Loons

I’d mentioned that my stroke-time Bardo experience was distinct from both dream and hallucination, and felt it might be worthwhile to recount an hallucination.  Unlike many of my generation, this was not the result of ingested substances, but rather the result of severe hypothermia, while canoeing in the north country fair, where, as Bob reminds us, the winds hit heavy on the borderline (where snowflakes storm, when the rivers freeze and summer ends).

Near the end of my first year of Residency (St. Mary’s hospital in Milwaukee Wisconsin, a lovely spot across from Lake Park on beautiful Lake Michigan), my “created” North Star was dimming (how does one discover a north star in the southern hemisphere?) prior to the discovery of a “true” discovered one (an every 3rd night call schedule, plus added OB call by election, and questioning my adequacy despite a very affirming/supportive faculty & peer group & patient population providing evidence to the contrary, all contributing to my questioning).  I took a 3-week vacation on my own, rented a small solo Blackhawk solo canoe, and drove up to the Minnesota/west Ontario boundary waters, feeling the need for time in the wilderness to regroup.  I’d researched what turned out to be a lovely loop trip through lakes & river systems & short portages.  

The first day is so vivid – working up a small stream blocked every 50 or so yards by beaver dams, getting out to wade wet & slide the canoe over the dams to tails slapping, herons working the shallows.  Scattered clouds, but high 60s in late September, soft breezes, gorgeous.  That night camped on an island in a nice-sized lake, slept open in a string hammock, the aurora the most amazing I’ve ever seen it, huge dancing curtains of light; tried to stay awake to catch it all, but weariness of the day won out.  Woke in the morning to a moose checking out my camp (or v/v ?).

The weather turned the next day, to 3 days of a cool, humid drizzling rain, as I worked my way along a small, slow river.  The last of those evenings, damp & cold, I cooked dinner in the drizzle to river otters playing in the river about my camp.  Next morning, having dried my bilge-soaked heavy wool socks over my camp stove, I entered a large lake, in a stump-filled bay, several of the “stumps” being the antlers of partly-submerged pond-weed-eating moose.  As I paddled out in my little canoe (did I say it was very skinny?) into the lake proper, the weather turned once more; I was headed into a stiff headwind, the lake tossed up in large oncoming waves, the cloud cover dropped, and snow started flying in a dense blizzard.  Visibility was a bit beyond the bow of my little canoe, I could only paddle quartering upwind & brace in my skinny boat (a very capable little boat, working near my limits as a paddler).  I started to get really cold (did I tell you it’d been cold & drizzling for 3 days?).  Couldn’t stop paddling/bracing to put on another fleece layer under life vest & raincoat, so I kept on keeping on, knowing the lake was studded with islands & I’d likely be able to take shelter on one.  No such luck.  Knew I was in trouble when I stopped shivering – enough clearness of cognition left in hypothermia to remember that.  

loonA loon popped up directly off my right bow.

If you’re unfortunate to be unfamiliar with loons, their song is hauntingly beautiful, one of the rare treats of the north country.  Often described as hauntingly melancholy, their song is in truth one of connectedness, of finding one another over Great Distances.  We tease, on canoe trips, of never seeing just one loon – & if you think you see only One, it’s just a matter of missing out on all the others.

Now I’d been singing to the loons to allay fear; I’d previously learned loon song from the loons up on Cold Stream Pond near Enfield Maine.

This loon popped up right there, about 3’ off my starboard bow, paddling along with me, me singing away in loon song trying hard to not be terrified of the weather.  She looked at me with her big garnet eye, started giving me crap about my “Maine accent”.  In Minnesotan, hey, youbetcha.  I still recall it, can hear it singing back timeless, like yesterday only clearer, & in that moment, a clear understanding of loon song as a language, in Minnesotan accent hey.

Ended up telling me (in Minnesotan loon accent, did I mention?) to follow it, steered me after some immeasurable time had passed into a quiet bay, the haze lifted & I saw it was the sheltered bay of a lovely small island.  I dragged my canoe up the beach, stumbled around trying to figure out if you pitched your tent & hung your food from bears, or hung your tent & pitched your food.  One of those. Finally got that figured out satisfactorily  & crawled into my (dry, warm) sleeping bag in my tent, pitched, not hung, ate a sandwich I’d made ahead that morning (best PB&J ever), and dozed off.  Forgot to bid farewell to my loon friend, she disappeared into the enveloping evening darkness, the cold, wind, snow, waves & water her familiar home, her down sleeping bag waterproofed & ever-present, her song blending with many others into a soothing lullaby.

At end of trip, counting up my days, ends up I slept through 2 nights & days that night.  Finally woke warm & cozy to clear sunny weather in the 60s with a stiff wind from the northwest.  The rest of the trip was glorious, past cliffs with ancient petroglyphs, the final portage about a mile with the rented featherweight canoe and my small pack down a wide sunny forest path with falling golden leaves before a ride down the beaver-dam stream guarded by blue heron sentinels, to my waiting truck & drive home.

Restored, North Star clear & calling to me on resuming my training.

It still feels I can “break through” & understand loon song, even today.
I suspect they’re really a race of aelves somehow.

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