Column: Being alone with loons

Micki Colbeck. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Micki Colbeck. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

By MICKI COLBECK

For the Valley News

Published: 07-31-2023 9:37 AM

Sitting on a grassy patch where the clean tea-colored water begins, the lake is flat, calm, wide, the color of blue pewter, the morning sun just showing behind clouds, the air quiet. The gang of ten, as I call the loons that have gathered off to the east, the ones who did not pair up this summer, or did not have chicks, are barely visible, a dark line on the horizon. I sit sipping coffee and cream, a treat when remote camping, reading “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” a book that tipped my boat back in the 70s.

This tattered old copy has been with me since then. The author, Annie Dillard looks out from the cover reminding me of Davy Crockett, but with long light hair not brushed for weeks, gone wild, as she sits on boulders by her beloved creek, dressed for wilderness. She writes about learning to be quiet and looking — seeing the gaspingly wonderful world outside. She is always being knocked silly by the beauty of things, as if she was seeing them for the first time.

The flap, flap, flap of large wings just above, over the trees alerts me and the loons in the cove to the west. I push the paddleboard into the water and jump on, thinking “Oh no, not the two chicks.”

The loon pair, whom I have been watching for days, begins to wail, first one long ascending note that sounds like a tornado alert, followed by yodels and tremolos. I paddle hard, as if there was something I could do to prevent an eagle from scooping up a loon chick. Loons can sense the eagle from far off, maybe it is that whiter-than-white tail, and the lake explodes in wild screaming by every loon on the lake, but especially those with chicks.

They circle closer, flapping wings, looking fearsome.

As I come nearer the cove, I think I see four heads. Yes, the white chest of the adults and the two little black balls of fluff in a straight line have gone back to living, the parents diving, the young waiting to be fed. The eagle has flown over the trees but will be back because they too have young to feed. The loons must stay ever alert, always looking for that flash of white.

That was Annie Dillard’s message, to stay alert, in the present, always open to the tree with lights in it, the shadows on the mountains that look like purple paint, the muskrat who comes nibbling spatterdock where I sit in the evenings, and the unseen world of fish and turtles below the surface who erupt in bubbles and craters and flashes of silver as they give chase.

After a few days, it would be time to pack up and paddle out. Back to the world of internet and phones, cars and emails, and a fridge full of food. But I am keeping that tattered old book with the wild-haired woman nearby to remind me to slow down, be quiet and look for that flash of white.

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