In the spring of 2003 I stood upon the shore of a Loon Lake in northern Oakland County. That is, a lake named Loon. Although it was only fifteen minutes by winding dirt road from my childhood home, it was my first visit. The pond was a slight ten acres, but elliptical in shape, and plausibly long enough to accommodate the protracted take-offs of common loons. The winter ice was largely melted, and had there been an active territory it was highly likely that the resident pair or at least the resident male would’ve already been plying the waters. But, this being Oakland County, there were no loons to be seen.
In their absence I fell to thinking about the history of the lake, and about the supposition that at some distant point when it was originally named in the mid 19th century, perhaps it was called Loon for the most straightforward of reasons... that there was truth in its initial advertising. From here it was a short conceptual leap to broader questions: just how many Loon Lakes were in Michigan? how many still harbored loons? and how many could I manage to visit in the coming months? That evening I pulled out one of my tattered gazetteers a deep atlas of the state, and an indispensible bible of navigation and spent a very long night mining every one of its 112 pages for Loon Lake occurrences. A few days later, I discovered that the same task could be accomplished in less than five online minutes... a process that confirmed what I’d already tallied manually: 29 Loon Lakes in Michigan, including three in Oakland County alone, and another in Hillsdale County that reposed within five miles of the Indiana border. Guided by the assumption that in most cases they too had been named with biological veracity, and under the suspicion that their collective present might speak to the state of Michigan loons at the dawn of the 21st century, I visited the remaining 28 over the spring and summer of 2003.
Properly, it’s a long story. The abbreviated version accommodates a few highlights:
Loon Lake in Genesee County, just to the west of Oakland, was half-swallowed by a new development dubbed Loon Harbor Preserve. Beside its gated threshold was a kiosk with glossy brochures that trafficked in purple exclusivity: “It may be the intricate stone and wrought iron detailing the stately entrance. Or perhaps the mournful call of a mysterious loon reverberating across the placid water. Whatever it is that commands your attention, you’ll know in a moment there’s something special at Loon Harbor Preserve.” The gate was open, and its majestically arced thoroughfare led past sparkling homes and available lots, and eventually guided me to a young mother and her strollered baby. I asked her how often she saw or heard loons on the lake. She reflected for a moment. “Hmmm… you know, I actually don’t think that I have. But we’ve only been here for a year… I’m sure they’re around. I mean, they must be… it’s called Loon Harbor, right?” Deferring to the infallibility of her logic, I thanked her and made my way down to the marina, from where it was possible to take inventory of the lake itself. It was wholly bereft of loons, mysterious or otherwise. I exited the Preserve and drove to a collection of modest, weathered cottages standing opposite Loon Harbor. I met John Campbell, who had occupied his cabin for over fifty years, and who was well versed in the lake’s ornithological history. He pointed back across the water toward the Preserve’s marina: “The loons used to nest over there. It used to be a marsh.” This was ironic, but not accusatory: The wetland had been filled during John’s earliest years on the lake, and the nesting pair had disappeared shortly thereafter, long before the construction and promotion of Loon Harbor.
Loon Lake in Benzie County resides wholly within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, along the northwest coast of the Lower Peninsula. An ample boat launch encourages wakeless recreation, and on the day of my June visit a steady stream of canoeists fed by an upstream boat rental flowed into view from the Platte River. Before continuing onward toward Lake Michigan, some of the paddlers explored Loon in transects and circumambulations. Two teenagers in an aluminum Grumman approached a small, westerly hummock that presented itself as the lake’s most obvious, and perhaps only, site for possible loon nesting. They drifted alongside it. The passenger in the bow stood up, leveraged his paddle against the vegetation, and attempted to step onto the tiny floating island. He tilted forward as the hummock immediately yielded to the pressure of his first exploratory step, caught himself before pitching headlong, and collapsed backward into the safety of the canoe. Laughing, he and his partner moved on. Had a loon been incubating eggs at the location, it would have responded to the assault with any number of behaviors some of them conspicuous, some of them unobtrusive, none of them positive. But this scenario, however actualized in the lake’s past, was strictly hypothetical in June 2003... the setting was already cleared of its protagonist. No loons.
In the eastern Upper Peninsula, Alger County’s undeveloped, cigar-shaped Loon Lake is slowly drained by Loon Creek, which shortly combines with several additional headwater tributaries to form the west branch of the quietly exalted Fox River. As with its Benzie County analogue, the presence of viable nesting habitat provided no immediate reason to doubt occupancy by a breeding loon pair. Rather than a surplus of paddlers, however, it was the lake’s water itself - deeply caramel in color, and deeply acidic in pH - that suggested a possible explanation for their absence. The former attribute would make it difficult for loons, as visual hunters, to effectively stalk the lake’s fish, while the latter characteristic had likely rendered this piscine population compromised in diversity, stunted in size and afflicted with elevated mercury levels. As with many neighboring waterbodies in the expansive Munising Moraine region, the superficially attractive circumstances afforded by Loon Lake abundant solitude and nesting habitat seemed to belie conditions that would undermine both the short and long-term success of breeding loons.
Several hundred miles to the west, in the remote, craggy Michigamme Highlands of Baraga County, a large, privately-owned Loon Lake provided temporary respite from the parade of naughts. The lake’s sole island occupied its western arm, and contained in late July a reproductive accounting of the season: a shallow depression with one abandoned eggshell, largely intact and emptied in a manner consistent with predation. An unambiguous nesting attempt, albeit a failed one. As I paddled back toward the lake’s only cabin a cold beer awaited the pair, who had likely been feeding nearby, materialized from the east and landed ahead of the kayak. In their behavior they registered surprise at the sight of a paddler on their secluded territory, while I myself paused to note the broader novelty: actual loons on a Loon Lake.
By summer’s end, the state’s 29 possibilities had yielded only three more nesting pairs. Although the 25 vacancies came in all flavors and conditions swallowed by Pontiac, crippled by eutrophication, sandwiched between I-75 and the Loon Golf Club in most cases it was possible to infer a probable history of prior loon occupancy. In instances lacking the direct testimonials of old-timers like John Campbell, there was often oblique evidence... the ghost of viable habitat manifest beneath shoreline docks and island cottages, and between a circus of outboards and jet-skis. While there were doubtless exceptions to the rectitude of the naming process, at the end of my circuit it seemed clear that the majority of the 29 were originally monikered accurately. Certainly more than four of them.
If this precipitous drop from twenty-odd nesting pairs to only a handful felt emblematic of the species’ statewide decline, it struck me that the circumstances of the four extant Loon Lake pairs were equally representative of the variety of breeding environments foisted upon modern-day Michigan loons. While Baraga County’s iteration was a slice of boreal wilderness calling to mind an earlier era, it was the exception among the foursome: the others cohabitated with recently-erected mansions, state forest campgrounds, and heavy recreation. One pair in Iosco County its nesting habitat wholly given over to development had for some time been successfully relying upon an artificial nesting platform. In 2003 their two chicks were the only young produced on any of Michigan’s Loon Lakes. It seemed fitting that they occurred at a site where, in contrast to most of the stops along my tour, we as hydrophiles had granted some allowance for the needs of loons before their permanent departure was hastened. ~ Damon McCormick