The air was warm, the sky blue, the water refreshingly cold. Not the coldest Canadian lake I’ve swum in, but my third of the summer. We were at Lake Rosseau on a glorious autumnal day with, interspersed among the evergreens, The Colours running riot – glorious riot; thousands of maple leaves turning yellow, then amber, then as red as the one on the Canadian flag – by the shoreline. This is the heart of Cottage Country, and we were staying with Allison’s aunt and uncle who own a cottage mere yards from the shore of the lake. Before we’d headed north, I’d declared that I would swim in every lake we stayed by, and by diving into Lake Rosseau I’d made it three out of a possible three.
I swam out from the dock with a powerful front-crawl, which quickly turned into a leisurely front-crawl as my generally sedentary lifestyle kicked in. I switched to back-stroke, my strongest stroke, and then the breast-stroke, my weakest. I tried to see how long I could hold my breath under water, and lasted around five seconds at a generous estimate. I was on holiday – swimming in a lake somewhere in Ontario, without a care in the world.
As I made my way back to the dock, I could vaguely make out the shapes of Allison and Uncle Bill standing on the dock. I assumed that they were watching me, the only one who’d wanted to swim in the lake in late September. I was wrong.
Allison called out: “Nick, there’s a loon!”
I know, I thought. We’d seen two of them, one in striking summer plumage with black head, striped neck and chequered back, the other in drab winter dark grey and white. Probably a pair, given that, like swans, loons mate for life. They were a hundred or so yards away from us as I’d taken a running dive off the dock. It may have been autumn, but these summer visitors were going nowhere fast; loons are among the last birds to fly south for the winter. “There’s two loons out on the lake,” Uncle Bill had quipped, “and a third one’s about to join them.”
While I tried to splutter a response, Allison called out again: “He’s right behind you!”
Turning around, I beheld through my myopia a dark-coloured, duck-like object heading straight for me. As it came closer, its dagger-like beak and large head identified itself to me as one of the loons; the winter-plumaged one, who’d evidently decided to see who else was swimming in the lake.
There I was. Getting very close to nature – just a few feet from one of the great symbols of the Canadian wilderness. Swimming alongside a bird for whom swimming is a way of life.
It didn’t end there. As I got out of the lake, the loon continued along by the side of the dock. Mike, Uncle Bill’s neighbour, caught sight of him as he sauntered over to wish us good morning. He too was taken aback.
“What’s this? You got a pet loon now, Bill?”
His surprise was understandable. Most birds, and this includes loons, have a healthy wariness of people, an ancestral memory that even from a distance these are predators, to be avoided at all costs. This loon, however, didn’t seem that bothered. He (or she) continued to swim around in the shallows for a few minutes before doing the unthinkable. It got out of the water.
Collectively, we gasped.
Unless they’re nesting (and even then they’re very close to the water’s edge), the only time loons get out of the water is when they’re taking off. They don’t wander onto the land – their legs are so far back that they can only walk with difficulty; indeed, the bird’s very name is a reference to this fact. Yet here was a loon getting out of the water, and in very close proximity to four people. Two of whom have spent many summers by the shores of Canadian lakes and seen countless loons, but never out of the water.
We concluded that it had to be ill, but close-up it looked fairly alert, shuffling itself around so it could face the water as the rest of the family came out to have a look while Uncle Bill went to report a sick loon to the animal protection people.
The loon, who in close proximity appeared to be going through the moulting process, was still there, not minding the cars whizzing past on the nearby road, when we went out for a boat-ride several hours later. When we came back, though, it had gone – according to Mike, the animal protection people had not showed up, so it must have simply swum away.
PS: This blog-post was subsequently re-posted on the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s ‘Land Lines’ blog, which has some incredible stories about the natural world in Canada.