Newspaper Story Resonates Personally

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I write feature stories for the Laconia Sun newspaper in New Hampshire, and was assigned to write about this resident of the lovely, secluded Bear Island on Lake Winnipesaukee. Listening to Michael Taranto talk as I interviewed him nearly made me weepy at times, as I also grew up on a lake in New Hampshire and discovered independence there as well. The story was published in the Sun in October.

Michael Taranto discovered independence here.  

He grew up in New Jersey, where his father worked as an orthopedic surgeon, and his family vacationed on the Jersey Shore in the summer months. Then, a neighbor and colleague of Taranto’s father told the family about Lake Winnipesaukee. 

For two summers, the Tarantos visited the Lakes Region, finding it so peaceful they bought property on Bear Island in 1954 and built a house. That first summer, Taranto and his friends learned to drive an aluminum boat with an outboard motor. They explored coves. They went hiking, hunted squirrels, and practiced marksmanship. 

“It was an idyllic lifestyle. To this day, I’m still a teen when I’m on that island,” said Taranto, who will turn 78 in November. “Bear Island is the allegorical Neverland. It’s emotional. When I want to get plugged in and rejuvenate my life, all I have to do is look at Bear Island. Just to stare at it.”

About the island

Taranto lives in Plymouth with his wife, Elizabeth or “Teddy,” from fall to spring and on Bear Island in the summer. He’s a second-generation islander. He and Teddy’s home is a rustic camp with a fireplace, three small bedrooms, a living room, and a screened-in porch. 

The Taranto’s place is one of about 190 summer homes on Bear Island, where there are also two summer camps—one for boys and one for girls—and a chapel, according to John Hopper, the island’s historian. 

Hopper said in the summer, about 1,500 residents and campers inhabit the land. Virtually all of them are summer residents, there from Labor Day through Columbus Day. “Occasionally, one or two individuals live out here during the winter,” Hopper added.

One of roughly 250 islands on Winnipesaukee, Bear Island, at 780 acres, is second largest to Long Island, which is connected to the mainland by a bridge. People can access Bear Island by boat only.

An island history 

Hopper has spent summers on Bear Island since the 1940s, at first with his parents and now with his wife, Linda; the two live in Center Harbor in the winter months. 

Bear Island was first settled in 1801. “One of the very first dozen Meredith colonists, Robert Bryant, bought it,” Hopper said. “He had come to Meredith in 1764. He settled on South Bear in 1801, not too far from Mike Taranto’s place.”

Bryant and two other families divided the southern part of the island into farms. By the early- to mid-1800s, there were a half dozen year-round farms on the island as well as areas used by mainlanders for seasonal grazing. “The era encompassed the ‘sheep craze,’ during which most of the stone walls in New England were built. Bear Island was no exception. There are stone walls all over the island.”

Vacationers discovered the gem as early as the 1850s, shortly after the railroad reached the Weirs. By 1883, new landowners were subdividing the shorefront and selling lots. Hopper said development was slow but steady over the years, with big boons in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. 

“The island population more than doubled over those three decades,” he said. “It increased modestly thereafter, largely due to the lack of available land.

“Once people found Winnipesaukee, they had to come back,” he added. 

Island discovery

Taranto’s family came in one of those early, post-war waves. He, his mother, and two younger sisters visited every year from the time school let out through Labor Day. His father flew in on the weekends on Northeast Airlines’ nonstops from LaGuardia to Laconia. 

Said Taranto with a laugh, “Mom would have a martini for him in the back of the station wagon at the airport.”

In 1978, the Tarantos became the owners of the Bear Island house. Teddy and their three children spent summers on the island, and Taranto arrived when he was able while he was still working in sales and management in the industrial minerals industry; he travelled all over the world. 

Later, he started a consulting and trading company, and he worked on the island, answering the phone in his “hammock office” in his bathing suit. “I had business going all summer long for 20 years from the island,” Taranto said. 

Taranto’s children also worked in the Lakes Region, holding their first jobs at area restaurants and attractions. 

Careful planning is involved

While island life is tranquil, it also involves organization and inconvenience. 

In the early days, residents reached their homes in horse-drawn boats and then on steamers, Hopper said. “Gasoline powered boats took hold after 1920,” he added. “Many people relied on taxi boats from Shep Brown’s or the Weirs in the early days. Wealthier vacationers had their own boats. Otherwise people used row boats or canoes.”

In the 1950s, new outboard engines and fiberglass boats became the norm, and people began to access Bear Island on their own—the Tarantos among them.

Because there are still no stores on the island, Taranto said his family must shop and pack everything they will need. They park the car at one of two public docks in Meredith, move their belongings and provisions from the car to the boat and make the 10-minute ride to the island.

“You have to plan ahead,” Taranto said. “If someone takes the cheese you were going to use on the pizza you’re making for dinner, you have to go to town and get it.”

There is also no dump on the island, so all trash gets bagged and loaded into the boat and then into the car; it’s dumped at the transfer station in Meredith. 

A trip to the store—for pizza cheese—or a dump run take about an hour, Taranto said.

In case of emergency

There are no roads on Bear Island, only trails that people use for walks or jogging. 

Likewise, there are no municipal services. In the event of fire or other emergency, help must come via boat.

Meredith has a fire boat—and Taranto said boats are also available from Gilford, Laconia, Moultonborough, and Center Harbor. “In the early 2000s, there was a fire in back of our house,” he said. 

“Wind blew down a power line. It was Memorial Day weekend, so there were many residents here. Together, we beat back fire with brooms and rakes for the 30 minutes it took to get fire crews there. If not for all those people, we might have lost most of the island.” 

Because ambulance service also comes via the water and takes time, many seniors who own property on the island are often forced to sell their homes. “They are concerned that if something happens, there is nobody around to help,” Taranto said.

Gift for the next generation

It’s the young people who thrive on Bear.

Taranto is now teaching his grandchildren to drive his aluminum boat. For the first time this summer, his 13-year-old granddaughter Katherine soloed, operating the 15-horsepower, Suzuki engine on her own.

“She is the first grandchild to do that,” Taranto said. “Next summer, her brother Michael probably will. It’s absolutely cool. It’s exciting.”

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