Nantucket Sleigh Ride Via Loon

Loons dancing in the morning mist on Tuscarora Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. (Photo taken by me in the mid-1980s.)

Loons dancing in the morning mist on Tuscarora Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. (Photo taken by me in the mid-1980s.)

Strange things happen sometimes in the Northwoods – this land where humans and animals live so near each other. When I was young (8? 9?) my family went fishing on a lake north of Duluth. While casting our lines, we noticed a loon swimming nearby, calling in an unusual manner. As outdoorsy types, we had heard many loons before, but this one sounded more plaintive than normal, like it was in distress.

The loon kept circling — swimming near us, which was also odd for this rather stand-offish species. My dad said something like, “I think that loon needs help,” so we canoed toward it. Soon we saw the problem. A homemade fishing pole crafted from a large branch trailed about fifteen feet behind the bird. My dad grabbed the pole, thinking he could just pull the loon toward us and find where the fishing hook was lodged in it.

Ha! He underestimated the power of the loon. Upon feeling the tug of the line, the loon took off and dove underwater. My dad kept his grip on the pole, and the loon proceeded to pull our canoe (and the three or four of us in it) through the water at a good clip.

Now, a Nantucket sleigh ride is what used to happen to whalers after they harpooned a whale. The whale would take off, towing the whaling boat and its occupants through the sea until the whale tired and surfaced. That’s what was happening to us, only our whale was a loon.

Soon the loon tired and my dad was able to pull it close enough to capture in his gloved hands. This in itself was a feat of daring. Adult loons are about the size of a goose, and their bills are long and sharp.

After my dad wrestled it onto his lap, we discovered the hook embedded in the bird’s neck. Imagine — all that force from our lake sleigh ride concentrated on such a fragile body part. But that hadn’t stopped the loon.

My brother handed my dad the pliers and he was able to remove the hook. We released the loon back into its watery home. As the loon departed, its call was different. Happier.

Was it saying thank you? I’d like to think so.

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