Don’t call these two women loony, call them lovers of loons

  • Brenda Gallagher finishes the one mile swim around Ragged Island on Lake Winnipesaukee on Thursday, July 19, 2018, right behind her friend Pam Halsey and ahead of most of the other swimmers even with the brace on her right arm. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Pam Halsey (center) starts out her swim on Ragged Island on Lake Winnipesaukee on Thursday, July 19, 2018 for the fundraiser for the Loon Preservation Committee. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Pam Halsey finishes first around Ragged Island on Lake Winnipesaukee on Thursday, July 19, 2018 for the fundraiser for the Loon Preservation Committee. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Swimmers and volunteers from the Loon Preservation Committee dock at Ragged Island on Lake Winnipesaukee as they get ready for the mile swim to benefit the organization partnering with the Lakes Region Conservation Trust which owns the island. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Swimmers and volunteers from the Loon Preservation Committee celebrate their mile swim around Ragged Island on Lake Winnipesaukee on Thursday, July 19, 2018. The Loon Preservation Committee combined with the Lakes Region Conservation Trust—which owns the island—for the fundraiser for loon research and preservation. The group plans another swim in August. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Brenda Gallagher (left) gives Pam Halsey a high-five after a mile swim around Ragged Island on Lake Winnipesaukee on Thursday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Brenda Gallagher with her swim buddy Pam Halsey (far right) before the one mile swim around Ragged Island on Lake Winnipesaukee on Thursday, July 19, 2018. Gallagher wasn’t going to let a injured right arm stop her from doing the swim to benefit the Loon Preservation Committee in Moultonborough. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Brenda Gallagher (left) sits with swim buddy Pam Halsey before a 1 mile swim around Ragged Island on Lake Winnipesaukee on Thursday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Pam Halsey swims around Ragged Island in the middle of Lake Winnipesaukee on Thursday, July 19, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 7/19/2018 6:01:16 PM

Brenda Gallagher wouldn’t let
a little injury like a broken arm stop her from swimming one mile around an island in Lake Winnipesaukee on Thursday morning.

At least not when swimming to protect our loon population.

“I’m fine,” Gallagher, 63, said before the plunge. “Life can get in the way of things you’re trying to do, but I’m fine.”

Instead of her usual strokes, she used a kick-board to move around Ragged Island with her swim buddy, Pam Halsey. Other times she floated on her back and kicked like crazy.

Gallagher’s arm got caught between her boat and a dock after a day on the lake with her dog, Penny. She’s gone from a cast to a splint in the weeks since the accident.

Gallagher and Halsey grew up with Lake Winnipesaukee’s water running through their veins, and now, after finding common ground three years ago and agreeing this cause needed some muscle, they’ve agreed to swim around all 256 unabridged islands that the famous lake has to offer. They’ve swam as far as four-plus miles in 1½ hours to get around one island, and they once swam for six hours, conquering four or five islands in one day.

They circled 22 islands over two summers, then 60 last year, so they have a long swim ahead. They got a late start this summer, with Thursday’s loop kicking off their season because of Gallagher’s injury in May.

They’ve set a target to reach their goal: The end of next summer.

“If we remain in one piece, both of us, we should make it,” said Halsey, 55. “It’s kind of the name of the game. There are different challenges.”

Like cold, choppy water. And a busted arm.

In return for their effort, the Loon Preservation Committee will capture some attention in this, its 40th year of existence, which will help with fundraising. Sine the 1970s, loon pairs have steadily increased from less than 100 to nearly 300. Those are numbers the committee’s executive director, Harry Vogel, can live with.

For now.

“They are still a threatened species and they still face challenges,” Vogel told me. “The good news is we have more than tripled the number. The bad news is we’re only half way to recovering the population to a level that New Hampshire lakes ought to be able to support.”

Vogel cited some disturbing ways in which loons die: Ingesting led fishing tackles is at the top of the horror list. Death occurs within two weeks, said Vogel, who’s also a biologist.

State law says led tackles must weigh more than one ounce in order to be legal, but, according to Vogel, this rule isn’t always followed, as fishing is passed down from generation to generation and old equipment gains nostalgic value.

“Some people are using lead tackles from grandpa’s old tackle box and continue to put them on their lines,” Vogel noted. “They’re often swallowed by the loons.”

Elsewhere, Vogel said, nests are disturbed and chicks are killed by heavy boating and jet ski traffic, while climate change has led to an increase in life-threatening storms.

Enter the dynamic duo of Gallagher and Halsey. They’re both closely connected with the magic of the Granite State’s most famous lake.

Halsey is a nutritionist and personal trainer whose athletic credentials include virtually every cardio activity under the sun. She grew up on Sleepers Island in Alton and says she loves to “swim with the fish. It’s so freeing, a lovely feeling.”

Gallagher lives in Meredith and also grew up at the lake, and, like Halsey, has always loved to swim.

They formed a bond three years ago and decided to challenge the islands, before Beverly LaFoley –another child of the lake who now lives near Squam Lake – heard about their adventure.

She serves on the board of the Loon Preservation Committee and convinced Halsey and Gallagher that their journey could benefit birds they’ve been watching and hearing for decades. Money raised will help build a strong loon population through monitoring, research, management and education.

The three are now mesmerized by what they see and hear on the lake. Using binoculars, they see adult loons tending to their chicks. And they hear the haunting, eerie, soulful communicative sounds unique to loons, each symbolic of an emotion or message.

Maybe you’ve heard these yodels, howls, honks, wails. In fact, as I spoke to the three women via conference call, loon sounds suddenly came through the phone, a recording played by Gallagher.

“You can hear parents talking to the chicks, and it’s sweet, soft and so endearing,” LaFoley said.

The committee and its volunteers build camouflaged, makeshift rafts and stash them in coves, a hidden area where loons can build their nests. They want you to know that if you’re boating on Lake Winnipesaukee, stay at least 100 feet away. Otherwise, a loon adult might dive in fear, leaving a chick exposed to a predator.

Binoculars come in handy.

It’s all part of education and awareness, which is needed if the loon population is going to continue to grow.

That’s why Gallagher and Halsey swim.


Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.



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