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Outdoors North

An elusive loon keeps playing hard to get

“Nothing else can make my heart flutter like you,” – Jack Ingram

The night was cool and damp when I stepped outside the door, my bare feet following the rose rock steps down to the landing.

I stand here often to get a better ear on the world.

Even if I only step outside for a couple of minutes, I almost always hear something worth listening for — something that inspires, recharges, lifts or stirs me.

What struck me first on this night was not the sound I heard, but rather, the absence of it. The little saw-whet owl, whose song had reached me on several evenings lately from an island out in the lake, was stone silent tonight.

There were a few spring peepers pinging the notes of their evening choruses off the cold, wet walls of the slate, schist and granite outcroppings rimming the lake. Such an impressive sound, with plenty of carrying power, from a tiny and delicate frog — marked with a cross on its back.

I stayed a few more minutes, but the longer I was there, the less I heard. I turned and began walking up the stairs to go inside when a long and lonesome whine of some type shot through the darkness.

I heard it a second time, but I couldn’t make out what it was any better.

It was far off.

From somewhere, way out to the northwest, I supposed a good distance past the Wishing Place, the sound came shimmering and echoing in a haunting tone.

This time, I figured it out.

It wasn’t a wolf or a coyote, which had been my first thought.

It wasn’t any kind of dog at all.

It was a loon.

I figured the bird must be on the water, helping its sound travel farther, all the way to me, standing here on the pink stone stairwell.

There it was again, that prolonged, wistful wail – riding the wind like a long fly ball – with a somber bend in the note near the end.

The sound echoed through my soul, an ancient voice returned.

At that point, everything inside me modulated to a higher key. The voice of the loon is one of those things that affects me profoundly.

These birds remain mysterious forms to me, with their purpose in this world unclear.

They have been here nearly as long as many of these icy, northern lakes.

With their striking red eyes, smooth black faces and daggerlike bills, they slip silently under the water’s surface where they are far more at ease – chasing glimmering bluegills and pumpkinseeds, outmaneuvering them between the sunken logs and jagged rocks.

They appear to be stolid, melancholy characters to me, with broken hearts. Like jilted lovers, they return faithfully to the same old haunts, finding the same scenes – gray skies and cold water.

A couple days later, I felt the warmth of the sun on my back. The air was warm too. I decided to take a ride out to the Rivière des Morts. I brought my fishing pole, just in case there was room to take a cast or two.

I found a lot of snow still on the ground under the trees and alongside the dirt road. The snow that had melted created large puddles at the base of slopes, swelled rivers beyond their banks and, in some places, stretched wide and long all the way across the road. Moose tracks looked like they had been pushed into the soft, brown dirt with a cookie cutter.

A broad-winged hawk perched on a poplar branch that hung over the road. When I approached, he dipped and flew a few more feet to a new hunting post. He kept doing this as we moved farther down the road.

He then must have tired of my intrusion as he ducked into a line of trees off the edge of the road. I lost sight of him there.

Rounding a corner, I pulled over and stopped to see what I could hear.

A beautiful male white-throated sparrow popped out of the tangles, low to the ground. Like the loon, his song is one familiar to all who love these old north woods. From high atop a singing post you hear him all summer long – old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.

The white and black stripes, from front to back, on his head, the bright yellow before the eyes and the clean, white throat patch were all so bright I got out of the car, hoping to snap a picture.

I followed him into the brush, kicking up a ruffed grouse that had been bedded down in the soft grass and moss under a hunter green spruce tree. The swift card-shuffling flutter of its wings made me feel disappointed I had disturbed the bird’s afternoon nap.

Not far from here, the wings of another bird whistled in the skies above me. The ghostly winnowing sound of a snipe bent a smile back out of the corners of my mouth.

Deer tracks in the dirt, the smell of skunk at the top of a ridgeline. Another grouse, this one puffing out the black skirt around his neck, and fanning his tail, as he walked quickly up a gravel embankment, retreating under a small stand of pines.

Gray pussy willows buds, the white of poplar and the red of maples were all making showy displays against the sky, popping like fireworks in the glinting light of the fading sunshine.

The one unfortunate thing about spring is its uncovering the littering sins of humankind. So strange it is that we humans can perceive and appreciate at great length nature’s unmatched beauty, while in the same breath we can demonstrate the propensity and want to spoil it.

To me, it’s like throwing garbage in an infant’s crib – it’s something you just don’t do.

As I find myself standing alongside a swiftly moving rapids, just down from where an old sawmill must have stood, I toss a couple of casts into the deep, black, pooled water.

I find evidence of fresh beaver works along the creek. The temperature begins to drop quickly as a chilly wind picks up and swirls through the trees. I see raindrops wet the flat side of a gray rock.

It isn’t long and I reach the blacktop again, rolling toward the house. I’m ready for a hot bowl of chili. Kids are fishing at the lake, one has a good-sized walleye. A few more turns and a couple of miles and I’ll be home.

I drive past one of the places where there’s water on both sides of the road, glancing off to my right.

My heart stops.

There in the sprinkling rain, on top of the water, sits a loon.

I quickly pull the car off the road into the gravel and stop. I get out with my camera. I close the door softly. The loon hasn’t moved. It watches me as I approach.

I sense the bird has more than me on its mind by the way it glances from side to side.

Another few seconds pass, and a second loon rises, up out of the still green waters, only a few feet away from the first. They both look at each other and then at me. Neither seems overly concerned.

The rain starts falling harder. I know in my heart the first bird is the one I heard calling from the steps a few nights ago. I just know it.

They are both silent now, watching. Only the second bird dives.

I take a handful of pictures while the rain sops my shirt. I thank them for allowing me to approach and I welcome them back.

I leave in profound peace, wanting nothing.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.