less strenuous activities.
Located six miles from the New Hampshire coast — and even farther from Salisbury Beach — the Isles present a daunting day trip over open seas that can be rough and aggressive.
Yet, although Guilmette’s proud of those ocean voyages, it was his years paddling with family on the Granite State’s largest lake that led him to consider visiting every one of Winnipesaukee’s hundreds of islands.
For years, he’d head out with family on Winnipesaukee waters around the town of Tuftonboro, where Leccese’s parents, Judy and John, have a summer home on Cow Island.
They’d pack a lunch, Guilmette said, and take in the beautiful scenery while visiting the islands in the vicinity. They had great times, he said, but he was up for more.
“We did it for a few years, and then I started getting tired of visiting the same islands,” Guilmette said. “I started thinking. I got a map from the Bizer map company. By their count, there are 253 islands in Lake Winnipesaukee. I wondered if anyone had ever visited all of them before.”
With idea in hand, he approached Leccese, who has spent his summers on “Big Winni” since the now-24-year-old Stoneham resident was a child.
“I asked him if he’d like to take on visiting all the islands with me,” Guilmette said.
“I said yes. I thought it was a great way to know the lake better,” said Leccese, who has a dual college degree in philosophy and criminal justice and works as a dispatcher at Merrimack College in North Andover.
With a tad of the obsessive/compulsive meticulousness that one might expect from a law enforcement official, Guilmette started planning. Bizer separates the lake into a number of geographic sections, which Guilmette used as the basis for their daylong trips. The weather, lake conditions and their schedules would be major contributors to the mission’s timing, but Guilmette figured it was doable over the two warm-weather seasons in 2012 and 2013.
They started their quest on Aug. 18, 2012, in the familiar waters around Cow Island, then proceeded on Aug. 19 and 30, Sept. 13 and 25, and Oct. 18 of that year. This year, they completed their task with the last three of the daylong excursions on June 21, June 22 and July 16.
Finding some of the islands was dicey, Guilmette said, because there aren’t road signs on a lake. Although a good compass, detailed map enlargements and Bizer’s GPS coordinates were their guiding lights most of the time, for one small speck of an island — that had a number instead of a name — social media came to the rescue.
“I found that one on Facebook,” Guilmette said, laughing.
Most of the time, Leccese navigated based on Guilmette’s planning. Evidence of each island visitation was documented with pictures. On large islands that were inhabited, the twosome could tie up, walk around a few minutes, maybe take a swim and even talk to residents. But on some of the tiny islands, Guilmette said, the visitation consisted of one of them paddling up and touching the island, while the other snapped a shot.
The first couple of trips taught them a lot, they said, like the day they paddled 22 miles, visiting 59 islands, an exhausting feat.
“That day, we barely got back by sunset,” Guilmette said.
The experience changed their routine, and they got smarter. Sometimes, instead of taking one car and leaving and returning to the same spot, the men took two cars. They’d leave one at their starting point and the other where they intended to end their day. Not having to loop back to where they started shortened the trips. And on a lake that’s almost 23 miles across — roughly the drive between Newburyport and Portsmouth, N.H. — that’s not such a bad thing.
“People who don’t know the lake would be surprised at how quick the weather and conditions can change on Lake Winnipesaukee,” Leccese said. “One day, we came around Barn Door Island, and there were white caps, 2- to 3-foot waves.”
Winnipesaukee is a Native American word, and, depending on who’s telling the tale, the lake was named after the tribe of the same name or christened because it means “beautiful water in a high place” or “smile of the Great Spirit.”
A glacially made lake that drains most of central New Hampshire, its deep waters flow into the Winnipesaukee River, which has a link to Guilmette’s hometown of Salisbury. The river travels west until it joins the Pemigewasset River in Franklin, N.H. And it is the confluence of the Winnipesaukee and Pemigewasset rivers that form the mighty Merrimack River, which winds its way through New Hampshire and Massachusetts to the Atlantic, ending its life at Salisbury Beach.
Guilmette and Leccese have been out on the lake together again many times since wrapping up what could be a first in Lake Winnipesaukee’s history. Neither have anything but good things to say about each other or the sometimes-grueling trips. There was no money at the end of the line, or even a trophy. Just the satisfaction of being able to say they did it.
“What I learned from this was the value of setting your mind to something and actually accomplishing it,” Leccese said.