The loon

You’ve probably seen it already: a solitary yellow leaf on the sidewalk or the surface of a pond, or stuck to your car’s damp windshield in the morning. If you’ve recently taken a hike or a long drive you’ve surely seen the birches changing. Autumn is crisp, autumn is mellow and beautiful. I’ll readily admit all these things, and I still hate it. I won’t write another word about it. Instead this will be about a day near the solstice, which I spent in a kayak around the perimeter of a local lake.

I’ve probably had my last kayaking trip of 2017. It was a grey struggle against sudden winds — a fun time in its own right, but not one that will linger like this day does, when the water was barely disturbed even by insects, a flat sheet you could glide on forever. The migrating birds had arrived from their far-flung parts of the world. A flotilla of a few dozen gulls rested on the water in a small cove in the lake’s southern end — each oriented a different direction, casually twitching their heads around and squawking quietly to one another. My kayak and I, circling the edge of their space, must have been only the most recent strange sight they’d seen between here and whatever southeast coast they winter on.

On my second lap around I had the inevitable urge to see how close I could get without disturbing the gulls. From the far side of the lake I saw a point of shoreline sticking out from the entrance of their cove. My plan was to hug the shore and paddle fast as I approached this point, emerging swiftly and quietly from behind it and coasting onward until I approached the gulls.

I was not successful in sneaking up on the gulls, but I inadvertently snuck up on something else. I had coasted out from around the point when — just out of sight to my right — I heard a quiet plop followed by a loud WHUFF. It was the sound of a loon surfacing and exhaling a few feet away.

It must have gone under just before I came around the point. When it popped to the surface, the loon and I suddenly discovered one another. It quivered its wings in surprise — just as I might have raised my eyebrows — and immediately dove again. For a moment I had eye contact with it. Those orange dotted eyes, that from a distance look painted on, are brighter up close. I kept my paddle out of the water and looked around.

When the loon came up it was farther from me, but not very far. I could still hear its breathing. Loons don’t come to mind when you think of powerful animals, but at close range you can’t ignore the formidable lungs this sleek athlete has. WHUFF it went. WHUFF. As the bird and I watched one another, it occurred to me that the loon was more curious than afraid. It dove again, and again I watched for its surfacing. Again, not very far. My plan to approach the gulls was reversed — now I was waiting to see how close the loon would get to me.

In the shallows off the edge of the point, I could even see the loon’s dim silhouette under water: a fat torpedo steering itself with a pair of spread fins, its front end tapering to a spear-like beak. I followed this torpedo speeding silently underneath my kayak to pop up on the other side. The loon did this three or four times. The anthropomorphizing part of my imagination thought it might be criss-crossing beneath me for fun.

The loon’s dives were now taking it farther from me. It had gone back to fishing. After a while I started paddling again.

I didn’t get close to the gulls. The mass of them shifted away like a nonchalant amoeba from my slow approach. I continued my lap, then did another. Occasionally the loon popped up beside me again. The sky held nothing more than faint lines of cirrus cloud, just substantial enough to catch a yellow glow. It was around 10 p.m, and I’d been on and off various lakes since early afternoon. I didn’t know then that this would be the one I’d think of as the season ends. Hopefully you’ve also got some fine piece of the summer to remember when the lakes freeze.

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com

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