Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Mike Elliott's Spirit Bird

Mike Elliott sent me this essay when I asked listeners to tell me about their favorite birds.

After 26 consecutive summer pilgrimages to the BWCAW, I tackled my first solo in July of 2016.  Being alone, fine-tuned me into nature.  At dawn, I watched an otter win her battle with a northern pike to feed her kits. At dusk, the beavers ignored me as they prepared for a night of cut and chew.  I was entertained by a comedian, a red-headed woodpecker dancing, tore up the dirt under my reading tarp. I wondered, why not the cedar that I tied the rain-fly to?

Stormed in a day by severe weather, then wind-bound the next, the only thing left in my larder for my last meal was a lone tortilla, a bit of olive oil and an unopened pouch of fish fry batter. I had not caught a single fish the whole trip, but maybe now, that the winds died down, it might be my lucky night?   Before dark, I paddled across the lake, putting the nose of my canoe into a gap in the rocks to scope out another campsite.  The shore was granite, rocky, a nasty place to put a campsite. It was difficult to steady my craft and safely exit without dunking. I tried to backpaddle out, but the breeze started up, kept punching me back to the rocky shore.

It was then I heard the thrashing, splashing, behind me.  I cocked my neck but I could not fully turn.  Then it was gone. Silence. Then commotion. Silence.  Commotion.  I was getting spooked.  It would be dark soon and I longed for my sleeping bag, by the fire, and that lone tortilla.  I reasoned that a beaver or otter would not be bold enough to come so close.  I started fantasizing about a giant northern pike in the shallows, wounded, trapped behind my stern.  I would whack it with my paddle, earning myself a hot meal!

Using my paddle and a large boulder as a fulcrum, I finally free my canoe.  That’s when I saw her. So close, I could pet her.  A Common Loon. (I could not tell if it was a he or she Loon, but gave her the name Lady Flame as that was the name of this lake.)

She was calm, not fretful of my presence.  I thought, maybe I’m near her nest?  But I know where loons nest and this campsite was not it.  Then I figured, maybe she’s used to paddlers and knew Old Man River would not harm her?  We stared at each other. A moment in time that I will never forget and always treasure.  Then, she dove, was gone.  I dropped my line and jig, with hopes a pike might attack as I high tailed it for the opposite shore toward my camp. 

Lady Flame decided to surface again, maybe saying hello or goodbye?  She was only a canoe length in front of me. Then, she started paddling herself, challenging me to follow.  I did, like a happy puppy entranced with this up close, no binoculars needed view of nature.   She stopped. Not wanting to spook her, I stopped, slowly reeling in my jig so I did not snag bottom.  She dove, one last time, disappeared, leaving me all alone.    Bam! Bam! Bam! 1,2, 3! “Walleyes!” I yelled to the echoing cliffs.  I released 2, cleaned one right there in my canoe, returned to camp and had the best fish fry of my life, thanks to Lady Flame.

 The Common Loon: They are beautiful, come back to our pristine northern waters every summer, smart enough to winter warm, mate for life, and sing a chorus alone or when together like no other bird I know of. I read about how The Ojibwa would often have a Spirit Animal. I have no Native blood in me, but I think I now understand.  I’m blessed too. My Spirit Bird will forever be The Common Loon.

“Old Man River”
Mike Elliott
Vanduse Lake
Jacobson MN
Copyright 2018 by Mike Elliott.