(This story is reproduced from a story I wrote earlier for my Planet Michigan website, and was sent to the Cheboygan Tribune.)
So I’m getting out of bed one New Year’s morning a couple winters ago…phone was thrust into my hand, and it’s Lori Pool from Round Lake, just outside of Petoskey. Lori and her husband Ron, along with about a dozen other Round Lake residents, monitor the nesting loons on that lake, squeezed between two busy highways, public boat launch, condos, jet skis, it gets busy at times. Anyway, Lori tells me Ron is coming across the ice carrying a loon. Having landed on a lake that’s been frozen for over a month! Of course, this is so surprising because loons are like those big belly seaplanes, built for landing and taking off on open water. Also, since they eat fish, a frozen lake is not the likeliest place to catch a meal.
Lori had seen the bird from her window, and had dispatched Ron to fetch it, which he had done, and was on his way back to their lakefront home.
”Couldn’t be a loon” I thought aloud.
“Oh yes it is” assured Lori, Ron having arrived back cradling the proof in his arms. Twenty minutes later, we’re pulling this loon from a cardboard box, lined with Ron’s flannel shirt, and sure enough, it was an adult loon in winter plumage…having recently molted its beautiful black and white mottled feathers.
I’ll say something about a loon that comes down on a frozen lake…you don’t want to be one. Your days, or hours, in this cold, are literally numbered; the only chance of escaping certain doom is to get back to open water quickly, an extremely unlikely scenario had this been an uninhabited lake. Like I said before, loons are evolved for diving, not walking. Forget about going from the frying pan into the fire. This loon went straight into the fire, and was doomed upon landing, were it not for Lori’s sharp eye.
We examined the loon, found no injuries, but for fear of sustaining our own from its lightening-quick bill, hastily reboxed it and decided getting it back to open water as soon as possible was the best thing, Fifteen minutes later, we arrive at Petoskey’s waterfront breakwall. To the right, churning ice chunks prohibit releasing the bird there. But a windy morning had left the west side an ice-free swath. With a kiss to the back of the head for luck, but to also shield my face from its dagger-like bill, I knelt down and released the eager loon onto an approaching swell, having arrived, it seemed, with the express purpose of receiving the loon back into its rightful element.
Once back at Round Lake, I’m curious to see where the loon came down. From the evidence imprinted in the snow, the loon landed with more a thud than a skid, excreting on impact. From there, it traveled some yards in unhurried fashion, a trench straddled by footprints, made by its belly pushing through the snow. At one point, a dog-like track intercepted the loon’s trail, where its gait turned more frantic, wingtip prints flanked its footprints, indicating the loon was running/wing-flapping in an attempt to flee its pursuer. Soon, chaotic signs of a struggle, a few frozen drops of blood, a feather here and there, and another chase. Another confrontation, then the tracks went separate ways. The dog had had enough, the blood likely the result of bill stabs to the face, the loon escaping unscathed. Ron’s footprints joined the loon’s soon after, and the story comes full circle.
Why he came down on this frozen lake we’ll never know, though loons sometimes mistake an large surface, like a field, or snowy lake, for open water; even a winding road for a river.