One of Three Days

Although it was June and Saturday, Upper Whitefish had a post-Memorial Day hangover. June 4th, 2022 was one of those rare, almost unnaturally calm days on the huge lake. It was the kind of day when canoes, kayaks, and paddleboats — which pass most of their days overturned and collecting spiders in sheds — set out across the big water with sudden purpose.

I was supposed to be training students for field data collection. Kate, a recent arrival to Minnesota, was in the midst of learning how to spot loons, ID them from their colored leg bands, find their nests, and record data related to breeding ecology and behavior. When Kate announced that she was uncomfortable paddling a canoe on Whitefish and wished to skip the training session, I initially glanced out at the flat lake in puzzlement. But we had hit windy and wavy conditions on Whitefish two days before, so I quickly deduced that she was uneasy about venturing out on the same body of water again so soon. “Okay”, I said, “maybe you can find a put-in for the Upper Whitefish-Steamboat loon pair.” We looked at a road map, planned Kate’s route, and went our separate ways.

The loss of my paddling partner — and most of a day of training — was a disappointment. On the other hand, I love my occasional moments of solitude on Northwoods lakes. Setting out alone from the huge boat landing on Lower Hay Lake (which is attached to Whitefish), I visited the four loon territories on Lower Hay, untroubled by wind. Two and half hours later, I pushed through the channel that leads to Upper Whitefish. Shortly thereafter I spotted the Upper Whitefish-Steamboat pair and their platform nest. Kate was smiling and waving from a dock not far from the platform. She had met a friendly loon-lover who invited us to launch our canoes from his dock whenever needed. A jovial soul, he added wryly, “You’re lucky; you came out on one of the three calm days we get each year on this lake!”

Leaving Kate ashore again, I set out to check more loon pairs on the main lake. At the Little Island territory, I ran across a nest with two eggs in a patch of cattails. It was attended by an unmarked loon pair.

Next I decided to circumnavigate Big Island. I found myself increasingly enchanted by the tranquility of the scene, which was undiminished by the vast expanse of water before me. I became so giddy at the spectacle that I almost stuck out my hand to high-five two complete strangers in a passing canoe. Loonwise, however, Big Island was unimpressive; I found only the usual tame pair at the southeastern end (one marked) near a recently failed nest. But I stumbled upon a real treat as I finished circling the island: three Bonaparte’s Gulls jostling for position on a narrow sandy spit.

I smiled to see that, like me, these three diminutive migrants were taking advantage of the conditions. In their case, a few invertebrates provided snacks in the shallow, gently lapping water. Apparently it is widely known that when you venture out onto the Whitefish Chain on one of the three calm days of the year, you must make the most of it.