Please forgive the length of this ‘Life at 45 Degrees’ story. Hopefully, you can take a few minutes and live this journey with me….
This past Saturday morning started in the usual manner. Up and at it, check out the view of the lake…. coffee, into the laptop while the cottage was still quiet. Daughter and grandson asleep upstairs. One of my favorite times of the day in Muskoka.
A fate altering email from a friend changed my day. Mitchell Shnier, of Save The Bala Falls engineering fame, communicates to me and a couple of other buddies, that a cottager friend, Sara West, on Long Lake has seen a loon in distress. Can we help?
I’ve heard about loons eating golf balls and getting tangled in fishing line before. Probably the most famous of these was written by Mrs. Loretta Rogers and her artist friends up on Lake Rosseau about “Larry The Loon” being hit by a boat. This however is a children’s book, and well known for its accompanying artwork by Mrs. Rogers, her artist friends, and Muskoka realist, the incredible Doug Dunford. Doug happens to be a good friend, so we know the book’s history, and have several copies.
Back to my Saturday morning coffee and email. I started making phone calls to associates and friends I know on Long Lake. Perhaps someone could help find this bird. For those of you unaccustomed to our waterways, Long Lake runs north-south and is land-locked a total of two to three hundred yards west of Bala Bay (Lake Muskoka), depending on your location. The reality is that, as close as this adjacent lake is to our Bala Bay, I’ve never really got to know it, and have never been in a motor boat there. Someone will be available to help, we’ll see what can be done!
As is typical of life, we have to be prepared for the unexpected. All the guys I knew on Long Lake were either working, away at hunt camps (it’s that time of year!), away fishing, or in Toronto. I struck out like a Yankee on a David Price fastball.
So now I’m thinking, I gotta find a boat on Long Lake and go looking for this Loon. One of the guys out of town working was Steve Davidson. He and his lovely wife Diane live on Long Lake and Steve says: “John, feel free to use our ‘tinny’,” then paused and said: “No, that’s no good, it’s out at the hunt camp… ah..there’s another ‘tinny at our dock – use that.”
After looking around parts of Bala for an accomplice, I ended up on Steve’s dock on my own, ready to go. Before I left the cottage, I grabbed work gloves, three towels, wire cutters, small garden shears and scissors. Sara said “fishing line” so I’m thinking if found, set this bird free. I must admit, this all seemed quite odd, quite unlikely.
So now, I am in the little tin boat at the dock, with I think, a 20 on the back and of course… it won’t start. I can’t pull it. It ….wont ….PULL! Totally jammed. I call Steve back: “Steve, it won’t start, something I should know?” Steve: “It’s Kyle’s boat, I’ll check. Call you right back.”
Two minutes later, Steve calls back. “It’s electric, it’s tricky. Here’s what you do…” Now you gotta know, I KNOW BOATS and I know little outboards. The battery was hidden away and the controls like nothing I have seen before. Could I get that baby going? Not on your life. Steve, still with me on the cell phone says: “I’ll call Kyle again, he’s having breakfast at Annie’s Deli. We’ll see if he can come over and help.”
Ten minutes later, sure enough, Kyle comes down onto the dock and we introduce ourselves. Kyle Vickers is a local builder, has, I find out, a lovely wife, a youngster, and another on the way. Living in Bala, and typical of a small town, Kyle is friendly, and helpful.
“See, you do this, jimmy the handle, it’s a little tricky, push this button, and…” RRRRhuuummm – the engine roars. It’s awake!
I say: “Kyle, you’ve heard about this loon in trouble down the bay here. Do you want to come along? You got time?” Kyle hesitates, then says: “Ah, ok, sure!”
Fortunatly for me, Kyle knows Long Lake, almost like the back of his hand. I explained where Sara said her cottage was, where she had spotted the loon, but of course we had no idea where the bird was now. It was ten degrees, and the wind had been howling all week. It was COLD.
The feeling was that if we could find this loon, and it felt like a long shot, it would be located in a calm bay close to shore away from the wind. We found Sara waving at us from her dock in her fluorescent pink t-shirt. She indicated the bird had left her bay and was likely farther south around the next point and into another small longish bay. Kyle expertly navigated the shoals and rocks, and we idled into the wind again, slowly motoring around another point of land and south into a pretty little bay.
Both Kyle and I have our eyes peeled as we pass stumps by the shoreline on each side of the bay. Small loon-like rock structures jutting out of the water fooled our senses.
We were just hopeful that we would get lucky and this would all make sense on a Saturday morning in October, two guys who had never met, now in a boat, looking for a disabled bird that might be in the vicinity.
“There it is!” I exclaim. Sure enough, right at the end, on the east side of the bay, not a foot from shore, our bird sat swimming in neutral. We very slowly pulled up to the bird, thinking, ‘ya right, we’ll just pick it up!’
Our thoughts mirrored when we agree out loud that we’ve never been this close to a loon before. Kyle cuts the engine and handles a paddle into the water to guide us. I grab my gloves with a towel at the ready.
As we near this lovely large creature, we’re mesmerized by the white circle and squared shaped spots that make loons famous. This is a large bird! Large beak, red eyes. The loon is in distress. Fishing line is wound around the wide end of the beak and parts of the body.
As I leaned over the gunnel, not surprisingly, our feathered quarry, with very efficient webbed feet, paddled away from us, heading north. Kyle and I looked at each other and agree, ok, let’s try again.
Kyle started the engine, we came about, and slowly followed north up the bay. Our loon, came to a stop and just sat in front of us quietly. Kyle cut the engine, and again, I leaned over the gunnel with my gloves on. This time, much to our surprise, incredibly, the bird allowed me to grab, and hold its sides and lift it out of the water! Stunned, I asked Kyle to place one of the other towels on the floor of the boat, which he did. I then sat our feathered friend on the towel and wrapped another towel around it and covered most of its head.
Astonished, and excited to have completed our catch, the loons’ condition startled and saddened us. Up close and personal, hooks and a lure were embedded inside the beak. The beak was wrapped half shut, round and round by fishing line. We could only imagine, the bird under water turning like a torpedo round and around, an expert swimmer, attempting to unravel itself, all the while, tying itself up into a state of bondage. It’s amazing the bird did not drown, but it was quite able to sit on the water, awaiting what would now be a certain death.
Sara had told us that a ‘partner’ had been around a day earlier, so we were motivated now to get medical help. Loons mate for life, so all this time, thinking, we can help a love story if all goes well.
My wife Pam and I have read many articles about the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary. We had never been there before, but the stories and positive outcomes are legendary in Muskoka. As if by some premonition, that morning, before I left the cottage, I called Aspen Valley because I thought I should get some advice, in case this bird is actually found. I talked with a lovely gal named Jan, who said it would be ‘very unlikely’ to catch a loon. She gave advice as to how to handle a bird, and about covering it up. Jan said a loons’ long neck and sharp beak could be very dangerous. Fortunately for us, we did not have to worry about this. In retrospect, we think our loon had the intelligence to be helped. What choice was there?
We boated slowly back to Davidson’s dock, cut the engine and tied up. Kyle had a perfect blue bin in the boat full of life jackets, safety equipment, bailer etc., so he emptied that, leaving one life jacket in the bottom of the bin. I placed our new friend, wrapped in its towels, on the cushioned bottom and then placed the lid on top to ensure a dark space.
This was still all so surreal. A needle found in the proverbial haystack of a small lake.
Kyle, the masterful Captain, job well done, bid farewell, as I dropped him off by car to his proud wife. I then called my wife, Nurse Pam, to see if she would join me on the trip up to the town of Rosseau where the Sanctuary is located nearby. It’s a hike from Bala. With a bad back, trooper-like, she agreed, and we traveled an agonizing 40 minutes, worrying about our injured associate in the bin in the back of the car.
Jan greeted us warmly. We filled out an ‘arrival intake form’ and she whisked away, who we were now calling, ‘Lila the Loon’ off to a building where ‘she’ could be inspected closely, and have the lines and hooks extracted. Pam I just stood there like parents near an emergency room, wanting to know what was happening. Others arrived. A cell call to a veterinarian. Feeling somewhat emotional, I requested a final visitation with our new patient friend. Exclamations of caring “oh mys” and other comments were heard, as they snipped the fine lines wrapped and stuck around beak and body of the bird. I was able to take a couple of pictures but, we were out of our element and decided to leave.
My final act, was to ask if I could touch the bird one last time. The assistant said okay, so I laid my full hand gently on its back, and tried to inject some healthy vibe of something, I could only imagine. I felt the breathing, and I could only hope that one day soon, she (or he) will be able to be returned to Long Lake, find its partner, and head south.
I’ll will do my best to update this amazing story as soon as I can. A sincere thanks to Sara, Mitchell, Steve, Diane and of course Capt Kyle!
Footnote: Feeling somewhat chipper, I wrote this, this past Sunday. It all felt so special and magical as you might imagine. Monday morning, I called the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary to check on the patient. I am SO SORRY to report that our Lila did not survive her ordeal. I was devastated, the wind taken out my sails, my thoughts returning to all the folks involved in the rescue. Sandy Lockhart, one of the Editors at Sun Media who works on ‘What’s Up Muskoka; and ‘Muskoka Magazine’ echoed my so-sad sentiments. She said positively, keeping my glass half full, that our loon had its life end far more peacefully at the Sanctuary, than it would have, suffering through an elongated time on the lake in misery.
Lessons learned? Not sure. I can say this: We are more appreciative of our friends, our neighbors, the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, and of course, the lakes and wonderful wildlife we treasure here in Muskoka.