CONWAY — It’s 5 a.m. on a Wednesday morning in midsummer, and Judy Capreralla is already at work at the Conway Lake boat launch on Mill Street in Center Conway.

The sky is just beginning to brighten and the clouds are vivid pink to the east. The air is cool, there’s no breeze and the water will be perfectly calm until Justin, a local sheetrocker, launches his boat to get in an hour or two of fishing before he has to begin his workday.

Judy’s job is to inspect Justin’s boat before he launches it. This time, it’s easy: Justin is a regular here, and the boat has not been on any other water since it was inspected when it last left Conway Lake.

Judy is a Lake Host. She and her two co-workers, Sheri Whitaker and Darlene Noyes, rotate shifts (often 10 hours at a time) at the launch so there’s always a Lake Host on duty from dawn to dusk, seven days a week, all summer long.

Their job is to perform “courtesy inspections” on all boats entering and leaving the lake to help prevent invasive species of plants and animals from using those boats to hitch a ride from one body of water to another. They are looking for fragments of plants, or puddles of water that can carry the seeds of plants or larvae of invasive mollusks and other water creatures.

Invasive species can infect a lake like a virus and forever alter its ecosystem, decreasing both recreational opportunities and local property values.

Like the front-line workers in the health-care system, the Lake Hosts do all that they can to keep infections from spreading.

Outdoor recreation is a hot commodity this year. Some of that is due to warm weekend weather, but much of is likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic closing or curtailing other attractions, which encourages people to get outdoors.

The Mount Washington Valley has seen more than its share of people looking for safe outdoor fun.

The mountains and our free-flowing rivers often take center stage, but for many, the real gems, hidden in plain sight, are our lakes and ponds.

The largest and busiest lake in the neighborhood is Ossipee Lake, covering 3,245 acres in Ossipee and Freedom. Close behind is Conway Lake, in Conway and Eaton, which covers 1,299 acres. Silver Lake in Madison comes in third at 969 acres. All three lakes have active Lake Host programs.

The co-coordinators of the Lake Host program on Silver Lake are Paul and Cheryl Littlefield. The Silver Lake program runs under the auspices of SLAM (Silver Lake Association of Madison).

Ted Kramer, current president of SLAM, has kept a home on Silver Lake since 1980 and is this year’s recipient of the John F. Morten Memorial Award for Exemplary Lakes Stewardship, given each year by NH LAKES (nhlakes.org), the organization that runs the Lake Host Program.

At Ossipee Lake, Lake Host Coordinator Edward “Ned” Kucera works with four other Lake Hosts to keep the boat launches staffed during prime hours — 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Friday-Monday.

According to Krystal Costa Balanoff, conservation program coordinator for NH LAKES, there are roughly 700 Lake Hosts working this summer at more than 100 launch ramps on 80 different lakes. About 300 of the Lake Hosts are paid; the rest are volunteers.

The point of the spear for a statewide effort to help prevent the spread of invasive species, Lake Hosts last year inspected 92,000 boats entering and leaving lakes in the Granite State. Since the program’s inception, New Hampshire’s Lake Hosts have conducted over 1.1 million boat inspections.

The Lake Host Program, which began in 2002, is funded by a partnership that includes state grants funded by boat registration fees (money that is also used for mitigation/eradication programs if lakes become infested). Those are matched by towns (in some cases), lake associations (such as the Conway Lake Conservation Association, SLAM and the Ossipee Lake Alliance) and private donations. The more invasive species spread, the more money is needed to control them.

Unlike native species, which have evolved naturally, invasives have few or no enemies or diseases in N.H. waters. Growing unchecked, they can outcompete native species, altering habitat for the other plants and animals that live in and on the lakes.

In worst-case scenarios, they can turn thriving lakes into virtual water deserts.

The list of invasive species includes variable milfoil (Myriophyllum heterophyllum) and Eurasian milfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum), which, unlike the six species of native milfoils, can grow up to an inch a day and form thick, impenetrable mats of vegetation that can tangle swimmers and boat propellers, and clog dams spillways and water intakes.

When the milfoil mats die in fall, they can deplete oxygen levels in the water, making life impossible for aquatic insects and fish.

Other plants that have invaded New Hampshire Lakes include fanwort (Cabomba caroliniana), Brazilian elodea (Egeria densa) and curly-leaf pondweed (Potamogeton crispus).

Another type of threat comes from invasive animals such as zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha), Asian clams (Corbicula fluminea) or quagga mussels (Dreissena bugensis), all voracious filter feeders that can disrupt the food chain in a lake to the detriment of fish and bird populations.

Spiny water fleas (Bythotrephes cederstroemi), often noticed as whitish clumps on fishing line, also disrupt the food chain in a lake.

Finally, there’s the Chinese mystery snail (Cipangopaludina chinesis malleatus) which is about twice the size of our native snails. When it dies, the Chinese mystery snail often floats onto beaches and shorelines, smelling bad and leaving the area littered with shells.

None are guests you want living in your lake.

Because they have few natural predators or diseases, invasive species are very difficult to control once they become fully established.

Milfoil readily reproduces through fragmentation: Plant fragments are broken off the parent by waves, swimmers or boat propellers, grow roots and settle in a new location. Seeds also spread milfoil within an infested waterbody.

Milfoil spreads rapidly and displaces beneficial, native plant life, often forming monoculture of growth around the shallows of a waterbody. Monitoring for early detection is the second step in preventing the spread of invasives.

Infestations caught early can sometimes be eradicated or at least slowed and contained.

Once established, invasives are almost impossible to eradicate. But they can sometimes be controlled.

The New Hamphsire Department of Environmental Services, lake associations and private companies work together using herbicides, “benthic barriers” (which deprive the plants of the sunlight they need to grow) and the backbreaking effort of literally pulling the weeds up by the roots and destroying them.

Such programs are time-consuming and costly. For example, it has taken years of effort and hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep invasive plants in check on lakes such as Squam and Sunapee.

Like COVID-19, the best “cure” is to prevent the spread.

When a Lake Host finds a suspicious sample on a boat during a courtesy inspection, it is sent to the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Service for positive identification. If an invasive sample is collected and prevented from spreading, it’s called a “save.”

NH LAKES has logged 1,612 verified “saves” between 2002-19. DES is backlogged this year on identifying Lake Host submissions of suspicious plants and animals, but Lake Hosts are already up to 15 verified “saves” this summer with many more yet to be positively identified. Six of these “saves” were from the Lake Hosts on Ossipee Lake, who are instrumental in ensuring that invasive variable milfoil found in that lake doesn’t hitchhike out on any departing boats.

Back at Conway Lake, it’s been a busy summer for Judy and her fellow Hosts. To date, she has inspected 1,193 boats, a record number for her this early in the season. On just one day, July 4, Lake Hosts on Conway Lake inspected 103 boats going to and coming from the lake. The trend is likely to continue, especially with major attractions like the Fryeburg Fair closed this year.

In fact, it’s been a busy summer for all the lakes. At Ossipee Lake, Lake Hosts inspected 104 boats on the Fourth of July in just five hours. At smaller Silver Lake, Lake Hosts performed 92 inspections on the same day, a new daily record.

If numbers like that continue, this will be a record-setting year for the entire Lake Host program.

It’s not just the Lake Hosts who have been busy, however. Rick Morgan, a salesman at Wards Boat Shop in Ossipee, notes that this has been an exciting season for them.

“When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it took us a couple of weeks to reconfigure our showroom for social distancing, install protective barriers and hand sanitation stations to provide a safe setting for our customers and employees,” he said.

“When we reopened for boat sales, customers started showing up in numbers, many of them young families looking for a way to get outdoors safely.

“We had almost 100 new pontoon boats in stock at the start of our season,” Morgan said. “As of today, we have three, and the only reason our sales are slowing at all is lack of inventory.

“As the 2021 models begin rolling in over the next few weeks, we expect to see a strong second wave of new boat sales continue right into the fall,” he said.

More boats and more people boating mean more opportunities for local Lake Hosts to meet with and educate boaters.

Because Lake Hosts aren’t able to inspect every boat that come and go from local lakes, education is the key.

Ask any Lake Host, and they’ll tall you their job is to interact positively with boaters coming to and leaving a lake and helping them to become more aware of the dangers invasives present.

“Many of the boaters we see have encountered Lake Hosts before, either here or on another lake,” said Judy Capreralla at Conway Lake. “They have already gotten the message. A lot of the boaters check their boats themselves and help spread the word to other boaters.”

In the 13 years she’s been a Lake Host, she says she’s encountered only two really “bad actors” who have refused to cooperate in any way.

Despite the fact that they sometimes have to direct traffic at crowded launches and occasionally report oil spills and other environmental concerns, Lake Hosts are not law-enforcement officers. They can’t make you submit to inspection and they can’t arrest folks who break state laws by transporting invasive species between lakes.

In their official capacity, they are not even supposed to call in violations they see. Instead, they are goodwill ambassadors and educators.

Their chief weapons in the fight against invasive species are a smile and a willingness to talk to and educate people about the dangers of invasive aquatics species. They offer “courtesy inspections,” examining boats and trailers for a stray bit of weed that could root itself in a new body of water, or a lingering puddle that could transport the larvae of exotic animals to a new home.

As Krystal Costa Balanoff of NH LAKES puts it: “We are all in this together to protect our lakes. There’s no room for ‘otherism.’ It’s not ‘them’ versus ‘us.’ We all have the same goal of protecting our lakes, and it’s better to get people to cooperate than to threaten them.”

The important takeaway for anyone who wants to protect lakes is to never transfer plants or animals or even water from one place to another. In fact, it’s possible that several species of invasive plants were introduced into the United States when people dumped out aquariums.

Boaters are encouraged to inspect all watercraft, including canoes, kayaks, paddleboards and tubes, before launching them in a lake and again when taking out.

Never release any plants, animal, or water into a lake unless it came directly from that lake.

Clean the boat and, especially the trailer, before you launch and again when leaving a lake to make sure no mud, plants or even tiny fragments of plants are riding along to contaminate the next lake the boat visits.

Lake Hosts are trained to look for spots that others might miss. Even a tiny screw head hidden on a trailer can trap a piece of plant material or a clump of mud large enough to spread an invasive.

Also, when leaving a any lake, pond or river, make sure no water goes with you. To that end, make sure to drain all motors, bilges and livewells used for bait or fish. If you can’t drain your boat at the lake you are taking out from, do it well away from any other water body.

Ideally, boats should be allowed to dry for five days before entering another water body. If that is not possible, sponge and towel away any water and then clean the wet areas with hot water and a pressure sprayer.

Silver Lake has a power-washing station available at their launch ramp, and NH LAKES has a new piece of mobile equipment on a trailer. It’s called the CD3 (Clean, Drain, Dry, Destroy) and is designed to help boaters thoroughly clean their boats and destroy any potential invasives. It will be coming to Conway Lake in August.

But as important as the CD3 is, as any Lake Host will tell you, education and cooperation are really the only tools that will help keep our lakes safe.

Tim Jones, who writes about outdoor sports and lives in Center Conway, where he sees the Lake Hosts all summer long.

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