The Lasting Song of the Loon: A True Story
By Sonja Rudd
It was the third week-end of August, my new life as a married woman, and where was I this Saturday morning at 5:00 a.m., one week back from my honeymoon in Wisconsin Dells? Fishing! Yes, fishing- and not just any fishing- fishing in the upper reaches of western Lake Michigan, north of Menominee, Wisconsin, just south of 50 degrees Fahrenheit; trying to catch breakfast, lunch, or dinner. It really didn't matter to me because- and in latter years I was always deemed bad luck on a fishing trip as no one ever "caught" a fish if I was on the boat, in the water, or standing on the dock-I learned at 5:00 a.m. that morning that fishing was not for me.
The wake-up call at 4:30 a.m. came from my new mother-in-law, Dottie, who did not join us on the boat. It was her brother Tom, my new husband Jim, and I. Always up for a new adventure, I eagerly agreed to try fishing in Green Bay, Wisconsin for Wahoo, or was it Pike; it didn't matter as I was a fishes best friend, their good luck charm, the future St. Sonja, uncrowned patron savior saint of fishes, because none would ever die or come near any hooks within my shadow, for the next 12 years of fishing trips, although that morning no one knew that yet. Dottie tapped on our door, I was always a light sleeper and heard her open our door, I pretended to be asleep, and watched her peering at her son and me sleeping together, for the first time in her eye sight. She had this cute little grin on her face, a knowing grin, she loved peeking-in and seeing the two of us together; her son married at last and to the daughter she never had. In latter years Dottie and I would become good friends, even after the marriage ended.
Lake Michigan water this August morning was around 52 degrees, higher than the "I can see your breath when you talk" degrees of the air. It is the sixth largest fresh water lake in the world, third largest of the Great Lakes, as deep as 940 feet, and on a small put-put boat it seemed as large as any ocean. There I sat, in the front of the boat, playing scout and look-out, inhaling the pine scented air, so different from the air in the "Harbor", East Chicago, Indiana, where I was raised and the steel mills ruled , air quality was as good as the back of any bus, only more sulfurous in odor, deadly in scope. Nothing wild, except me, lived in East Chicago, Indiana; the steel mill "smog" had killed the fish, wild life, flora and fauna. This morning around Green Bay it was very foggy, a greenish mist on the bay all around us, and I, as look-out, was watching out for rocks, logs, or imagined dangers. It was just that time of morning, before the sun rose, but after the dark night, with eerie light and gossamer fog around us that I heard the cry for the first time. "What's that sound I hear?" I asked. Tom replied, "That's the cry of the Loon". "What's a Loon, some type of bird?" "It's a water bird," Tom replied.
He went on and said that Loons are diving birds and they shun human contact. They have been known to dive for up to five minutes, are shy, but very intriguing. They migrate up here in the summer. Their haunting cry is quite prevalent in these waters and reminds people of scary movies themes. The Ojibwa Indians thought that the mournful cry of Loons was a death omen, (well not for the fish today, but no one knew that yet) and their cry has inspired many a composer. I was fascinated with the sound. I was like a dirge, mournful yet beautiful and unique. I kept turning right, left, ahead; listening for the bird calls and trying to see more than the 20 feet past the boat the fog allowed, but no sight of the Loons.
Eventually, we came to "the fishing spot" where I was told that fishing tradition axiom, "everyone hooks their own worms." Whoopee, just what I need before 6:00 a.m., 40+ degrees air temperature, before dawns early light, amid fog covered waters. So I hooked the worm, cast the line, and we sat, and sat, and sat. Nothing! Complete silence, except, across the dewy lake, the sound of the Loons. "You must have hooked your line wrong, that's why you don't have any bites," my new husband said. "Hey, you guys haven't had any bites either, and I did NOT hook my line wrong" I quickly replied. New hubby checked my line anyway, worm still there, but no fish, fish bites, or fish sightings. The Loons kept calling, like an incessant requiem cry, a morning wail of wilderness, of autonomy, a soul shattering song of Loons.
I still kept turning my head looking for the elusive birds, realizing at this point that fishing was a chore, a bore, not a sport, and for best results accomplished at the fish market. "Okay, guys so where is the sport part of fishing?" Quiet, no talking, you'll spook the fish, quit turning around in the boat, you're making waves, the fish will know, etc., were the type of comments I was to receive for the next two hours. Men, superstitious nuts! Already, my fish savior reputation was in the making, unbeknownst to me. "A lot of my friends just don't go fishing with women, its bad luck they say" was one comment I remember Tom saying, and something that was repeated in numerous other fishing trips. He also added he didn't believe that at all, but I could prove him wrong. I did. Over the course of the 4 day week-end, I went fishing twice a day for 3 days, and no one caught a fish if I was in the boat. No fish bubbles or fish seen swimming, jumping, nor creating waves as they swam by. Somehow, I still think of that with pride and a grin, keeping fish from a hooked-death trap, that's me.
Fishermen must be eternal optimists as each day progressed with no catch in hand, the fishing never stopped, especially in the morning, with the credo "it's the best time to fish" attitude still prevalent. They couldn't understand why I went out in the boat every morning at 5:00 a.m. They had not concluded or understood that it wasn't for the fishing. Only I knew, it was for the Loons. I had fallen in love with their sound, more beautiful and haunting with each morning boat ride. What was it about their song, their cry, which sank into the marrow of my being? I knew instinctively, without being able to put into words, it's because they are free, and I was not. Their cries in the greenish gossamer mist were of a freedom humans could never have, and it sang to my soul.
I was a wild child, the first born of four girls, the black sheep of the family, a free spirit, and the one my parents cut their parental teeth upon, and now I was a MRS. I was not free as the Loons I was hearing, and it was not just the loss of freedom created by the bonds of marriage, either. I was being forced to grow-up, join the working world now that I had graduated from college two month hence, and I could only visit this free world of the Loons on a temporary basis. That's what my instincts were telling me, no words necessary, some things you just feel. I didn't have the words then, on that lake, in that boat, listening to the song, to describe my emotions, but I felt them to the very essence of my being.
Years past, so did the marriage, but decades later, on a chance encounter, I will hear that Loon siren song. Each time I've heard the Loons calling, strange but familiar emotions, like tsunami waves, move through the prisms of my senses, raising hairs on my neck, recreating a long ago memory of a cold pre-dawn lake morning where I first heard the cry of the Loon.
I am nowhere near Lake Michigan in south Florida, but on a serendipitous occasion, sometimes stumbling upon some new-age music, a Loon dirge, usually in a minor key, evokes all of those memories and they wash over me. Memories of my youth, independence, the smell of the pine forest, new love, and that eerie lament, the cry and song, caused by the Loon.