Several things occur to me as I saunter down the dock along the pristine waters of Lake Pontoosuc, headed towards my pontoon Cadillac.
First, there’s that clean water smell that invigorates me like a shot of ginseng. And then the timberline along the shore that swells into rolling hills and the peak of Mount Greylock just miles away. A view I can only imagine must be like fireworks during peak foliage.
But most importantly, there’s the fact that I’m about to board a pontoon boat. Perhaps difficult to believe, but this is actually something I’ve dreamed of doing for years (my dreams can be kind of modest, too). There’s just something so appealing about a boat built for comfort and relaxation on a freshwater lake . . . and little else. A surface optimized to be as flat (and thus as usable) as possible. Comfy seating. A shade awning to optimize doing nothing or perhaps snoozing. And maybe Bluetooth speakers to maximize the chill mood.
Pontoon boats remind me of giant golf carts that glide across water instead of fairways. They’re not built for speed, but they feel fast — or at least fast enough. When I was writing my book Leisureville, about The Villages, Fla., I marveled at how much fun it was to tool around in a souped-up golf cart, especially with the windshield down. By most reasonable measures, it shouldn’t have been that much fun, but doggone it — it was.
Once aboard the boat, the helpful youngsters who manage the mini-marina at Berkshire U-Drive Boat Rentals, give my buddy Rob and me a quick tour of how to operate the boat (and show me how to hook up my iPhone to the Bluetooth speakers). Rob and I look at each other, smile, and shift the boat into gear. Within minutes, we’re gliding across the water, smiles plastered to our faces, the world’s troubles melting away like soft-serve on a summer’s day. I crack open a beer, unpack lunch, and wonder if that smile is ever going to leave my face.
Rob and I swap seats and I captain the skiff, making lazy 8’s as I gauge the 19-foot boat’s 30-hp engine, which is delightfully quiet. Today it’s just me and neighbor Rob, but U-Drive’s half-dozen boats seat as many as ten people. The mini-marina’s owner, Andy Perenick (his boys help staff it) pretty much sums up the joy of tooling along in a pontoon boat when he tells me, “it’s about relaxing — pontoon boats are relaxation boats. Families go out for the day, eat lunch, listen to music, jump into the water. Little kids love it. And so do the parents. It’s fun to buzz around out there. It’s like having your own beach — on pontoons.”
And the best part, from a dad perspective? Rob and I discussed that on the drive over: not owning the boat. “You don’t have to clean it, fill the tank with gas, insure it, get it on the water and out of the water, maintain it,” Perenick preaches to this choir. “All you have to do is enjoy it. We’ll even deliver you pizza on waterskis if you’d like.”
You can pontoon on Pontoosuc (and say it ten times quickly for fun), or on Onota Lake, Pittsfield’s other watery gem. Actually, you can take all sorts of boats out on Onota, thanks to the the surprisingly large marina there: Onota Boat Livery. A family business as well, the Onota Boat Livery is run by Caryn Wendling and her husband Rick, with the help of their Great Dane Lucy.
Turning into the marina’s parking lot at Onota Lake, it’s hard to believe I never knew it existed. It’s the real deal, with multiple docks and slips — 100 of them — filled with motor and pontoon boats, some as long as 24-feet. Nearby on land, there are stacks of kayaks and canoes, boats in dry dock, boats in a repair shop (two full-time mechanics), and a sizable tackle shop filled with bait, marine accessories, snacks, hats, and all sort of toys like inner tubes and rafts designed to be towed at high speeds. And next to the register and live bait tanks, there’s the obligatory wall of fame — proud fishermen holding surprisingly large catches. Some nearly as big as Lucy. No kidding. I have to keep reminding myself I’m not in Michigan or Maine, particularly when I hear that ice fishing is popular as well.
“We have a huge population of fisher-people in Berkshire County,” Caryn tells me. “Guys looking for northern pike will fish this lake. That said, I’ve seen some big browns (trout) pulled out as well.” To my surprise, several of the boats even have fish-finders and depth gauges. Others, that pull waterskis, boast as much as 190 horsepower.
No fishing, waterskiing, or even pontooning for me this time. Instead I paddled clear across the lake and back in a cozy kayak that was a cinch to use. The water was calm like glass, the kayak gliding across as I take in the watery surface, green hills, and blue skies, and marveled at which home I’d buy one day for fun. And, as if on cue amidst my reverie, a family of eagles soared in circles above.
If you prefer paddling to motoring, the go-to place in North County to rent canoes and kayaks is Berkshire Outfitters in Adams (413) 743-5900. Steve Blazejewski and his wife Karen, both competitive whitewater canoers, opened the place 45 years ago when Steve realized he’d get a better deal on replacing their smashed-up racing canoes if they set themselves up as a retailer. They’re still at it and generally recognized as the most knowledgeable folks around when it comes to paddling North County. Due to Covid, they can’t shuttle you somewhere, but everyone is welcome to come by and rent, and they rent roof racks, too. Steve will give you tips on where to go, from Pittsfield to Southern Vermont, including some lakes with primitive access perfect for a summer’s dip or fall foliage looky-looking.
The mavens of paddling and rentals in Mid- and South County reside unsurprisingly at the Arcadian Shop in Lenox, legendary for its outdoor gear and advice. They’ve got kayaks and paddleboards and lots of ideas for where to use them. This year, due to Covid-19 however, their equipment isn’t for rent but rather to purchase used and at a fair price. Come September, they’ll have all new stock as well (Covid-19 slowed manufacturing of boats, too). And next year, they hope to be renting again.
The store manager, Chris Calvert, has been there nearly thirty years and knows just about all there is to know about paddling in the area, including the best spots on the Housatonic River. Among the places he recommends: the Stockbridge Bowl; Upper and Lower Goose Pond in Tyringham; Richmond Pond; Otis Reservoir; Woods Pond in Lee; Laurel Lake, Cheshire Lake, and the Housatonic River, of course. The possibilities are endless enough to occupy your summer and fall. And for the more adventurous among you looking to paddle the Housatonic, here’s a tip from Chris: Click here.