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Published: September 7th 2015
The Loons of Squam Lake
By William Graham Poet, novelist and travel writer William Graham is a resident of Stowe, Vermont and author of “Seven Continents: A Travel Memoir.”
In the chapter called “Brute Neighbors” in Walden
, Thoreau describes a playful encounter with a diving loon. Thoreau tried to determine where the loon would surface after diving into the water. Thoreau would inevitably be incorrect. Thoreau writes: “While he was thinking one thing in his brain, I was endeavoring to divine his thought in mine. It was a pretty game, played on the smooth water of the pond, a man against a loon.” Later, when the loon did surface, Thoreau mentions the loon’s “demonic” and “unearthly” laughter that seemed to mock him. (Thus we get the phrase “silly as a loon.”) As is often the case in Walden
, such scenes have a symbolic meaning. Here, the loon symbolizes Thoreau’s own quest to be unified with nature—as a loon is at home both on and below the surface of the water. Thoreau writes that the loon “appeared to know his course as surely under water as on the surface, and swam much faster there.”
my own encounter with the glorious loons on Squam Lake, which is located about two hours northwest of Boston in the lakes region of New Hampshire. Carved out by the glaciers over ten thousand years ago, the seven-mile by four-mile wide Squam Lake is a picturesque body of water surrounded by rolling hills, forests and mountains. For movie aficionados, Squam Lake was the shooting location of the wonderful film On Golden Pond
, starring Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda and Katherine Hepburn. Today, a few businesses still try to capitalize on the nostalgia surrounding this film classic, but most people travel to Squam Lake to enjoy swimming, kayaking, boating and fishing. Since the late 1880s, tourists have been coming to Squam Lake to unwind and relax. I can testify that the lake has a calming influence on the psyche.
During my sojourn there in late summer, I (like Thoreau) became fascinated by the loon, which is the size of a small duck or goose. A loon’s plumage is largely patterned black-and-white in summer, with grey on the head and neck. Loons have a white belly and a spear-shaped bill. But loons have several other characteristics that multiply my admiration of them. Here are some loon fun facts:
· Loons mate for life—a fact that was used symbolically to show the love between the aging couple in On Golden Pond.
· Loons are heavy birds. Most birds have bones filled with air pockets that enable them to fly easily. The bones of loons, in contrast, are heavy. As a result, loons have a difficult time getting airborne. To lift off, loons run on the water’s surface and flap their wings mightily—sometimes for several hundred yards—before they can soar. Once in the air, loons can cover seventy miles in one hour.
· As Thoreau pointed out, loons are fish eaters who can dive deep and long to catch their next meal.
· Loons have an uncanny ability know exactly when inland lakes thaw in the spring. Since loons eat fish, they must migrate away from their fresh water feeding and breeding grounds in North America in the winter. Loons that inhabit the New England lakes fly to the ocean waters off the coasts of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Loons from the Midwest winter in Gulf Coast waters. Local Squam Lake residents have long observed that the loons return one or two days after the waters have finally become clear of ice. How do the loons know the correct date, which can vary by a few weeks each year depending on the severity of the winter? The loons send scouts from the ocean inland to observe if the lakes are still frozen. If the loons see ice, they return to their compatriots and tell them to remain on the ocean. When the loons see that the inland lakes have cleared, the word is spread to pack up and head back to Squam Lake.
Such abilities prove that loons are not silly at all! What I will carry away with me, however, is the eerie, beautiful howls of the loons that echo in the night. Loons have various types of calls. You can hear a wavering call that loons use to announce their presence. To claim a territory, they yodel. To determine another loon’s location, they let out a wail. Short hoots indicate they are communicating with one another.
Or maybe loons are indeed mocking us for not being as in tune with nature as they are. I would agree with Thoreau’s conclusion that loons “laugh” in “derision” of our efforts, “confident in his own resources.” When I return to Squam Lake, I’ll attempt to give the local loons fewer reasons to laugh at me.
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