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BLANE KLEMEK: The haunting language of the loon

I observed my first loon of 2014 on April 16 near Detroit Lakes. Actually, it was the voice that I "saw" first — its laughing call coming from somewhere overhead as I searched the sky for my first glimpse.

There are not many sounds in nature that stirs me more than the cry of our state bird, the common loon. I believe runner's up would be the timber wolf, coyote, elk, rutting bull moose, and the nighttime call of the whip-poor-whil. There are others, to be sure: spring peepers, tundra swans, all species of wild geese, barred and great horned owls, and the sensational and impossibly loud song of the diminutive ruby-crowned kinglet. And I know if I really thought more about it, I could think of a dozen more. The sounds of nature, I have always contested, are equally as — if not more — gratifying to me as the actual images themselves.

Yet it is the loon and the many and varied cries, calls and yodels exuding from their great vocal chords that moves me most. There is something so deeply primordial, so wild, that I can hardly put it to words. The cry of the loon is the epitome of wildness, the essence of wilderness. On moonlit and calm evenings, echoing from across a northern Minnesota lake, the long and mournful call of a lone loon envelope me like no other notes can.

Perhaps what especially captivates me about the bird's vocal repertoire has not so much to do with the call itself, but the setting in which I often hear the bird. It is maddening to stand witness to hordes of speedboats and personal watercraft harassing the birds into nervous utterances of pathetic alarm calls on ever-increasing populated lakes. And it is small wonder, then, that the birds' reproductive success is so limited in places like this. However, it is from the cold, deep and un-fertile lakes of the far north: the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Ontario, and points between and beyond where their vocalizations waft across still-night air and capture my soul.

More often than not I have been sprawled across a slab of granite-rock laid out before me like some great beast as it ominously disappears into the dark waters below. More often than not the stars are shining so bright above me that their very images reflect and dance upon the island-studded lake surface. And more often than not I can see the dagger-like shapes of balsam fir or the crowns of giant Norway and white pine silhouetted against the distant skyline.

The scents of lake, of cedar, and of pine smoke fill my nostrils as I breathe deeply and exhale slowly the northwood's air. It's a sigh, really; a sigh of utmost contentment and of satisfaction for life and living. It's one of those moments in time you wish would never end, that the feel of cold granite on your warm palms would never go, that the aromatic scent of cedar would never fade away, and that the dreamy sounds of gentle waves lapping against lakeshore boulders would ring in your ears indefinitely.

And just when it feels that the human experience of self-absorption could not possibly be improved upon, the spell is broken — but, oh for only a moment — by the piercing and haunting call of a magical creature delivering its eerie and woeful call as you listen intently and marvel at the way it echoes from rocky shore to rocky shore.

The "wail", which is often described as "mournful", is a regularly heard call of loons in search of one another; and the beautiful "yodel" call, which is the territorial call of male loons, is another familiar call that many of us associate with northern Minnesota.

And with respect to raising families, another of the loons' calls, the "hoot," which is associated with mated pairs, and particularly from those caring for chicks, is yet another common call, as is the recognizable "tremolo" call. This latter call, usually described as "laughing," is a hearty call given by excited or alarmed loons. The wavering call is also produced by loons flying over a lake in order to announce his or her presence to any loons that might be swimming on the lakes below them.

Indeed, in the world of loons, a world of which we know not, from the watery depths of which they dive and the things they can see, maybe, just maybe, those calls are nothing at all for which we imagine. It is, after all, the language of the loon. It's not for us to fully understand, but it's there for us to appreciate as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.