(This column was first published in the August 14, 2000 Buffalo News.)
Each of us who has spent time in the North Woods has a favorite loon experience. Most of these stories relate to the wildly varying calls of this big waterfowl. We all know its Woody Woodpecker-like shrieking laugh that reverberates across the wilderness lakes to awaken us in the morning or to alert us later in the day of an approaching storm. Guides tell us, "When a flying loon calls, tighten your tent lines and prepare for a blow." We know too its nighttime wails that carry even from distant lakes -- calls that are often misidentified by neophyte campers as wolf howls. There is a solemn, even mournful quality to them that can sends shivers down your spine.
Now I have come across a true story about the calling of loons that will, I am certain, remain my favorite forever. It appears in an excellent biography, "Joseph Banks: A Life," by Patrick O'Brian. (O'Brian, who died earlier this year, was also the author of the superb Aubrey Maturin sea novels.) I commend both book and author to you.
Banks was a wealthy 18th century English naturalist, perhaps best known for his service for over 40 years as president of the Royal Society and his circumnavigation of the world with Captain Cook. In 1766 an earlier voyage took him to Newfoundland where the following event occurred.
As he did throughout his life, Banks recorded his many experiences in his unpunctuated and idiosyncratically capitalized and spelled style. Deciphering this writing is half the fun and I quote Banks' narrative, as does O'Brian, directly:
"Some birds there are that I must mention Particularly one Known here by the name of Whobby he is of the Loon Kind & an Excellent Diver but Very Often amuses himself especially in the night by flying high in the air and making a very Loud & alarming noise at least to those who do not know the Cause of it as the following circumstance will shew
"In August 1765 as Commodore Paliser in the Guernsey a 50 gun ship Lay in this Harbour Expecting the Indians one Dark night in a thick fog the Ships company were alarmed by a noise they had not heard before Every one awoke Conjecturd what it could Possibly be it came nearer & nearer grew louder & louder the first Lieuftenant was calld up he was the only man in the Ship Who had Ever seen the Esquimaux immediately as he heard the noise he declard he rememberd it well it was the war whoop of the Esquimaux who were certainly Coming in their Canoes to board the Ship & Cut all their throats the Commodore was acquainted up he Bundled upon the Deck orderd ship to be cleard for Engaging all hands to Great Guns arms in the Tops Every thing in as good order as if a french man of war of Equal Force was within half a mile Bearing down upon them
"The Niger which Lay at some Distance from them was haild & told the indians were Coming when the Enemy appeared in the shape of a Troop of these Whobbys swimming & flying about the Harbour which From the Darkness of the night they had not seen before all hands were then sent down to Sleep & no more thought of the indians till the Nigers People came on board next morning who will Probably never Forget that their Companion Cleared Ship & turned up all hands to a flock of Whobbies"
I would not wish to have been Commodore Paliser or his first lieutenant or in fact any member of the crew of the unlucky HMS Guernsey as that story made the rounds of the fleet.
No wonder the loons are laughing.-- Gerry Rising