Loons and Lakes; Laughter and Longing


Young loons gather in the fall after their parents have already left Maine lakes. They will spend several years on the ocean until they mature and seek out a lake and nesting partner.

Sandra Neily here: It’s that time of impending fall when young loons, not yet mated for life, gather in adolescent gangs around Maine’s lakes and ponds.  During the day they practice take-offs with flailing wings and loud inexpert splashing.  Some day, they will surprise themselves and actually lift off the rapidly chilling water, embracing their ancient migratory urges. At night their calls to absent parents and the lake’s night time sky are so loud they wake us even when dawn is a hint of gray.

Many people feel that the cries of loons are the heart of Maine’s lake regions, its “heart’s deep core” so to speak.  We take the loon serenades, the clean, cold smell of a trout in our hands and the feeling of that first shocking swim of the season … our lake experiences … with us, like some spiritual hydration backpack.  We drink from these memories when we are far away or when the lakes are locked into a vast, silent, snow sculpture.

W. B. Yeats understood the enduring power of lakes:

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore,

While I stand on the roadway or on the pavements grey.

Young loons rest on their parents’ backs or are hidden deep in grass-lined coves … until they are able to dive and fish.

 I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Yeats wasn’t thinking of the more pedestrian side of lakes when he wrote in that same poem (“The Lake Isle of Innisfree”) that he would “build a small cabin there…and live alone in the bee loud glade.” But that’s what thousands and thousands of us hope to do when we seek out lakes.

You are too close to a loon when it rises up, breast arched and wings beating behind it. Please back off.

So I will take a moment to shout out lakes’ contributions beyond loons and “bee loud glades.” I do this so the next time your legislator or congressperson says something silly about conservation, loons, or clean water regulations you will have this fact at your fingertips. Maine Lakes deliver over $2.5 billion of economic value each year. Lake use supports over 8,000 jobs each year. That’s more yearly jobs than Bath Iron Works has ever delivered—and we all know how politicians turn out to support those jobs.

Back to loons. They are on my mind this week, writing a scene for Deadly Turn, my second Mystery in Maine, where I sent the narrator and her dog out to meet them.

‘From the screened sleeping porch, I watched Pock swim the cove biting bits of water he thought was floating debris. The lake was his pool and playground and often he had company. Wings tucked tight to their bodies, our resident loons torpedoed themselves back and forth under his belly, knowing he’d never catch them. From the far side of the cove, one bird raised a haunted cry. Loons are supposed to be the soul of lakes, but there’s edgy insanity to their loud laugher—high notes that sound strangled as they drop into silence. In coves all over the lake, other loons answered, their territorial cries overlapping echoes until they were wild orchestral music silenced by an unseen conductor who allowed one last lingering note—a performance that sang itself into my blood like a transfusion.” (Excerpt from Deadly Trespass)

The presence of loons speaks to a healthy ecosystem where small fish and other tasty creatures are abundant.

I think Henry David Thoreau should have the last word on loons and lakes. He thinks even a solitary loon on a lake is really like a “wave.” Well, that makes Thoreau-sense: nature invested with more than just nature. If you read his The Maine Woods (1864) there are hundreds of tight descriptive nuggets that wrap loons and lakes and mountains and trout and moose and spruce into a sense of longing even as he is among them.

I often feel the same way.

“The spruce and cedar on its shores, hung with gray lichens, looked at a distance like the ghosts of trees. Ducks were sailing here and there on its surface, and a solitary loon, like a more living wave, — a vital spot on the lake’s surface, — laughed and frolicked, and showed its straight leg, for our amusement.” (Henry David Thoreau)

More: Watch a ME Game Warden rescue a loon: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7f26_1HopHM

Loon calls: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Loon/soundsM

Maine Audubon’s Loon Project: https://www.maineaudubon.org/projects/loons/

Info on lakes’ value: https://www.maine.gov/dep/water/lakes/research.html

Sandy’s novel, “Deadly Trespass, A Mystery in Maine,” won a Mystery Writers of America award and was a finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest. This year, she’s been nominated for a Maine Literary Award. Find her novel at all Shermans Books and on Amazon. Find more info on the video trailer and Sandy’s website.  The second Mystery in Maine, “Deadly Turn,” will be published in 2018. She likes to kayak into small coves, sending out soft hoots that sound like loon parents looking for their chicks. 

About Sandra Neily

Sandy’s novel “Deadly Trespass” received a Mystery Writers of America award, was named a national finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest, a finalist in the Mslexia international novel competition, a runner- up in Maine’s Joy of the Pen competition, and recently, an international SPR fiction finalist. Sandy lives in the woods of Maine and says she’d rather be “fly fishing cold streams, skiing remote trails, paddling near loons, or just generally out there—unless I’m sharing vanishing worlds with my readers. "
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6 Responses to Loons and Lakes; Laughter and Longing

  1. Gram says:

    I shared the rescue of a loon on FB. Thanks for the links.

    • Sandra Neily says:

      Oh well done, Gram. I loved this rescue and the attitude of both game warden and loon. (And I miss North Woods Law program). Thanks! Sandy

      • Gram says:

        I’ve been watching the reruns.

      • Sandra Neily says:

        Gram, where are they? The re-runs? (I spent a lot of time in my novel on one particular game warden after once having an upstairs office where they gathered and where they told amazing stories.)

  2. Kate Flora says:

    Wow. Just wow. I was thinking of loons this week, as summer ends. We see them in the cove in the spring but then we don’t see them again. I thought they went inland for the season, but reminded myself I need to learn more about lons. And here is your post. I grew up on a lake and those demented calls were something we loved to listen to in the night, sitting out in the backyard under the apple tree.


    • Sandra Neily says:

      Oh good Kate! I was hoping to share loon wisdom and knowledge in helpful ways! Yes…a bit demented but soul-deep. Thanks!Sandy

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