The trees at the top of the cliff on the north shore burned with the last golden light ,slowly fading to grey. I was floating on a depthless void, skimming over a transparent silver surface. All was as still and quiet as I’d ever seen it in my life. I noticed a darker shape carving its way through the fragile layer of quick silver, slow approaching me. I stopped paddling. The still became complete, the silence deep.
But not for long.
A haunting cry emerged from the dark shape, a loud sound. Half of a second later it echoed off the near shore then off of the lightly glowing cliffs. Soon the echoes came from the cliffs behind me and then from an island a kilometer away. The echoes re-echoed through the reverberations. Wave upon wave of the haunting call swirled around the lake, now louder, now softer. How long did it last? Was it 15 seconds or 20? Was it an eternity?
As the final reverbs slowly died the call came again, as loud as a trumpet blast, a trumpet from the past.
This was a call from my childhood, a call that haunted my dreams.
I’d spent many summers on this particular lake and had heard the lonely cry of the loon many times, if never from so close or so intense. But that was all years ago. Decades ago.
At the time I was floating on the quiet lake in Ontario, Canada I had lived in New Hampshire for almost two decades. I had spent a lot of time out of doors and had seen many loons but had rarely heard their call, and never breaking a late night silence frrm just meters away. I knew the sound, but I had forgotten how haunting it was to hear it on a crystal clear evening while the shy stars are just beginning to to come out from hiding.
This encounter with the loon occurred the first night of my trip into my past. I was staying in a cabin with my parents while the other cabin was occupied by my Aunt Shirley and her husband, Jim. Although I was only staying a week, they would be there for two, being joined during the second week by my brother and his family.
These were the last two weeks anyone would ever spend in the cabins.
When I was a kid my father would bring me and my brother along on fishing trips to this quiet corner of Canada. He had a coworker who had fished from these cabins for decades. Willy was a nice older gentleman, but had his own peculiar way of seeing the world. I spent a week every year for seven or eight years up in that cabin with my dad and Willy. My brother was there for many of these trips as was my cousin Doug. Later it was Doug’s brother, Derek. These are Aunt Shirley’s kids, which is one reason she made that last trip.
I learned a lot about life on those “boys’ night out” fishing trips. They formed a large part of my growing up. There are so many memories attached to the place.
I did return once when I was in my late 20s. Willy was long gone. In later years my mom would start to go up with my dad, eventually brining Shirley. My brother would also return with family in tow to let his kids grow up swimming off of the same dock and into the same small lake as he had.
The time I went in the early 1990s, though, it was just me and my father. I spent a lot of time riding a mountain bike down dirt roads, climbing cliffs and kayaking. I really didn’t think much about my childhood as I was thinking more about the future. I don’t even remember if there were loons on that trip. I remember the back roads and the hidden trails. I remember venturing farther, as I was in my life at the time.
But the last time, the time just a few years ago, was a journey into my memory. For it had to be the last time. The owners were tearing down the cabins.
When the original owners’ daughter inherited the little cabins, she stopped renting them. Only my father and his family were allowed to use them that one time a year. But after over a decade it became too difficult to keep the cabins habitable for just a week or two a year. The cabins were far more than a half century old and had seen their better day. It was time for them to go.
Everyone who had ever gone up there was invited, though the week I was there it was just the five of us. It was a week spent reliving memories. A week of telling stories. A week of visiting the small bays were I caught a certain fish, or the places I got the boat stuck on a log. A week spent in my childhood.
The loon cried a third and a fourth time, each time a little closer to me, each time the echoes lasting a little longer. Never had an opera house been built with such clarity of sound. No cathedral organ could echo so clear.
And then, when the loon was close enough I could touch it with my paddle, there was an answer behind me. The red eyes glowing, the loon gave me a last look and dove under the water. It came up far behind my kayak and joined the other one. They silently swam away.
I paddled back to the dock in the still, dark night. The last of the evening’s afterglow was whispering away, but the sky grew less dark as the Milky Way blazed forth in glory.
I saw many loons on that trip into my past, and often paddled amongst them. But they never serenaded me the way they did that first night of my last visit. I took it as a welcome to their little world, and to the world of my past. I know they will be swimming in that little lake this summer, but I will never swim there again. Except in my dreams, my dreams filled with the swirling call of a loon.
(This place was mention in an older post, Here and There)
(Image of loons from same trip)