Of all the new experiences during my visits to the Adirondacks in upstate New York, one of my favorite memories was the first time I ever heard a loon call out across a lake. The haunting, eerie song of these large fishing birds is a constant if you are visiting lakes or coastal regions in the northern United States and Canada. The loon has played a major role in Native American mythology. The Ojibwa peoples believe that the loon helped to create their flute. The loon also played a major role in the great flood story of Lakota mythology (via
All About Birds). Loons can be elusive to photograph, often avoiding more populated areas, choosing instead to nest and breed in secluded spots. I have seen them only a few times during my trips to Adirondack State Park.
New York State actively monitors the loon population, as loons are considered excellent barometers of an ecosystem’s health. A sizable loon population demonstrates an environment free of mercury, toxic industrial chemicals, and diseases (via
Loon Preservation Committee). On a recent summer weekend, I had the good fortune to be invited along as the guest of a member of the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation as he made his rounds to check on the birds in their natural habitat.
So join me, then, on a journey into the woods and mountains of upstate New York. Along the way, we’ll take in some amazing lakeside views, eat great food, and enjoy the fresh mountain air.
Longtime readers probably don’t even need this map to know where to find the Adirondacks! With six million acres within its borders, the ADK is the largest protected wilderness anywhere in the United States. Fun fact: you could fit Death Valley, Yellowstone, and the Great Smoky Mountains within the boundaries of the Adirondacks (via Condé Nast Traveler).
Setting off mid-afternoon on a weekday, we had a fairly easy, 300-mile drive to the Adirondacks. After our epic 4,400-mile cross-country drive earlier in the month, our trip to the ADK felt remarkably quick.
Ah, smell that fresh mountain air! While I have always been a fan of the New Jersey shore, the Adirondacks have become another favorite spot to rest, rejuvenate, and recharge.
After catching the sunset, I turned in for an early evening, set my alarm for 4:30 am, and went to bed. The next day promised to be an adventure!
My ride arrived to pick me up just as the sun started to rise, and we headed off to search for some wildlife on nearby lakes.
Not a bad view to start a day, right? We’d be traveling in individual pack canoes and paddling our way across the lakes. I’ll have more to say about the canoes a bit later in the post.
No sooner had we put into the lake than we came across an adult loon and two juveniles searching for their next meal. They didn’t seem too startled by us, but they were definitely aware of our presence, and we kept a healthy distance.
After a few minutes, the loons decided to ignore us and return to fishing. Loon chicks typically hatch in early summer, and spend the first several months of their lives with their parents. Although they learn to fish on their own fairly early, young loons rely on their parents even as they near adulthood. These two juveniles were near their mother almost constantly (via All About Birds).
Although awkward and ungainly on land, the loon is truly at home in the water. These underwater hunters can dive as deep as 180 feet, and are able to hold their breath for nearly 15 minutes. They are strong swimmers, capable of darting rapidly through the water while on the hunt (via All About Birds).
As one of the loons began to call out, my friend relayed to me that the loon has four types of calls: the wail, the yodel, the tremolo, and the hoot. Each serves a specific purpose. For instance, the wail, the sound most associated with this bird, is used when the loon is looking for a lost chick or its partner (adult loons will pair bond, staying with their partner for up to five years).
As summer ends, adult loons will leave their nearly-grown juveniles. The adult will congregate with other adults on other bodies of water, while the juveniles will remain on their lake where they were raised, finally leaving at the onset of winter (via All About Birds).
My friend pointed out a now-abandoned loon nesting site. Loons must lay their eggs on land, but will also pick a place where they can easily access water to hunt for food or to escape a predator.
While adult loons are generally left alone by other birds and animals, loon eggs are a frequent target of predators. Even the Great Blue Heron has been known to snack on loon eggs (although, to be fair to the big guy, that’s not his preferred meal – he’d much rather have fish). Crows, ravens, bald eagles, and bears are much more common loon nest poachers (via Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation).
One of the biggest threats to loons is human activity. Discarded fishing line can become wrapped around the bird’s beak. Lead fishing tackle, if swallowed, can poison a loon. And human activity near loon nests during nesting season can cause the eggs to be abandoned. As with all wildlife, being mindful of our impact is critical for humans to be able to safely share the environment with such magnificent creatures (via Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation).
After two hours, we moved along to another lake for more loon-viewing adventures! We were using pack canoes from Hornbeck Boats, a builder located in the Adirondacks. Made from Kevlar and carbon fiber, these one-person canoes are lightweight and remarkably stable in the water. As the boat weighed less than 25 pounds, I was able to easily carry it to and from shore. Once on the water, it handled very well.
The last time I canoed (admittedly, a long time ago), I felt like I was forever fighting with that boat on the water. I had to unlearn those bad habits with the Hornbeck – it responded better to a gentler approach. For instance, when I first started paddling the Hornbeck, I (unintentionally) sailed in a zig-zag pattern like a US Navy destroyer trying to evade a German U-Boat in WWII. As I smoothed out my paddle stroke, the boat responded with a nice, even line through the water.
After a few minutes of paddling, we came across an adult loon and a juvenile as they were hunting for fish. These two seemed completely at ease with our presence, swimming so near our boats that at times, it was too close for my camera’s telephoto lens. When those moments came, I put down the camera and just watched, grateful for the opportunity to see nature up close.
Although juveniles begin to fish independently after only a few months, they often still rely on their parents for food. This adult scooped up a fish and took it to their offspring.
As the adult loon offered the fish to the juvenile, the young loon proceeded to drop the fish into the water. Looking at the mother’s face, I can almost imagine her saying, “You have GOT to be kidding me. This kid, I swear…”
After emerging from the water, or after cleaning itself, a loon will often spread its wings wide. This behavior begins in chicks only a few days old.
My friend told me what behavior to look for in the loons if they were feeling stressed by our presence. Our reward for being patient and as non-threatening as possible with these birds? They allowed us to take photos like this!
Perhaps my favorite photo from the trip… and maybe from this entire year.
The entire day, I had waited for an adult loon to pop its wings so I could get it on camera, but I had no success. At the very end of our trip, as we began to head home, the adult swam past me and then put on a show. I could almost imagine her saying, “You have behaved yourself well, human. Here is your reward.” It was a perfect ending to an amazing morning. I would also like to take a moment to thank my guide, Don, for our canoe adventure. He is also an accomplished photographer, and you should check out his work at Old Goat Photography. Odds and Ends
Although I had amazing weather for the canoe trip, another day during our time in the Adirondacks was just rain. No complaints, though, as the Adirondacks has been suffering from abnormally dry conditions this summer. The rain was needed!
A day later, the sun returned, and I was able to clean up my Accord and take it for its mandatory glamour shoot at Quiver Pond.
And what trip to the ADK is complete without great food? No one who has read my posts from the Adirondacks should be surprised that our trip included a stop at The Donut Shop of Eagle Bay!
That’ll be one cinnamon sugar donut, stat!
And what helps to wash down donuts better than fresh coffee? A Birch latte (left) and an almond milk latte (right) were my wife and my beverages of choice at Blue Line Coffee House.
I was in the Adirondacks to celebrate my birthday, and my family took me to dinner at Big Moose Station. Once the train station with the highest elevation east of the Mississippi River, Big Moose Station is now a restaurant serving comfort food in the western Adirondacks. The original train station was built in 1896. The current structure dates to 1926, after a fire destroyed the first building.
In 2001, Big Moose Station won an award for architectural conservation – its renovation into a restaurant incorporated and preserved much of the original station’s structure.
The building was cool, and the meal was delicious! My wife enjoyed the haddock mornay, with haddock, scallops, and shrimp in a mornay sauce.
It’s only your birthday once a year, right? I thoroughly enjoyed the 1/2 rack of ribs. Maybe not the healthiest choice, but so, so good!
On the last morning of our trip, low-hanging mist gave Fourth Lake an otherworldly feel. Before departing, I always like to walk down to the lake and soak in as much of the view as I can.
On our return journey home, we made a quick stop at Kayuta Drive-In for some ice cream! I scream, you scream, we all scream for.. a vanilla milkshake. It was a great treat that helped to soften the blow of the seven hour drive home, including over 60 minutes spent in stop-and-go traffic on the NY Thruway.
After seemingly endless hours of driving, we were finally home. The Accord was flawless yet again, taking us to upstate New York and back in comfort, and returning almost 32 miles per gallon over the total trip. It remains a faithful road trip warrior. Onward! A Sneak Peak..
Before closing, I wanted to offer an automotive update of a friend’s car that also will serve as a sneak peak of an upcoming road trip/blog post event!
My friend Justin is nearing 940,000 miles on his 2003 Honda Accord V6 coupe. He’s going to have an opportunity to get close to the 940k mark on a road trip adventure that will be featured in an upcoming post… stay tuned! Wrapping Up
Each time I travel to the Adirondacks, I discover something new. From a tour of a
historic great camp, to shivering during an ice harvest, to climbing to the top of a mountain, to acting as an Adirondack Guide, each visit brings out something new in the park. This trip was no exception, as I was able to encounter wildlife up close in their own environment, while exploring the Adirondacks by water. The morning among the loons was memorable and magical, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.
Thanks, as always, for coming along on another journey up to the mountains of the Adirondacks (and down the open road ahead!).
‘Til next time.