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Loon antics

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There are many sounds in Canada's forests, and not just a few of them are distinctly Canadian — a wolf's howl, the tock-tock-tock of woodpeckers. But there's one that's more iconic than most, and one night camped in Algonquin Park with my daughter Myles it was this sound — the cry of the common loon, de facto doormen of every lake, black-tie emissaries that cavort with canoeists like dolphins — that put on a veritable vocal Olympics.

It began when a lonely cry rose from one end of the lake, and a laughing, maniacal answer emanated from the other; as these echoed around the water more joined in, the sounds from all sides colliding in the middle like waves in a bathtub. It's odd that something this eerie can also seem comforting, even draw you in. "The loon here is laughing again," wrote John McPhee in Survival of the Bark Canoe, "so I laugh back. He laughs. I laugh. He laughs. I laugh. He will keep it up until I am hoarse. He likes conversation. He talks this way with other loons. I am endeavoring to tell him that he is a hopeless degenerate killer of trout. He laughs."

Despite ease of association with the word "lunatic," loons are actually named after their strange walk, moving on land like a bent over penguin about to tip over beak first. But their discomfort with terra firma, on which they spend perilously little time — and then only during nesting season — is the flipside of an exquisite adaptation to lake living. Gavia immer can be just shy of a metre long and weigh five kilos. With legs set far back and moulded into powerful paddles, it rockets like a torpedo underwater, twisting and turning after fish and diving to 60 metres. In turn, young loons are eaten by large fish and, when nesting, devious raccoons, weasels and skunks. First Nations hunters have a small loon quota in some parts of Algonquin, but the population remains very stable; it's difficult to go an hour without seeing one.

Myles was familiar with loons as a cottage creature but had never been so close. Determined to get a picture, we'd followed many; sometimes they let us approach, other times not so much. In either case, with the wide-angle lenses and shutter delay of most digital point-and-shoots, it was hard to get a solid image. On top of that, tracking these birds on the water isn't easy; their movements — at least to anyone who isn't a loon biologist — seem notoriously random: when a loon dives you have no clue if it will pop up next to you or half a kilometre away; their whole body might surface or just their head and neck; sometimes, when they feel particularly threatened, only the beak appears, vertically like a snorkel; two loons diving together may come up far apart or vice versa; loons can display no interest in you whatsoever or be obviously curious. But whatever they do, as McPhee notes, they will laugh it off in characteristic style, as if the joke of their unpredictability is on the observer.

The loon's cry, he avers, "authenticates a northern lake," and in so doing has, to some extent, authenticated an entire country. This, I told Myles, was the reason Canada's bronze-plated one-dollar coin with a loon emblazoned on the reverse (Queen Lizzy II on the obverse, of course) — which should, by rights, really just be called "a dollar" — quickly became the "loonie" after its 1987 introduction. Loonie was so widely recognized that the Royal Canadian Mint bought rights to the name in 2006, making it the official label for Canada's currency in global financial markets. And the backstory is even better: similar to Canada's previous silver dollar, the new coin was meant to have a voyageur theme, but the master dies were lost in transit to the mint and a different design was needed immediately in order to avoid counterfeiting. So ubiquitous was the term loonie that Canada's two-dollar coin — which dropped in 1996 and has a polar bear on the back — was instantly known by the portmanteau "toonie."

Yes, people seem to genuinely dig these crazy birds. They're mascot worthy. If Canada's souvenir industry weren't already so crowded, the loon, with the right management team, could dethrone beer, bacon, beaver, maple leaf, doughnut, Inukshuk — maybe even Mounties. Just for being certifiable. How Canadian! I might have been ranting a bit to Myles but I was making a point.

It seemed she'd been listening, but apparently that had stopped when she started thinking.

— How far can loons see underwater?

— Further than us. Further than fish.

— And above water.

— Pretty far, I guess.

— At night, too?

— Probably not.

— Then what are they all doing out there?

As if in a ham-fisted attempt to provide their own explanation, a strong commotion broke out on the water. Splashing and wing-flapping. Desperate ululation.

—Who cares what you all think? I yell out of the tent.

They laugh.

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.

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