The scent of warm pine needles and dripping spruce gum filled the air as we relaxed in our Muskoka chairs in the cool breezy sun porch thirty feet from the water’s edge, which was directly in front of us just below the steep rocky bank. Long narrow Lake Kashagawigamog lapped gently on the nearby sandy beach, curving away to the left of us at the end of a gently sloping path leading from the side porch to the water. It was an unobstructed view, for the most part, because all the lower branches of the ancient evergreens were higher than they were in their glory days, much like the receding hairlines of former football jocks at high school reunions. We could see past them now to what really mattered at the moment—in this case a reminder of theirs’ and our own mortality. “Trees? Men? Just what is she actually talking about?” you are likely asking yourself just now. Well in this case, the reminder of our own mortality was in the dying loon who had pulled himself from the water and was positioned in silence upon the beach.
The loons here spent a lot of time visiting us every day. Though, in reality, being the egocentric beings that we are, it is likely wishful thinking to call the chance crossings of our paths “visiting.” They are probably as oblivious to our watching their every move as the mischievous kids used to be on the old Candid Camera show. Occasionally the loons clowned about in groups of three; at other times a noisy twosome sauntered by, and often one would come bob along quite close to shore all alone. My husband Rolly, who never goes anywhere without his wristwatch, timed one who was diving underwater for fish. Weak swimmer that I am, I was greatly relieved when the loon came up again for air, a whole forty-seven seconds later!
The lake is sometimes totally still and deserted of all signs of life. Then at other times the boat traffic is a parade of powered crafts of all sizes and descriptions. Motorboats, speed boats, and cruisers all pass by for a minute or two, as if they had all been held up by a slow driver out front. Then it is quiet again for twenty minutes, or sometimes even an hour or two. This quiet time is when I like the lake the best. I am sure that those who love to fish, both the loons and the silent men standing unsteadily in their little boats at the deep fishing hole out front of the cottage, would also agree. Bobbing wildly up and down in the wake of passing speed boats, with their flashy fishing rods in hand, the anglers are no doubt cursing under their breath. at the noisy disruption of the harmony with nature they were probably striving to achieve.
I love the sound of the waves lapping at the shore when the breeze disturbs the surface of the water. It is as if the sound itself of to and fro, to and fro, when heard by the ears is somehow felt instead as motion— a return again to the comfort and reassurance of a gentle rocking on the lap of a much-loved grandmother in her favorite chair.
When we first saw the loon from a distance he seemed only to be resting on the beach. It was almost twilight. As we quietly proceeded down the path towards him he didn’t seem to hear our approach. He didn’t even stir as we tread softly across the sand until we were only a few feet away. Rolly and I both squatted down near him to get a better look. We assumed him to be a male bird because of his size; he was a far larger bird when we were close up than I had ever expected a loon to be. His small red eyes were wide open and he looked very sad, though perhaps that’s just because it made me very sad to see him sitting there so deathly still. He finally moved, almost imperceptibly, as we edged in a bit closer. He turned his head slightly toward us, perhaps anxious that we would touch him, but this we did not do.
He had no missing feathers and no apparent wounds to indicate an injury, and yet both Rolly and I had the distinct impression that he must be dying. Otherwise would he not try to flop or drag himself back into the water? This is what loons on land usually do to get in and out of water because they have very short legs and are very heavy. This is ideal for diving, but it means they can’t walk very well. We decided to give him the space he needed to pass away in peace without having to deal with the trauma of two huge human beings hovering over him. I said goodbye to him under my breath and sadly went up the path again to the cottage. Through the sun room window we could see him there until it got too dark, and then Rolly walked down the path one last time and returned to say that he was still there—still waiting.
We went to bed that night, and I slept restlessly. I awoke more than once to the sound of the loons calling out to one another, or a dream of loons calling out to one another— I wasn’t sure. In the early morning Rolly went down to the beach and returned to tell me that the loon was gone. Perhaps we had been wrong and he had not actually been dying after all; perhaps he had simply had a severe bump on the head from a passing boat. Maybe in an attempt to get a fish from the bottom of the lake and make it to the surface in less than the forty-seven seconds it took him the day before he had been too careless. Such a collision would have been enough to stun an unsuspecting loon. Could the persistent calls of his mate have aroused him from his stupor? But there were no unusual markings in the sand to indicate that he had struggled to flop or drag back himself back into the water. Neither were there any paw prints from any passing dog or stalking wolf or bear— no feathers to indicate that any animal had made a meal of him. He just wasn’t there!
Perhaps he had started en route to wherever hurt or ancient birds migrate to on that last great journey and he had decided at the very last moment to turn around. After all, out-of-body experiences can’t be nearly as exciting for birds as they seem to be for people, can they? The strangest thing though is that the beach gave no indication that he had moved from the place that he had been resting at all, except for a slight depression in the sand. It was just one of those mysteries. I decided I should call him Enoch.