If I didn’t know any better I’d say that we’d just heard somebody trying to start a lawnmower. The nearest lawn must be at least 30 miles away and I couldn’t imagine anyone dragging a mower deep into this dense forest, but Canadians have their own way of doing things so who knows? An abrupt “thrufp, thrufp, thrufp” from the opposite side of the trail made Rachael jump as I got just a glimpse of some sort of wild-chicken-bird maneuvering through the impenetrable trees. Wildlife is so often experienced as that thing you know to be there but is just beyond your resolution. A sound, a footprint, scat, clues to the existence of a being that chooses to remain hidden. I could see how legends begin of creatures lurking in forests or skulking beneath waves, showing themselves only long enough to leave a startled impression in our minds that may grow with each retelling into a full scale beast worthy of a folk tale. We strained our eyes through trees too closely packed to venture into but this creature had vanished, blending into its surroundings leaving us to our imaginations. Later research led us to the Ruffed Grouse and the motor sound was a male drumming its wings to impress the ladies. I was kind of impressed myself.
Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario has no doubt produced many wildlife encounters for its visitors. It’s a place where the dark spruces of the northern boreal forest blend with the deciduous eastern hardwoods in a thick mosaic of trees. These trees surround an extensive network of lakes and streams most commonly traversed by canoe, a classic Canadian wildland that supports moose, black bear, beaver and hundreds of wolves. It also has some smaller creatures and we could hear them. We kept seeing them out of the corner of our eyes leaping into the trailside ponds as we walked by. We had to be looking right at them. They would jump from under our noses just when we thought nothing was there. I was just looking at that spot. Getting down on our hands and knees, peering into the pond at mysterious gelatinous egg sacks one swam right up to me. This bronze frog and I looked into each others eyes for just a moment before it realized its mistake and dove away, hiding under the leaf litter which covered the sandy bottom of this tea colored pool. I learned what we were looking for and now I could spot them. I had to attempt their game of being very still first and then scanning the water’s edge. It’s a game I couldn’t win but I was able to score a few points. They were literally a still as stones, blending in with skin the texture of moist rock and the color of wet leaves, holding their amphibian breath.
The next morning before dawn as we creased the glassy surface of Lake Kioshkokwi with our kayaks there were almost no clues to what wildlife might be surrounding us. The fish that had been breaking the surface the evening before were now still. The insects had been subdued by the chill. With a heavy fog settled on the lake there was little chance of seeing anything. As we paddled further onto the lake even the shoreline became obscured and the sun was not yet high enough to penetrate the mist. In this dim light the world became an undifferentiated landscape of grey water blending into grey air. And it was quiet. Except for the birds. I first noticed the hammering of a woodpecker who had found a resonant tree, most likely a large long-dead snag and it sent a strong base drum beat across the water. The growing daylight brings the chorus of birdsong. My novice ear could pick out just a few, a Swainson’s thrush, the gulls. What I longed to hear was the eerie sound of the loon. Some creatures clearly evoke more mystery than others and have more spiritual power. The call of a loon on a northern lake has the impact of seeing the Milky Way after months under urban lights. Without knowing anymore than what you are immediately experiencing, you can feel vastness. We intuitively know that the heavens are much larger than our earthbound existence just as the cry of this lovely bird hits some note within us confirming that there are ancient languages beyond our imagination. For innumerable summers these birds have returned north to find a lake to grace with their call. We knew they were out there sequestered nearby on some fogbound bay. We had seen a mated pair on their evening rounds the two previous nights. They cruised past our campsite keeping each other company as they dove for fish. Their calls had put us to bed. They were silent this morning but at least we were confident they were out there beyond our vision. Theirs is a sound that no matter how many times you’ve heard it you’ll long to hear it just once more.
Ruffed Grouse sound: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Ruffed_Grouse/sounds
Common Loon Sound: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/common_loon/sounds