Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Heeding the Call of the Loons

This past week, as we were organizing and packing for what has become our annual migration to the lake cottage in Maine, we took an evening off and watched the 1981 Oscar-winning film “On Golden Pond,” starring Henry Fonda in his memorable final film, Katherine Hepburn (amazingly their first film together), and Henry’s daughter Jane.

The loons have returned to Golden Pond and with them a crotchety old retired professor (Fonda) and his doting wife (Hepburn) who open their cottage just as they had done every summer since they were first married. They remove the dust covers from the furniture, gather wood for the fireplace, and settle into a routine of walking in the woods, canoeing around the “pond” - actually a fairly good size lake - following the resident loon family, and fishing for local trout, including mythic and equally gigantic rainbow trout known as “Walter.” At night they play Parcheesi and scan the newspaper for classified ads and the baseball scores. All and all a pretty bucolic existence, only this time they are dealing with a whole new set of challenges as they try to come to terms with the fact that their lives together are coming to an end. Hepburn is a feisty yet gentle woman who does what she can to staunch the inevitable.”Listen to me, mister. You're my knight in shining armor,” she chortles in his ear as she wraps her arms around her husband. “Don't you forget it. You're going to get back on that horse, and I'm going to be right behind you, holding on tight, and away we're gonna go, go, go!" Fonda, who realizes only too well what is happening to him, humors his wife. "I don't like horses,” he confesses as he kisses her cheek. “You are a pretty old dame aren't you? What are you doing with a dotty old son of a bitch like me?" Her response is perhaps the bellwether of her boundless devotion. "Well, I haven't the vaguest idea."

Watching the film my wife and I relished the fact that we would soon be back on our own golden pond, a lake cottage in Maine where we have spent the past 24 summers together. Most of those years were measured as two or three weeks in August when we managed to escape jobs and other commitments back home in Maryland. Last summer, the first since my retirement that spring, we headed north in mid-June and stayed until the end of August. We would have stayed longer, but our one and only child was getting married in early November and we had to get home to deal with that benchmark moment. As we packed up at the end of the summer we pledged that this year we would stay through September so that we could fully enjoy the splendor of the autumn foliage which was just beginning to flourish as we headed home. This year we plan to stay until early October.

I visited the lake briefly back in late January; a quick stop to check on the cottage to see how it was handling the winter. There was plenty of snow, enough that I was only able to view the cottage from the top of the hill as the rest of the access road had not been plowed. The lake was frozen solid, snow-covered and crisscrossed with snowmobile trails while smoke was rising from the ice-fishermen’s brightly colored bobhouses. It seemed hard to believe that just a few months earlier we were swimming in the lake, and in a very few months we would be back and swimming again!

And now we are here and we have unpacked and settled into our routine. The wood box is full, which is a good thing. The ice and snow may be gone yet the weather has been quite cool and wet since our arrival and it has been necessary to build fires in the morning and evening to fend off the cold and damp. But this has been a welcome respite from the 100+ temperatures we had endured at home the week before our departure).

We do not have to wait long to learn that our resident family of loons has also returned to the lake this year. Almost immediately we hear their plaintive yodeling, described by Sibley as a “tremolo of five to ten notes on an even pitch,” from the far end of the lake where they nest. I am reminded of Dan Masterson’s poem “Loon.”
We lie awake in dark
so black we swear
we’ve gone blind waiting
for your screech,
but no sound comes
until sleep takes us
long enough to be thrown
awake by the split-level
scream of the mad old lady
in your throat, lowered
there at birth, kept
for the nightly ritual
you tend to,
proclaiming this pond
as your own.
And this really is their home, after all. We both come to share this lake for a few months before we return home to a house in Maryland and they migrate to the open waters of the Atlantic where they will spend the winter months adrift. I am sure they are just as happy to be back as we are.

We have taken care of other routine tasks. We have been to the market to stock up the larder. We opened up our mailbox at the local post office. Unlike Fonda and Hepburn whose mail was delivered to their dock by a postal boat navigated by a local man who in his day had a definite hankering for their daughter, we must make our way by car to the post office in the Upper Village. We have also renewed our acquaintances with the gals who run the library in the Lower Village where we must go to connect with the internet and the outside world.

After typical summer days at home we are treated to a return to late spring weather. Those plants that bloomed weeks ago are still in full flower here and Sally Ann has planted some more.

We are enduring another round of tree pollen and the car and most of the deck furniture is covered with that yellow green menace. Summer activities begin at home around Memorial Day, but they don’t get into full swing here until Fourth of July with the exception being the ubiquitous strawberry festivals and socials celebrating this year’s harvest. We are definitely looking forward to these! The lake is still a bit chilly and not everyone has put in their piers yet. Ours is out and the boat and canoe are moored and awaiting our first outing.

So, all in all, life is pretty good and I can’t think of anywhere I would rather be. There will be plenty of time to do the things we want to do this summer and I will be reporting from time to time on what we are up to. In the meantime, we sit and listen to our loon friends who remind us why we keep coming back every year. If you were here right now, you would understand. I know Fonda and Hepburn would. I am quite sure of that.

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