By Ronni Tichenor
We have a camp on the south shore of 4th Lake, in the Fulton Chain, and early one morning in August, I was on our dock practicing my yoga. I was about to release my Down Dog position, when movement on the water caught my eye. It was a loon, less than ten feet off the dock, swimming slowly by. I froze, fearing that any movement would scare it and cause it to dive, which meant I could not see very clearly because, in my head-down position, my hair hung over my face. The loon appeared to have a fish in its mouth—but then I thought I could see little legs on the side, so I said, “No—it’s a crawfish.” We had seen a couple of loon families in the previous days, so I thought the loon was delivering breakfast to someone. Once it had swum away, my husband came down to the dock. He had been up at the house, watching from a distance. “Wow,” he said, “that was so close.” We went on about our day—he went for a bike ride, I went for a walk.
We live on a peninsula with a shared driveway that winds around a cove. As I returned from my walk, nearing the cove, I could hear voices coming from the water. I looked up to see a man, a girl, and a dog in a canoe. They were fairly close to shore, moving slowly. I assumed they were following something, so I looked through the trees to see what it was—a loon. I walked slowly to follow it, too. I heard the girl say, “It has something in it’s mouth.” I probably startled them when I piped in from the woods, “I saw a loon earlier this morning that seemed to have a fish in its mouth. But then I saw little legs, so I thought it was a crawfish.” The girl said, “Yeah, that’s what this looks like.” How odd that the loon was still carrying the same thing—I felt my stomach turn over. She said, “It can’t close its mouth.” Then I knew: This loon is going to die. I couldn’t see clearly earlier that morning, with my hair in my face, but the loon had something stuck in its mouth. How would I ever be able to help it? As soon as I tried to approach it, it would dive. The loon swam through two stands of cattails, with the canoe trailing slowly behind, and me following along the shore. Then I realized that it was moving to the most shallow part of the cove, where the water is only a few feet deep—it wouldn’t be able to dive! I immediately started talking to it: “Will you let me help you? Please let me help you!” I walked around the cove and the loon was right where I thought it would be. As I moved toward the water, I decided it was better to keep my shoes on—there’s no telling what might be on the bottom. I took a couple of steps in and immediately sank up to my knees in muck. “There go my shoes,” I thought. But I walked carefully and got back on more solid ground within a few steps. Initially, the loon moved slowly away, but then it stopped about ten feet from me, and gave me a sweet little “hoot” sound, that encouraged me. I was still talking to it, silently. I walked right over to it and picked it up. I did not hesitate because I was concerned about giving it time to be startled or flaps its wings. I wrapped my left arm around its lower body and my right around the breast, just below the neck. It did not resist.
I immediately saw a wad of water-logged sticks, fishing hook and line wrapped around and around its lower jaw and the back of its head. I kissed it on the head and told it that we were here to help. I looked up to see the canoe about eight feet away; they pulled up right next to me. I asked if they had any scissors, thinking perhaps they had fishing equipment with them, but they did not. I looked at the girl, who seemed to be about fourteen. I gestured toward the woods behind me with my head and said, “That’s my house—the green one. Go into the back door on the left, through the laundry room, and into the kitchen. Look for the coffee maker on the counter. In the drawer underneath there is a pair of scissors. Go get them.” She looked at her father, then back at me, a little uncertain. I repeated the precise instructions about where to find the scissors. She jumped out of the canoe to retrieve them. After she left, the man said, “I’m Paul, that’s my daughter, Katie.” “I’m Ronni.” That’s all that was said. We stood in silence, watching the loon. I had never realized that the black feathers on its head are actually an iridescent dark greeny-black. It looked up at me with one red eye. I kept telling it everything would be OK. I kissed it again. Then we heard Katie’s voice behind us: “Oh no,” she realized, “I’m not supposed to be running with scissors!” We laughed. I reminded her to put her thumb over the rounded point to protect herself. Katie waded back to us and took off her once beautiful white sandals and dropped them into the canoe. I looked at my new friends and asked who wanted to do the cutting and who wanted to hold its head. Katie had the scissors so she would do the cutting. I asked Paul to hold the loon’s head still so that it wouldn’t move and get hurt. He took off his shoes and got out of the canoe. He seemed wary as he reached for the loon—I don’t blame him. The beak is long with a sharp point, but the loon did not resist. Katie began cutting away the fishing line. We started at the neck, freeing its head, then worked at all the pieces around the lower jaw. I examined it carefully. Miraculously, the line had not produced any cuts in the loon’s flesh. When we were finished, I kissed the loon one more time and bent down to release it. It swam slowly away from us. Within moments it put its face in the water to look for fish. That was a hopeful sign.
Katie handed me the scissors and started to apologize, saying, “I think I may have left some muddy footprints on your floor.” I laughed, “I don’t care about that!” We kept thanking each other—for the help, for being there, for sharing this amazing encounter with the loon. We waved good-bye, and they turned to look for their canoe. It had drifted about 25 feet away by this point. Their dog seemed to take this whole episode in stride—he never uttered a sound. As they tried to make their way back to the canoe, they kept sinking in muck, so they finally decided to swim for it. I walked out of the water and back to my house.
A few hours later, I took a paddleboard and went to find the loon. It was in the cove, still looking for fish. I couldn’t wait to tell my husband the story when he returned from his ride. Then he wanted to see how the loon was doing, too. We went out several times that day. Each time the loon was either resting near the shore or looking for fish. It was still there at nightfall, and I thought it probably needed a good night’s sleep and would be gone in the morning. The next day we went out to the cove and my husband said, “I hope we don’t see it.” “Me too.” But it was still there. We went out several times to check on it, and the loon was either resting or fishing. I kept trying to reassure myself: “Who knows how long it had been like that? It may have been more tired, hungry, and dehydrated than I originally thought, which means it would need a longer period of time to recover.” Late that day it was very near the shore, up against a fallen log, and I began to worry. My husband said, “I feel like we’re on a death watch.”
I had the same thought, but I tried to console myself by saying that, even if the loon passes, at least we had lessened its suffering in its last days. On the third day, I arose very early and went right out on the paddleboard. I scoured the cove, but the loon was gone. I was elated! I have thought about my friend every day since this encounter. Holding it made me feel like a Goddess—like Mother Earth, Herself. I have repeatedly relived that feeling, and the joy I felt in knowing that it trusted me. I am grateful that it allowed us to help it—and in so doing, gave me one of the most magical experiences of my life.
-Ronni Tichenor, Old Forge, NY
Photo by Richard Monroe (not the loon in the story)