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Good Going

"Even the shores seemed hushed and waiting for that first lone call, and when it came, a single long-drawn mournful note, the quiet was deeper than before." --Sigurd F. Olson, "Laughing Loon," Listening Point

Like cargo planes of the avian world, loons need a long waterway--100 feet or more--for takeoff.

FROM MY BACK DOOR on the border of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota, I can paddle and portage more than 1,200 miles of canoe routes on over 1,000 lakes and streams. Timber wolves, moose, and black bears roam the backcountry; no phones, electricity, or roads mar the wilds.

After three decades photographing this fragile land and its creatures, cranking off hundreds of exposures of scenes that move me, I came to the Zen-like notion that perhaps my subjects deserved a more measured and respectful approach. Such bursts of film are fine for shooting fashion models on a New York runway, but this is a different world. I set myself a challenge: For 90 days one autumn, I would make only one exposure a day of the wilderness in my backyard.

Just ten days stalking the boreal forests for scenes worthy of my single daily image left me exhausted. Then a sunrise paddle into a luminous fog on Moose Lake revealed a heartbreaking scene. A young common loon was entangled in fishing line, unable to dive or fly. The parent showed the familiar signs of nervous protection, urging its offspring to follow by diving. The loons must soon begin their 60-mile-per-hour migration to the Gulf of Mexico, and the young bird faced certain death as freezing temperatures approached. If I captured it and unwound the binding, perhaps it would survive. I scooped the loon up in a fishing net as the parent continued its frantic, shallow dives.

A barbed hook was embedded in the bird's neck, but it had done little damage. I cradled the frightened youngster under my arm as I carefully untangled six feet of line from its bill, neck, and wings. When I released the traumatized bird, it skittered off to rejoin its agitated parent. Trembling, I fumbled for my camera, stood up, and shot just as the young loon rose and flapped its wings. --Jim Brandenburg


Photo by Jim Brandenburg; used with permission.

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