Creative Nonfiction

Migration

by Paula Zwicke

           A warm September breeze swept us along Lake Namakagon’s rocky shoreline for what I knew would be the last time this year. Aspens shimmered in shades of amber, and a blood-orange sun hovered at the treeline. An unsettled quiet hung heavy in the air and hushed this busy Wisconsin lake. We were alone, the only boat for as far as I could see, where the water cascades at the horizon and disappears into the forest. Soon, we, too, would be gone.

           “Listen. Behind us,” I said to my husband, Tim.

           I swiveled in my seat toward the wail and scanned the water for the iridescent black head. Tim and I caught each other’s gaze and smiled. Lake Namakagon was about to offer us one last summer gift.

From the bow, Tim casts his musky lure downwind, jerking the pole so the lure mimics an injured baitfish. Droplets of water hang from the monofilament like spider webs as he cranks the line back to the reel. He leans against the pedestal seat in his usual fashion to take weight off his tired, varicose legs. He throws and reels, throws and reels, stopping every dozen casts or so to change baits from a tackle box the size of a carry-on bag. He studies the ripples that follow the lure as it twitches its way back to the boat. Each cast ends with the figure-eight, where he dips the rod tip in the water and swirls it in the shape of a wide numeral eight. I can do it, too. Tim taught me, but I won’t. It scares me like that moment in a thriller right before the crazed killer bares his teeth and lunges at me from behind the door. Instead, it’s a beast of a fish, a musky, that snatches the bait inches from the boat, a roar of water in its wake, and I’m left startled. No musky takes Tim’s bait, so he lifts the pole from the water to do the dance again.

           I can’t seem to raise the rod that lays across my knees. This is our final fishing and camping trip before we store both for another Wisconsin winter, and the stillness of the lake resonates more with me than the fishing. No mallard hens and their caravans of ducklings swim the shoreline. No songbirds sing melodies of the northwoods. No pontooners laugh. No skiers buzz. I hear only the percussion ensemble of cabin owners as they pound on their piers–clank, clank, clank–to loosen the posts, release the piers, and roll them out of the water and onto the lakefront where they’ll rest until spring. 

           I drift as we navigate the water, the day, the hours, lost as I lose track of time, transfixed by the waves, loss and ends, and silence. The silence that ushers in winter and marks the end of summer and the beginning of the end of migration. 

           I hear the wail again as it echoes across the water, riding a sudden wind gust, and catch sight of the loon’s black silhouette against the autumn sky. With small binoculars from the glove box, I raise them to my face to get a closer look. Tim casts and reels but from starboard now as he watches me perform my citizen-science observations. The unused fishing rod still balances on my knees, abandoned again for the promise of loons. 

           I’m not sure when my keen awareness of loons hatched. Perhaps when I first read Sigurd Olson’s essay, “Laughing Loons,” two decades ago in college. Perhaps when I first read his story aloud to my students at an evening campfire during summer school a few years ago. I do know when it became a passion–July 1, 2019. That’s the day my high school summer school students and I landed on a pontoon boat surveilling loon pairs on Lake Namakagon with LoonWatch staff from Northland College. A nonprofit organization with the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute in Ashland, Wisconsin, its mission is to protect loons by educating water users, employing volunteers to monitor loons throughout the breeding season, and supporting research. We saw two nesting pairs on Jackson Lake that day, which is connected to Namakagon by a short, navigable wetland. One pair shared incubation on a floating bog in the thoroughfare, the nest shifting dangerously low to the water as a boat passed through faster than posted no-wake speed. The second pair of parents had hatched their chicks and moved from the man-made nesting platform to the nursery, a shoreline area rich with crustaceans for feeding their young. One partner called to the other to announce the feeding, and we watched the family from a safe distance away. The tenderness with which both pairs cared for their offspring despite being endangered by humans or preyed upon by eagles and muskies inspired me and my students that day to be conscientious land and water users and deepened an awe of nature beyond anything we had experienced before this.

           Since that day, I search for common loons any time I’m on the lake, chronicling observations in field notes, while Tim searches for the next weed bed promising musky. I read everything I can about loons and their courageous lives, about the humans like Olson who patiently changed a culture that caused their near extinction to one that waits for their return every spring.

           Today is a first for me–a September loon. Oh, Lake Namakagon.

           The striking beauty of loons and their haunting voices draw me to them. Loons measure about thirty inches from head to tail and have a five-foot wingspan. Adults weigh six to thirteen pounds with the male generally larger than the female, according to LoonWatch. During summers among us, which is the breeding season, their plumage is distinct from any other bird with their black iridescent heads, flashing hints of green in the sunlight, red eyes, and black and white feather necklaces around their throats. Their black and white plumage, and white undersides–tuxedo colors–matches the sunlit spots sparkling on the surface of the lake and serves as counter camouflage against underwater predation.

           I move the binoculars across the lake like windshield wipers on a windshield, but the loon is alone like us. I thought of Sigurd Olson who said loons are “the symbol of the lake country, the sound that more than any other typifies the rocks and waters and forests of the wilderness.” I imagined his antsy-ness looked like mine each May as we waited for the first sorrowful wail, the “moment of magic in the north,” that reminds us it’s a new season, and we can begin again. But this day, the loon and I are on the other end of migration. I rub the goosebumps through my sweatshirt-sleeved arms, our mutual loneliness chilly even in the September sun.

           The loon wails again, a single long howl that sounds like Where are you. Both of us listen and hope for a traveling mate’s echo in the air between the wails. I wonder how many loons Olson saw in his lifetime since he lived within the loons’ summer migratory homeland as I do. I suspect this straggler is a floater–a resident loon of Lake Namakagon–which didn’t nest or failed at nesting. Or, it may be a bird temporarily alone as its partner fishes, or even a Canada resident dropping in to rest and refuel before continuing to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s not uncommon to see loons in September, especially on a large lake like Namakagon. This loon will stop at other inland lakes and the Great Lakes during its migration to molt, rest, and refuel until it bears no resemblance to the aristocratic loons we see in spring and summer in this region, on this lake. For me it’s a special reminder of the rhythm of nature, the seasons, and change.

           I lost the loon in my binocular lenses. It probably dove for fish or crustaceans it spotted with keen eyes. I’ve watched loons stick their heads in the water like children would with goggles. I’ve watched them bob up with minnows in their dagger-like bills and transfer the food to the mouths of their chicks. While I wait for the loon to resurface, I settle my eyes on the  aspens in the background, standing tall among the evergreens, a waterfall of jeweled leaves in the afternoon sun. It won’t be long and the aspens will be stripped of leaves, their brown and burnt-yellow skeletons fallen to their graves. Summer’s guest pops up, and the loon sends another unanswered wail across the water, its partner too far to hear the check-in call, or its alone-ness confirmed in the silence. If only the lake could continue to echo with the wail of the loons. 

           The loon raises up, air pushes through its stretched wings in a whooshing sound, its wingspan nearly as long as I am tall, and swings as if waving “so long” to summer, Lake Namakagon, and its human partner and admirer. As migration nears, I want to transport myself with it, carried away on its back like a chick, its wail mine as well. It lowers its body into takeoff position and taxis down a half-mile water runway like a float plane. Both need long expanses of water because their heavy bodies and small wings require more time and distance to get airborne. I’m relieved it has no interference from boat traffic as it lifts off in its slow ascent. The wind eases the loon’s effort to go higher and higher as it banks to the south and away from me. 

           “See you in May,” I say, though I will hear the loons before I see them.

           The loon disappears into a horizon infused with the last dusky light of day, an ant in a sea of sky, and I have no idea if I will survive the winter.

           Tears pool until they puddle as I visualize the brilliance of the warm seasons now shades of gray, frigid, and toil. I want to stay here. Life carries on in this place. I turn my face from the empty sky and toward Tim. “Summer has really left, hasn’t it?” 

           “Yes, but you’ll have the return of the loons in spring to look forward to while you teach all winter.” 

           I thought of the changing lake and the aspens and the loons’ migration as predictable and natural as autumn follows summer. As I edge closer to the new season, broken by the weight of the past’s isolation and fear, the loon shows me strength and courage. It urges me to set aside my fears and rely on the lessons of the waters and the woods to teach the stories that matter most.

 Tim slides the still-unused rod from my knees and secures it with his own. “Shall we fly?” he asks. I manage a nod. 

           This is the last time I will be on the lake. The last loon I will see until May. The last mournful wail I will hear from the open windows of the camper or the open water of the lake. Still, I am grateful Lake Namakagon gave me this moment, a reassurance there’s something spiritual in nature’s call, even if it’s sorrowful. I have no choice but to face the wind and the cold spray of the waves, the changing of the seasons, and the absence of this place.