I will ask the reader, the observer to go where you will as we relate the story of two loons. In our northern climes, these magnificent birds hold a magic of a sort. Their lonesome calls are the makings of distant stories, maybe myths not just of our times but for those that came before us in bark canoes. One can assume their wild intense beauty coupled with their strength and skills have always been a thing of legends. Are they a wishful role model, or even a metaphor? Clearly, they are our brothers and sisters in a world where we are all connected.
My story happened some years ago as we slowly passed over still water while moving through a lake on our adventure in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota. Unlike the previous day, the wind was still as we moved silently across the lake in our laden canoe. In a place like this, there was no reason to move with any urgency because the day was full, and the watery surrounds and fall-kissed landscape was teaming with life preparing for the next season. The local wild inhabitants all seemed to be moving, some storing food, others looking south, those deep in the water were hunting to fill fishy bellies with nutrition to sit out many days locked in a half torpor under the winter’s ice. Even the insects fluttered in a certain desperation needing to lay eggs to over-winter. The last swallows jetted about like small harriers snatching those same desperate insects in midflight. The sun, still warm and welcomed, had moved to the south pulling those destined to leave. We marveled at the drama of it all coasting through the fall-colored water. It was the passing of a season.
During a pause, a loon lifted quietly out of the water thirty feet to our left. Initially, I did a double take because seeing a loon so close was out of place. They are a wary bird, not one to approach a traveler’s canoe. I can remember myself saying, “What the hell are you doing here?” The elegant, possibly confused bird was unnaturally close. Almost in an instant I realized it was a young bird, maybe three quarter grown, not fully colored, but well-feathered and looking strong. It just hung there treading water, quiet. There was no frightened attempt to dive into the water. I am sure it watched us, even moving with us, not anxious to slip away.
“What’s up?” I thought, “Why are you still here? Its gonna freeze in no more than week, maybe two if you’re lucky.” I recall moving quickly, possibly raising my paddle as a way of startling the large bird. It still did not show alarm but glided through the water much as we were doing. It was then I recalled being a twelve-year-old explorer on White Sand Lake and seeing young loons in the company of their parents, spending endless hours flopping across the surface, half running, half-flying building young muscles to follow the other birds south.
Could this bird fly? Its feathers were not really fully developed, but it surely could dive and feed, but fly? I remember looking around for the adults, the ones who spent those long hours pushing and shoving these youngsters to flight. I saw none. Why was it following us? Looking, maybe asking a not-to-be answered question. My mind ran through situations and conditions wondering where this was all going. We pulled away with a few strong strokes maybe looking back thinking, “You got maybe two weeks my friend. You’re on your own. May the ice come late.”
An acquaintance at the Necedah Wildlife Refuge had passed along a series of photos of a single loon preparing for the coming summer season. What mysteries did it have to tell as it reveled in open water still surrounded by late spring ice? Inspired by the natural dynamics of it all, my wife Ann the painter, in her way told another story.