Lessons from a Loon

`What's the big deal about loons?'' I remember thinking as I hung up the phone.

My mother, staying in a cabin by a pond in New Hampshire, was worlds away from her life in a modern town house in heavily populated South Florida. On a two-week vacation from her job as an elementary school principal, she had been extolling the wonders of pine woods and the cry of the loon at night.

Meanwhile, I was two days overdue in joining her there with my four daughters. I was still in suburban Maryland, standing in a high spot of our recently flooded basement and frantically trying to fill cardboard boxes in preparation for an upcoming move to another state.

The thought of loons crooning in the night held no meaning for me. In fact, I wasn't even sure what sort of a creature a loon was - whether it was a bird or a woodland beast.

Somewhere lodged in my memory was the notion that a loon was an imaginary creature, like the elves and fairies that populate Irish meadows on misty nights. I could not visualize the loon, so I quickly forgot about it as I packed up one home and tried to prepare myself for another.

Eventually, we proclaimed a temporary halt to all packing and headed north to New Hampshire. After a 12-hour drive, a few wrong turns, and one blowout, the five of us arrived at the cabin in various states of exhaustion and crankiness.

Immediately, I noticed the sign ``LOONACY'' carved in wood, hanging jauntily on the pine-paneled walls of our cozy dwelling. Everywhere we looked, things paid tribute to the loon: stuffed toys, carved decoys, books, and paintings.

Soon we were all caught up in discovering the cabin's unique artifacts, and I learned that the loon was not only real, but also a rather common-shaped, duck-like bird that had been in existence since the days of the dinosaur. Was this solid- boned, heavy-weight bird that can barely walk on dry land the popular creature of lore and fascination? I hadn't a clue as to why.

In bed late that night, I awoke with a start, thinking a child had cried. After checking my four sleeping girls, I realized that the haunting trill came from somewhere outside, either the pond or the woods. The pitch was somewhere between shrill and robust, lasting a split second, followed by silence and then repeated.

Reading about this later, I discovered that when separated, a male and his female partner will call back and forth, locating each other with melodic chants that tingle a person's spine precisely because they sound so human and persistently plaintive.

By morning, I was compelled to discover the source of that sound, and looked eagerly from the cabin's deck across the pond's placid surface. But the loon, like nature's most sublime creatures, has a way of appearing in its own time. I was not instantly rewarded.

Our days were spent mostly out of doors, drawn as we were to the cold clear water of the pond where the children, mine and their cousins, swam and paddled endlessly in canoes and on floats. The adults, too cold for prolonged dips, sat on the dock, warmed by the sun and our talk.

While sitting outside that second afternoon, we heard a child cry out, ``Look, there's a loon!'' Almost 12 feet away there was a splash. Black and white wings fanned the water. A loon, as if giving a show, barreled by, shrieked excitedly, and dove beneath the slate-gray water. Then it was gone.

I scanned the surface for three minutes or more, certain the bird had drowned. Then 20 feet away it emerged, stately as a swan, and drifted out of sight.

From that moment, I wanted to see a loon up close, to study its dusky black head and white checkerboard back. But mostly to look into that face that seemed so dignified and fine in photographs.

This pond, an average-sized one by New Hampshire standards, hosted four loons, we were sure, and maybe more. There were three adults and one baby. Two or more times a day, I'd set off in a canoe with a daughter or two and we'd go looking for loons.

There they would be, black dots in the distance, bobbing atop the water. As we approached, 20 feet or so away, the loon would inevitably dive and disappear, leaving us twisting our necks in all directions until we saw it surface. Paddles set, off we'd go, often changing direction. This hide-and-seek game was strangely exhilarating for us. I knew we were harmless admirers of this wild, shy water bird.

The loon drew us all into its realm, where sky and pond were all. I found those moments in the company of the loon extricating me from past concerns and future worries, into an absorbing now. Never quite within reach, the loon seemed to constantly draw us to a still point deep within, usually hard to find. I had a lesson to learn from the loon.

One evening, the sun set to the level of the tallest pines, and the light was subdued, yet still pastel. My daughter and I followed our loon from left to right and marveled at its splashing and its lower-pitched growls. Though we tried, we could get no closer than about 10 feet, but I was determined to see a loon up close. We would be leaving in two days.

Then, amidst our ripples and the loon's splashes, we heard shouts directed at us, coming from the shore across the water. ``Leave the loon alone!'' yelled one child and then another.

``You better leave the loon alone, and I mean it!'' yelled a man, sternly. I was mortified when I realized they were calling to us. In our greedy enthusiasm, I had not stopped to think. Perhaps I really was upsetting the loon. Maybe this innocent game of hide-and-seek was disturbing the peaceful existence of the creature I had come to care about.

We headed back to shore swiftly. Although we were across the pond from our accusers, I felt exposed and properly chagrined.

The loon, as most New Hampshirites know, is an endangered bird. Loon populations are down dramatically, because of ocean oil spills (loons winter on the open sea) and human encroachment of summer nesting sites (like the pond we were enjoying). It is no joke to harass a loon. In New Hampshire, fines are steep.

My urge to see a loon up close was naive, but no excuse for scaring one into sickness or the possible desertion of young. To lose the loon to extinction would be another tragedy that leaves us all bereft. By respecting its timid solitude now, we give the species a chance to endure.

The next evening at dusk, our last at the cabin, I sat alone on the dock and silently watched the pond. Water bugs danced upon the surface and shiny bass swam underneath.

Suddenly, a sound of water rippling a few feet away alerted me. As I looked, a loon emerged, soundlessly, staring and unafraid. I gazed spellbound until it glided away, leaving in its wake a watery trail and my enduring and unobtrusive appreciation.

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