[This is as good a time as any to note that there are six camps scattered along the shores of Fish in a Barrel Pond, each named after one legendary fly or another. They are, in no particular order, the Parmacheene Belle, Gray Ghost, Queen of the Waters, Cahill, Coachman and Mickey Finn (an acknowledging wink to the Neverwas Nonesuch Angling Society’s long tradition of fiery potations and mind-numbing concoctions). The names were chosen by a specially appointed committee charged with choosing from a list of suggestions submitted by the membership.
Certain members were against naming the camps when the issue came up for a vote, not so many years ago (one camp burned to the ground without a name, way back when — see “The Conflagration at Green Damselfly Cove”) and an attempt was made to turn the decision into one the membership would regret. If they had succeeded in stacking the committee in their favor I could very well have just introduced you to the Bitch Creek Nymph, Rat Face McDougal, Quack Doctor, Golden Monkey, Cow Dung and Ethel May.]
The sounds of the loon stir something primal, deep within all of us (see “Sadly Mistaken“), or at least they used to. More and more, as phone signals and broadband coverage improve, I see people mesmerized by the little boxes they carry, looking at each other and themselves but not what’s right in front of them or yakking away about things that, when you stop to really think about them, probably don’t merit a phone call in the first place and I am a bit concerned.
Never again do I want to hear a person say, “Can’t something be done to shut those birds up? I’m trying to talk here!”
I would, however, like very much to hear, again and again, “Quill, I dropped my phone off the dock. Can you fish it out for me?” because I would say “NO! Firstly, that ain’t fishin’ and lastly, I’m glad you dropped it. Might do you some good to be bored out of your frickin’ skull for a week, you spoiled little …”
But I digress.
The sounds of the loon stir something primal, deep within some of us. They can be hauntingly beautiful, mournful or even eerie and downright scary (when a wide-eyed little kid runs up to me and asks, “Quill, was that a loon?” I like to shudder, cower a bit and say, “G-gosh, I hope so!”). Some people believe they are more attuned than others to the sounds of nature and, while not everyone has enthusiastically embraced the loons on our lake, the Neverwas Nonesuch Angling Society has its share of wanna-be amateur naturalists.
Now, loons have quite a few different cries and calls, including what sounds like a maniacal laugh crossed with a yodel. It signals danger, declares territory and conveys a readiness to fight. It can be triggered by any number of threats, real or imagined, and sometimes the loons will carry on all night. I’ve grown used to the ruckus they can raise and can usually tell what’s happening out on the lake just by listening. It’s kind of reassuring, knowing the loons are out there keeping watch but one recent, moonless night — as the air chilled and mist rose off the water — something did not sound quite right.
The call I heard in the fading twilight was tenuous and off-key — if loons have a key — and it sounded as if the caller was being strangled. I listened and heard it again. When it called a third time it seemed more confident but also more grievously wounded than before.
I rushed to my canoe, determined to paddle right out and see what the problem was, but before I’d gone 20 yards the poor piteous creature wailed again. My concern for its health doubled and was doubled again when I heard a response from the far end of the lake implying some sort of catastrophe had struck there, too.
I paddled like mad toward the source of the original racket and as I got closer the cries became more frequent and frenzied. They seemed to be coming from the direction of our oldest camp, the Parmacheene Belle. A light shone through the window, blazing a golden path across the water and as I silently slid to a stop 20 feet from shore another cry, this one more disturbing than any before, took crippled wing into the dark.
“Hey!” I yelled, “Knock it off!”
A dark figure staggered back from the deck railing on shore, briefly blocking the light from the window while, from the far end of the lake, a response came back. The dark figure, which I now knew to be Pete Thompson, raised its cupped hands to its mouth and let loose another lunatic wail.
“Hey!” I hollered.
“Jeez, Quill, you scared me! Listen! I finally got my loon call down. They’re answering me!”
“Well, stop it,” I said. “Go back inside. You’re making way too much noise!”
He didn’t hear what I said, though, because he had gone back to making way too much noise. When he was done repeating what he mistook for a loon call I again told him to knock it right the heck off.
“Aw, Quill. I’m just getting started. I’ve been practicing and can do other loon stuff, too! Want to hear?”
“No! Go back inside and be quiet before you piss someone off!”
“Hey! I’ve got just as much right to practice my bird calls as they’ve got to do whatever it is they’re doing! What? Is this another one of your stupid rules, like stop putting bacon grease down the kitchen drains?”
“That’s not a rule. It’s a very reasonable request.”
“Oh, yeah? Well, I’m gonna …”
I didn’t catch what Pete Thompson said because he began lurching this way and that, knocking his drink off the rail and nearly going over himself as he tried to catch it. Swinging his arms wildly to check his momentum, he thrust his shoulders back and threw himself into reverse, tripping backwards over his folding camp chair and landing in a heap.
I listened long enough to hear him start snoring and knew he’d be okay as long as it didn’t rain before morning.
Relieved that no loons were dying here at the south end of Fish in a Barrel Pond, I paddled to the middle, through wraith-like tendrils of mist, and lost a silent bet as a meteor raced its reflection across the still water. As I reached the far shore I spotted three indistinct shapes on the water to my left and changed course when I realized they were the real loons, asleep and apparently unfazed by the recent caterwauling of Pete Thompson, drunken imposter.
They were also apparently unfazed by the somewhat loon-like noises coming from the north and I was extra careful not to wake them as I paddled toward Queen of the Waters, the poshest camp around. Loved by some, scoffed at by others, Queen of the Waters boasts carpeting and a wet bar as well as a small boiler and baseboard heat. To say she’s well-lit almost gets it. The air above her is filled with the glare from a bank of halogen flood lights and with the trillions of bugs they draw in from miles away. She’s tucked away at the back of White Otter Cove, which keeps most of her light contained, but when you round the point while she’s lit up you’d better be ready. It’s like flying into the sun.
I shielded my face with my left hand, proving I can not paddle with my right hand alone. Averting my gaze, I relied on dead reckoning to ply a course through the heat and glare to the cool shade beneath Queen of the Waters’ overhanging deck. The canoe bumped a piling and I held onto it as my eyes adjusted to the relative dark. Footsteps shuffled above me.
“Quill? That you? Don’t come out yet. I’m a-gonna take a leak.”
I was more impressed with the time it took for Dave Harper to drain his tank than with the graceful flourishes, loops and rhythmic pulsations he employed to do it. Even more impressive, though, was his attempt to imitate a loon at the same time. When I was reasonably sure of staying dry I let myself drift out from beneath the deck, staying in the shadow.
“What the heck!” I exclaimed.
“Oh, man, it wash great! We had the loons talkin’ to ush, hollerin’ back from all the way acrossh the lake! Haven’t heard ‘em for a while, though. Bet you put ‘em down when you hit the water. What’re you doin’ out at this hour anyway?”
From where I sat, Dave Harper was just a silhouette and when he was joined by Mitch Michaels and Fergus Lee they were silhouettes, too. The bottle that Fergus set on the rail was not a silhouette, though. No, that bottle shone as if lit from within, its amber light bursting forth like a beacon.
“Oh, hey Quill!” said Mitch.
“Quillie, baby! Here, Quillie, have a snort!” said Fergus, pushing the bottle off the rail to me.
“Quill, you really should shpend some time learning about loons. I been shtudyin’ ’bout ‘em on the innernet and they’re really quite fashinating!”
With that, he sent what he thought was a loon call sailing off into the night.
“Now lishen. You’ll hear ‘em. Just wait.”
Some far away banshee might have thought for a moment that it heard a familiar voice, but if it did it did not answer. Neither did the loons.
“Knock it off!” I pleaded.
“Let me try again,” said Mitch, launching into his own rendition of the call.
“No! Like this!” yelled Fergus over the din before creating a din of his own.
I couldn’t hear if Dave said anything before he started up again but I changed everyone’s tune right quick by reaching as high as I could with my paddle, swinging for shins and toes.
“Hey!” said Dave.
“Hey!” said Mitch.
“Hey!” said Fergus.
“Stop it!” I cried. “The loons aren’t answering you!”
“Yeah, ’cause you chased ‘em away!”
“I did not! They’re out there ignoring you but everyone else in the valley can hear you so stop!”
Mitch Michaels hitched up his pants and took a breath but Fergus Lee slapped his hand across Mitch’s mouth. Mitch slapped Fergus’ hand away and sputtered.
“You can’t stop me from doing what I want, you red-headed stepchild!”
“Quill’s right,” said Dave. “They’re quiet now.”
“I don’t care if Quill’s right! If I wanna call a loon I’m gonna call a loon!”
Fergus reached to stifle Mitch again but only got three fingers across Mitch’s mouth, hooking his index finger in Mitch’s right nostril and his thumb into Mitch’s eye. Mitch grabbed for Fergus’ collar but missed, grabbing his ears instead, and when Dave reached between them, bashing both with his elbow, what may turn out to be the greatest three-way brawl in the history of the Neverwas Nonesuch Angling Society got under way.
I got under way, too. Paddling for the dark and quiet, I rounded the point the other way and the sounds of their scrapping faded. Pretty soon all I could hear was the crickets and frogs, punctuated from time to time by an occasional cry of “Hunchback!” or “Lard-ass!” and other similar epithets being flung far to my rear.
I floated aimlessly for a while, alone on the dark lake, taking a long pull off the bottle I forgot to give back every time a meteor shot across the sky. I traced the constellations I know and made up a few new ones for good measure as I enjoyed a long, leisurely smoke. My exhalations mingled with the mist and I felt a warm glow spreading throughout my being, floating out there, as if in space, with stars above and below when, suddenly, I heard a light bump at my bow.
Immediately, the air around me was shredded by a piercing scream that rose and fell in tone, faster and faster, until it was an unearthly ululation. My eyeballs shook at the slashing, undulating sound. My ears rang and every hair on my body, from my shaggy head to my shaggy toes stood ram-rod on end. Instinctively, I paddled furiously for home, swinging my paddle wildly above my head on every other stroke in an effort to ward off the clutches of whatever bats, demons or other denizens of the netherworld were attacking. Alarm bells pealed in my head and Klaxons sounded as I sprinted for shore. I may have even peed a bit in my panic.
The cacophony faded behind me and eventually my canoe scraped aground. I stumbled getting out, holding the bottle where my head could hit it on my way down and I landed, sitting, in 10 inches of water. Screwing off the cap, I drained the booze and chuckled to myself as I wiped my mouth with my sodden sleeve and imagined the way I must have looked, all jangled up and humpin’ for home like that because I’d bumped into a sleeping loon.
At least, I hope it was a loon.