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It has been a strange spring. The lake opened up earlier than any other year that we’ve had our Northwoods cabin. And, every other year the loons arrived within a day of the lake opening up.

But not this year. This year the lake opened up but days went by- no loons. More days- no loons. It was an eerie,  silent spring compared to what we were used to. The waves quietly lapped the shoreline, the branches of the stark trees would be reflected in the early morning light, the wind would gently work its magical sounds through the tops of the white pines- but it wasn’t right. Like a recipe missing that one crucial ingredient,  the whole deal fell flat without the call of the loons and their black and white contrast sparkling jewel-like upon the quiet waters.

Then last weekend a loon arrived. This is how it always happens. The loons, though they can be paired for decades on a small lake like ours, do not migrate together. So, one arrives before the other. But usually the other arrives within hours of the first. At least within a day. But this year we had one solitary loon silently working its way around the edges of the lake diving for minnows. Three days went by, four days…one loon.

When we arrived on Friday night there were finally two loons together on the lake. Saturday was a beautiful spring morning and I slipped an old Grumman into the water and went out to do my first loon photography of the year. I kneel near the center of the 17’ canoe in order to paddle it by myself. This makes for a very stable platform for holding my camera and taking hand-held photos from the canoe. The Grumman isn’t my first choice of canoe for taking photos. I found an older 17’ Old Town Penobscot on Craigslist a few years ago and that’s my preferred canoe because it’s much quieter (and warmer on the knees) than the aluminum Grumman. But I had replaced the cane in the Penobscot’s seats over the winter and hadn’t had time to install them yet- so the Grumman was the tool for the day.

The loons seemed to remember me. I know we’d all like to think that. I can’t prove it’s even the same loons as the years before though it’s likely they are. There are documented pairs that have returned to other lakes for decades. But, in any case, this pair was completely unconcerned with my canoe (I kept a good distance from them). I’ve tried doing loon photos on other lakes and I’m always surprised by how they become concerned with my presence from very far away. And, though these loons were comfortable with my canoe and I managed some nice photos- when you’ve taken as many loon photos as I have it’s hard to get new ones to stand out. Nothing special, but nice.

Monday morning, we awoke to snow on the ground again. And in the air. The wind was whipping the squalls into nearly horizontal sheets of snow. It was uncomfortable. It was cold. It was pretty much winter returned overnight. At first the thought of going out into that with the camera and canoe didn’t even occur to me. The Grumman was turned over on the shoreline with the wet snow clinging to the aluminum at a depth of an inch or two and growing. And I hadn’t seen the loons at all the entire morning. Our small lake is attached via a narrow channel to another very small lake. The loons travel between the two lakes on a daily- sometimes hourly- basis.

Eventually I decided to give it a try. A few years ago, I managed some of my favorite loon photos during a spring snowstorm with huge gentle flakes of snow coming down. But that day there was very little wind. And wind is my enemy when taking photos from the canoe. Even a gentle wind grabs a lightly-loaded 17’ canoe and blows it quickly across the lake. In order to take photos, I have to set the paddle down and pick up the camera. With strong wind I only have a few seconds of trying to focus on the loons before the canoe starts swinging this way or that and starts out on a quick journey downwind. Then I have to set the camera down, grab the paddle, fight to get the front of the canoe back into the wind and try to reposition again. It’s a frustrating, tiring, and difficult task. Still- if you don’t get out you have no chance to get a good photo. So, the odds are always with the struggle.

I paddled (and blew) across the lake to the small channel to the adjacent lake. I have two foam pads for my knees on the bottom of the canoe. But my feet have no insulation from the aluminum canoe and the cold quickly transfers from the water, through the thin aluminum, and to my toes. I had on a baseball cap for the visor protection to keep the snow off my glasses as much as possible. But, with that not being warm enough, I also had a felted wool hat my daughter had knitted for me as a Christmas gift quite a few years ago. I would not win any fashion awards with my two-hat statement. But, then again, there was absolutely nobody around to see me and I’ve reached an age that nobody holds much expectation for my fashion sense anyway (and I’m quite comfortable with that).

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Paddling through the narrow one-canoe wide channel the snow came off the branches on each side and started piling into the canoe. It began to cover the towel I use to cover the camera while it’s outside the Pelican case I use to load it into and out of the canoe. As I reached the other lake, I picked up the towel and shook off as much snow as possible. At this point I uncased the camera, twisted my lens out to it’s max of 500mm and then placed the towel over it to try to keep the snow off of it.

The loons were there. They were working the West shoreline diving for fish. I was happy with that because that side of the lake was protected, at least a little, from the strong winds. I slowly paddled over and worked my way into a good distance for taking photos. I can’t use gloves with the camera. It doesn’t work for me, so at this point the gloves came off- literally- and I began to try to focus through the swirling flakes of spring snow.

It was very difficult. As long as I had the paddle in the water, I had control of the canoe. Quick strokes one way, the other, back paddle, draw…it all happens without thinking after spending as much time as I have in a canoe and the boat goes right where I want it to. But set the paddle down to pick up the camera and it all falls apart. Often before I even manage to get the camera up to my eye. And, even at that, it’s a brain disconnect to be looking at the magnified image of the loon in the viewfinder with your canoe swirling and spinning under your knees. It can screw with your sense of balance which is never good when in a canoe over cold spring water with a rather expensive camera outfit. But I kept trying. I’d follow along with the loons, get myself in a good position, pick up the camera and manage two or three photos before needing to set down the camera and grab the paddle again.

I was hoping to get in a position so the loons were between me and a shoreline to get the added contrast of the white snow-covered shore with the water. The more photos I tried to take the more snow that ended up on the camera and lens. It didn’t take too long to become concerning. How much snow can it take before water starts to work its way into the camera and lens? Eventually though the two loons worked their way into an almost perfect spot. I picked up the camera. First one, then the other, did the pull out of the water wing stretch thing they do. I clicked off the frames as fast as the camera was able.

It resulted in this photo which I feel captures the spirit of the day and my time with the loons that morning. After that it was time to turn the canoe and paddle back to the cabin to warm up the toes.

I hope you enjoy the photo!

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