Story And Photography By Kim Schneider
First light nudges gently through the weathered cottage windowpanes and wisps of ancient lace. The wind-up bedside alarm clock registers just 5:30 a.m., still nighttime by normal standards. I’m hearing a siren call that hasn’t yet come, but I know will soon echo across the improbably beautiful northern Michigan inland lake, beckoning only me. Or so I like to pretend.
I don’t bother to change out of my pajamas, not wanting to miss a minute and knowing from experience that I’ll be the only one on the lake at this hour. I splash water on my face, grab my camera, pad barefoot across the dewy grass to my waiting kayak, and do the balance-across-the-seat-plop-in-move I’ve come to perfect, even in a sleepy morning haze.
When my paddle makes an awkward splash I utter a hushed, “I’m sorry!” To whom, I’m not sure. There’s a quiet on this glassy lake, so still it evokes a reverence otherwise limited to a chapel. With every errant swoosh or squeak comes the feeling of disturbing a silent prayer. Other senses go on full alert, too. My eyes are drawn down to criss-crossing lines that slow-moving clams have scooted into patterns in the lake bottom sand. I look up at the pretty peach of the June sky morphing into cotton candy pink … at cloud wisps from gray to the purple of ripe wine grapes … the sky so mirrored on the lake surface that it’s hard to know where heaven ends and earth begins.
And there it is—the rustling overhead that draws me out at this hour, every time I’ve come to the lake. You can hear before you see the whirring wings of the loon as it circles and then lands with a splash. Next, the wail. The soul stirring call that biologists say is a way to tell the loon’s mate, “Here I am. Come, join me!” I paddle by some instinct of my own toward the sound, watching from a respectful distance. The flat, still water allows a clear view of the pair coming together near the center of the lake, to the spot where the sun will soon peek over the horizon. As it does, I swear, the loons rise onto their tails and flap their wings in a photographer’s favorite pose— their ritual greeting of the day.
The combination of loon mystery and the solace of the morning lake have turned me into an accidental wildlife researcher, though just a wanna-be to the real biologists at spots like Seney National Wildlife Refuge in the Upper Peninsula. There, for decades, they’ve tracked loons like one dubbed ABJ (adult-banded juvenile of F pool), though a better nickname might be Romeo. When ABJ turned 25 in 2012, he became known as the oldest living loon and the best loon “dad.” While loon parents typically spend an average of 78 percent of their waking hours in the first six weeks with their broods, ABJ would spend 97 percent—virtually every minute. And, while adult loons usually migrate weeks ahead of their chicks, ABJ would stick around on average two weeks longer, ensuring survival of most of his babies. Typically, only one in four hatched makes it to adulthood, the others lost to human influence or, more often, to large turtles, fish or eagles.
That’s merely a statistic until the morning when you realize the odd shape on the back of one of the loons is the outline of a tiny, fuzzy chick. Or you watch with pure awe the way the adults zip and dive, to and from the mouths of the babes, as if they can’t move fast enough to fill them with the tiny insects and minnows. Then you may hear the soft coo one adult makes to a chick, and you become an accidental loon protector too—at least in worry and in spirit.
To the Odawa tribe, northern Michigan’s original settlers, the loon clan holds a special status, as does the loon—in belief and in legend. My friend Penny, who seamlessly integrates her family’s Odawa heritage into daily life, tells me how the loon, because it can go so deep, and stay under the water for so long, helped the creator by diving to retrieve mud to build a new world.
As we paddle together a loon emerges from a deep dive not far from our kayaks. They’re the best of the solitude teachers, Penny tells me. We watch this one float gently, sharing lessons through messages and behaviors like the way they’re so loyal to mates and attentive to their young.
And so we learn from the “mahng” (brave) as the Odawa called them, my favorite first-light friends.
SEE NATURE THROUGH A NEW LENS
Hunting wildlife through a camera lens is a Michigan sport growing in popularity as visitors seek to add a learning vacation element to their travel experience. But perhaps there’s more to it than that. For those wanting to observe wild birds and animals in their natural habitats—particularly in spectacular light or a striking moment—a wildlife photographer can make the best nature guide. Waiting for the perfect image can teach patience and allow for the serendipity of special moments like an eagle taking flight or a glimpse of a loon chick riding on a mama’s back.
Photographing loons—for some, the symbol of the north—has wide appeal. And that’s evident by how quickly photographer Charles Glatzer sells out his summertime loon photography sessions at the Nettie Bay Lodge school of photography near Rogers City (nettiebay.com). Glatzer also leads photo quests for penguins, polar bears and puffins in spots like the Falkland Islands, Churchill and Iceland. But those far-flung trips don’t top Michigan for the power and intimacy of the shots he and students capture from a non-intrusive pontoon raft on Lake Nettie. The small-group classes fill up early, and the four-figure fee for the all-inclusive, five-day workshop is quite a commitment.
But those on a budget have loon-watching options, too. Admission is free at the 95,000-acre seney national Wildlife refuge in the upper peninsula, where dozens of loons nest and are easily spotted off biking and hiking trails and occasional naturalist-guided morning bus tours. (Watch for sandhill cranes, woodpeckers and gray wolves, too.) fws.gov/refuge/seney
For a guide to wildlife viewing areas in the state: michigan.gov/dnr
This article originally appeared in the 2016 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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