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Wilderness Ways By William J. Long Characters: 28830

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

Hukweem the loon must go through the world crying for what he never gets, and searching for one whom he never finds; for he is the hunting-dog of Clote Scarpe. So said Simmo to me one night in explaining why the loon's cry is so wild and sad.

Clote Scarpe, by the way, is the legendary hero, the Hiawatha of the northern Indians. Long ago he lived on the Wollastook, and ruled the animals, which all lived peaceably together, understanding each other's language, and "nobody ever ate anybody," as Simmo says. But when Clote Scarpe went away they quarreled, and Lhoks the panther and Nemox the fisher took to killing the other animals. Malsun the wolf soon followed, and ate all he killed; and Meeko the squirrel, who always makes all the mischief he can, set even the peaceable animals by the ears, so that they feared and distrusted each other. Then they scattered through the big woods, living each one for himself; and now the strong ones kill the weak, and nobody understands anybody any more.

There were no dogs in those days. Hukweem was Clote Scarpe's hunting companion when he hunted the great evil beasts that disturbed the wilderness; and Hukweem alone, of all the birds and animals, remained true to his master. For hunting makes strong friendship, says Simmo; and that is true. Therefore does Hukweem go through the world, looking for his master and calling him to come back. Over the tree-tops, when he flies low looking for new waters; high in air, out of sight, on his southern migrations; and on every lake where he is only a voice, the sad night voice of the vast solitary unknown wilderness-everywhere you hear him seeking. Even on the seacoast in winter, where he knows Clote Scarpe cannot be-for Clote Scarpe hates the sea-Hukweem forgets himself, and cries occasionally out of pure loneliness.

When I asked what Hukweem says when he cries-for all cries of the wilderness have their interpretation-Simmo answered: "Wy, he say two ting. First he say, Where are you? O where are you? Dass what you call-um his laugh, like he crazy. Denn, wen nobody answer, he say, O I so sorry, so sorry!Ooooo-eee! like woman lost in woods. An' dass his tother cry."

This comes nearer to explaining the wild unearthliness of Hukweem's call than anything else I know. It makes things much simpler to understand, when you are camped deep in the wilderness, and the night falls, and out of the misty darkness under the farther shore comes a wild shivering call that makes one's nerves tingle till he finds out about it-Where are you? O where are you? That is just like Hukweem.

Sometimes, however, he varies the cry, and asks very plainly: "Who are you? O who are you?" There was a loon on the Big Squattuk lake, where I camped one summer, which was full of inquisitiveness as a blue jay. He lived alone at one end of the lake, while his mate, with her brood of two, lived at the other end, nine miles away. Every morning and evening he came close to my camp-very much nearer than is usual, for loons are wild and shy in the wilderness-to cry out his challenge. Once, late at night, I flashed a lantern at the end of the old log that served as a landing for the canoes, where I had heard strange ripples; and there was Hukweem, examining everything with the greatest curiosity.

Every unusual thing in our doings made him inquisitive to know all about it. Once, when I started down the lake with a fair wind, and a small spruce set up in the bow of my canoe for a sail, he followed me four or five miles, calling all the way. And when I came back to camp at twilight with a big bear in the canoe, his shaggy head showing over the bow, and his legs up over the middle thwart, like a little old black man with his wrinkled feet on the table, Hukweem's curiosity could stand it no longer. He swam up within twenty yards, and circled the canoe half a dozen times, sitting up straight on his tail by a vigorous use of his wings, stretching his neck like an inquisitive duck, so as to look into the canoe and see what queer thing I had brought with me.

He had another curious habit which afforded him unending amusement. There was a deep bay on the west shore of the lake, with hills rising abruptly on three sides. The echo here was remarkable; a single shout brought a dozen distinct answers, and then a confusion of tongues as the echoes and re-echoes from many hills met and mingled. I discovered the place in an interesting way.

One evening at twilight, as I was returning to camp from exploring the upper lake, I heard a wild crying of loons on the west side. There seemed to be five or six of the great divers, all laughing and shrieking like so many lunatics. Pushing over to investigate, I noticed for the first time the entrance to a great bay, and paddled up cautiously behind a point, so as to surprise the loons at their game. For they play games, just as crows do. But when I looked in, there was only one bird, Hukweem the Inquisitive. I knew him instantly by his great size and beautiful markings. He would give a single sharp call, and listen intently, with head up, swinging from side to side as the separate echoes came ringing back from the hills. Then he would try his cackling laugh, Ooo-áh-ha-ha-ha-hoo, ooo-áh-ha-ha-ha-hoo, and as the echoes began to ring about his head he would get excited, sitting up on his tail, flapping his wings, cackling and shrieking with glee at his own performance. Every wild syllable was flung back like a shot from the surrounding hills, till the air seemed full of loons, all mingling their crazy cachinnations with the din of the chief performer. The uproar made one shiver. Then Hukweem would cease suddenly, listening intently to the warring echoes. Before the confusion was half ended he would get excited again, and swim about in small circles, spreading wings and tail, showing his fine feathers as if every echo were an admiring loon, pleased as a peacock with himself at having made such a noise in a quiet world.

There was another loon, a mother bird, on a different lake, whose two eggs had been carried off by a thieving muskrat; but she did not know who did it, for Musquash knows how to roll the eggs into water and carry them off, before eating, where the mother bird will not find the shells. She came swimming down to meet us the moment our canoe entered the lake; and what she seemed to cry was, "Where are they? O where are they?" She followed us across the lake, accusing us of robbery, and asking the same question over and over.

But whatever the meaning of Hukweem's crying, it seems to constitute a large part of his existence. Indeed, it is as a cry that he is chiefly known-the wild, unearthly cry of the wilderness night. His education for this begins very early. Once I was exploring the grassy shores of a wild lake when a mother loon appeared suddenly, out in the middle, with a great splashing and crying. I paddled out to see what was the matter. She withdrew with a great effort, apparently, as I approached, still crying loudly and beating the water with her wings. "Oho," I said, "you have a nest in there somewhere, and now you are trying to get me away from it." This was the only time I have ever known a loon to try that old mother bird's trick. Generally they slip off the nest while the canoe is yet half a mile away, and swim under water a long distance, and watch you silently from the other side of the lake.

I went back and hunted awhile for the nest among the bogs of a little bay; then left the search to investigate a strange call that sounded continuously farther up the shore. It came from some hidden spot in the tall grass, an eager little whistling cry, reminding me somehow of a nest of young fish-hawks.

As I waded cautiously among the bogs, trying to locate the sound, I came suddenly upon the loon's nest-just the bare top of a bog, where the mother bird had pulled up the grass and hollowed the earth enough to keep the eggs from rolling out. They were there on the bare ground, two very large olive eggs with dark blotches. I left them undisturbed and went on to investigate the crying, which had stopped a moment as I approached the nest.

Presently it began again behind me, faint at first, then louder and more eager, till I traced it back to Hukweem's household. But there was nothing here to account for it, only two innocent-looking eggs on top of a bog. I bent over to examine them more closely. There, on the sides, were two holes, and out of the holes projected the points of two tiny bills. Inside were two little loons, crying at the top of their lungs, "Let me out! O let me out! It's hot in here. Let me out-Oooo-eee! pip-pip-pip!"

But I left the work of release to the mother bird, thinking she knew more about it. Next day I went back to the place, and, after much watching, saw two little loons stealing in and out among the bogs, exulting in their freedom, but silent as two shadows. The mother bird was off on the lake, fishing for their dinner.

Hukweem's fishing is always an interesting thing to watch. Unfortunately he is so shy that one seldom gets a good opportunity. Once I found his favorite fishing ground, and came every day to watch him from a thicket on the shore. It was of little use to go in a canoe. At my approach he would sink deeper and deeper in the water, as if taking in ballast. How he does this is a mystery; for his body is much lighter than its bulk of water. Dead or alive, it floats like a cork; yet without any perceptible motion, by an effort of will apparently, he sinks it out of sight. You are approaching in your canoe, and he moves off slowly, swinging his head from side to side so as to look at you first with one eye, then with the other. Your canoe is swift; he sees that you are gaining, that you are already too near. He swings on the water, and sits watching you steadily. Suddenly he begins to sink, deeper and deeper, till his back is just awash. Go a little nearer, and now his body disappears; only his neck and head remain above water. Raise your hand, or make any quick motion, and he is gone altogether. He dives like a flash, swims deep and far, and when he comes to the surface will be well out of danger.

If you notice the direction of his bill as it enters the water, you can tell fairly well about where he will come up again. It was confusing at first, in chasing him, to find that he rarely came up where he was expected. I would paddle hard in the direction he was going, only to find him far to the right or left, or behind me, when at last he showed himself. That was because I followed his body, not his bill. Moving in one direction, he will turn his head and dive. That is to mislead you, if you are following him. Follow his bill, as he does himself, and you will be near him when he rises; for he rarely turns under water.

With two good men to paddle, it is not difficult to tire him out. Though he swims with extraordinary rapidity under water-fast enough to follow and catch a trout-a long deep dive tires him, and he must rest before another. If you are chasing him, shout and wave your hat the moment he appears, and paddle hard the way his bill points as he dives again. The next time he comes up you are nearer to him. Send him down again quick, and after him. The next time he is frightened to see the canoe so close, and dives deep, which tires him the more. So his disappearances become shorter and more confused; you follow him more surely because you can see him plainly now as he goes down. Suddenly he bursts out of water beside you, scattering the spray into your canoe. Once he came up under my paddle, and I plucked a feather from his back before he got away.

This last appearance always scares him out of his wits, and you get what you have been working hard for-a sight of Hukweem getting under way. Away he goes in a smother of spray, beating the water with his wings, kicking hard to lift himself up; and so for a hundred yards, leaving a wake like a stern-wheel steamer, till he gathers headway enough to rise from the water.

After that first start there is no sign of awkwardness. His short wings rise and fall with a rapidity that tries the eye to follow, like the rush of a coot down wind to decoys. You can hear the swift, strong beat of them, far over your head, when he is not calling. His flight is very rapid, very even, and often at enormous altitudes. But when he wants to come down he always gets frightened, thinking of his short wings, and how high he is, and how fast he is going. On the ocean, in winter, where he has all the room he wants, he sometimes comes down in a great incline, miles long, and plunges through and over a dozen waves, like a dolphin, before he can stop. But where the lake is small, and he cannot come down that way, he has a dizzy time of it.

Once, on a little lake in September, I used to watch for hours to get a sight of the process. Twelve or fifteen loons were gathered there, holding high carnival. They called down every migrating loon that passed that way; their numbers increased daily. Twilight was the favorite time for arriving. In the stillness I would hear Hukweem far away, so high that he was only a voice. Presently I would see him whirling over the lake in a great circle.-"Come down, O come down," cry all the loons. "I'm afraid, ooo-ho-ho-ho-ho-hoooo-eee, I'm afraid," says Hukweem, who is perhaps a little loon, all the way from Labrador on his first migration, and has never come down from a height before. "Come on, O come oh-ho-ho-ho-ho-hon. It won't hurt you; we did it; come on," cry all the loons.

Then Hukweem would slide lower with each circle, whirling round and round the lake in a great spiral, yelling all the time, and all the loons answering. When low enough, he would set his wings and plunge like a catapult at the very midst of the assembly, which scattered wildly, yelling like schoolboys-"Look out! he'll break his neck; he'll hit you; he'll break your back if he hits you."-So they splashed away in a desperate fright, each one looking back over his shoulder to see Hukweem come down, which he would do at a terrific pace, striking the water with a mighty splash, and shooting half across the lake in a smother of white, before he could get his legs under him and turn around. Then all the loons would gather round him, cackling, shrieking, laughing, with such a din

as the little loon never heard in his life before; and he would go off in the midst of them, telling them, no doubt, what a mighty thing it was to come down from so high and not break his neck.

A little later in the fall I saw those same loons do an astonishing thing. For several evenings they had been keeping up an unusual racket in a quiet bay, out of sight of my camp. I asked Simmo what he thought they were doing.-"O, I don' know, playin' game, I guess, jus' like one boy. Hukweem do dat sometime, wen he not hungry," said Simmo, going on with his bean-cooking. That excited my curiosity; but when I reached the bay it was too dark to see what they were playing.

One evening, when I was fishing at the inlet, the racket was different from any I had heard before. There would be an interval of perfect silence, broken suddenly by wild yelling; then the ordinary loon talk for a few minutes, and another silence, broken by a shriller outcry. That meant that something unusual was going on, so I left the trout, to find out about it.

When I pushed my canoe through the fringe of water-grass on the point nearest the loons, they were scattered in a long line, twelve or fifteen of them, extending from the head of the bay to a point nearly opposite me. At the other end of the line two loons were swimming about, doing something which I could not make out. Suddenly the loon talk ceased. There may have been a signal given, which I did not hear. Anyway, the two loons faced about at the same moment and came tearing down the line, using wings and feet to help in the race. The upper loons swung in behind them as they passed, so as to watch the finish better; but not a sound was heard till they passed my end of the line in a close, hard race, one scarcely a yard ahead of the other, when such a yelling began as I never heard before. All the loons gathered about the two swimmers; there was much cackling and crying, which grew gradually quieter; then they began to string out in another long line, and two more racers took their places at one end of it. By that time it was almost dark, and I broke up the race trying to get nearer in my canoe so as to watch things better. Twice since then I have heard from summer campers of their having seen loons racing across a lake. I have no doubt it is a frequent pastime with the birds when the summer cares for the young are ended, and autumn days are mellow, and fish are plenty, and there are long hours just for fun together, before Hukweem moves southward for the hard solitary winter life on the seacoast.

Of all the loons that cried out to me in the night, or shared the summer lakes with me, only one ever gave me the opportunity of watching at close quarters. It was on a very wild lake, so wild that no one had ever visited it before in summer, and a mother loon felt safe in leaving the open shore, where she generally nests, and placing her eggs on a bog at the head of a narrow bay. I found them there a day or two after my arrival.

I used to go at all hours of the day, hoping the mother would get used to me and my canoe, so that I could watch her later, teaching her little ones; but her wildness was unconquerable. Whenever I came in sight of the nest-bog, with only the loon's neck and head visible, standing up very straight and still in the grass, I would see her slip from the nest, steal away through the green cover to a deep place, and glide under water without leaving a ripple. Then, looking sharp over the side into the clear water, I would get a glimpse of her, just a gray streak with a string of silver bubbles, passing deep and swift under my canoe. So she went through the opening, and appeared far out in the lake, where she would swim back and forth, as if fishing, until I went away. As I never disturbed her nest, and always paddled away soon, she thought undoubtedly that she had fooled me, and that I knew nothing about her or her nest.

Then I tried another plan. I lay down in my canoe, and had Simmo paddle me up to the nest. While the loon was out on the lake, hidden by the grassy shore, I went and sat on a bog, with a friendly alder bending over me, within twenty feet of the nest, which was in plain sight. Then Simmo paddled away, and Hukweem came back without the slightest suspicion. As I had supposed, from the shape of the nest, she did not sit on her two eggs; she sat on the bog instead, and gathered them close to her side with her wing. That was all the brooding they had, or needed; for within a week there were two bright little loons to watch instead of the eggs.

After the first success I used to go alone and, while the mother bird was out on the lake, would pull my canoe up in the grass, a hundred yards or so below the nest. From here I entered the alders and made my way to the bog, where I could watch Hukweem at my leisure. After a long wait she would steal into the bay very shyly, and after much fear and circumspection glide up to the canoe. It took a great deal of looking and listening to convince her that it was harmless, and that I was not hiding near in the grass. Once convinced, however, she would come direct to the nest; and I had the satisfaction at last of watching a loon at close quarters.

She would sit there for hours-never sleeping apparently, for her eye was always bright-preening herself, turning her head slowly, so as to watch on all sides, snapping now and then at an obtrusive fly, all in utter unconsciousness that I was just behind her, watching every movement. Then, when I had enough, I would steal away along a caribou path, and push off quietly in my canoe without looking back. She saw me, of course, when I entered the canoe, but not once did she leave the nest. When I reached the open lake, a little searching with my glass always showed me her head there in the grass, still turned in my direction apprehensively.

I had hoped to see her let the little ones out of their hard shell, and see them first take the water; but that was too much to expect. One day I heard them whistling in the eggs; the next day, when I came, there was nothing to be seen on the nest-bog. I feared that something had heard their whistling and put an untimely end to the young Hukweems while mother bird was away. But when she came back, after a more fearful survey than usual of the old bark canoe, two downy little fellows came bobbing to meet her out of the grass, where she had hidden them and told them to stay till she came back.

It was a rare treat to watch them at their first feeding, the little ones all eagerness, bobbing about in the delight of eating and the wonder of the new great world, the mother all tenderness and watchfulness. Hukweem had never looked to me so noble before. This great wild mother bird, moving ceaselessly with marvelous grace about her little ones, watching their play with exquisite fondness, and watching the great dangerous world for their sakes, now chiding them gently, now drawing near to touch them with her strong bill, or to rub their little cheeks with hers, or just to croon over them in an ecstasy of that wonderful mother love which makes the summer wilderness beautiful,-in ten minutes she upset all my theories, and won me altogether, spite of what I had heard and seen of her destructiveness on the fishing grounds. After all, why should she not fish as well as I? And then began the first lessons in swimming and hiding and diving, which I had waited so long to see.

Later I saw her bring little fish, which she had slightly wounded, turn them loose in shallow water, and with a sharp cluck bring the young loons out of their hiding, to set them chasing and diving wildly for their own dinners. But before that happened there was almost a tragedy.

One day, while the mother was gone fishing, the little ones came out of their hiding among the grasses, and ventured out some distance into the bay. It was their first journey alone into the world; they were full of the wonder and importance of it. Suddenly, as I watched, they began to dart about wildly, moving with astonishing rapidity for such little fellows, and whistling loudly. From the bank above, a swift ripple had cut out into the water between them and the only bit of bog with which they were familiar. Just behind the ripple were the sharp nose and the beady eyes of Musquash, who is always in some mischief of this kind. In one of his prowlings he had discovered the little brood; now he was man?uvering craftily to keep the frightened youngsters moving till they should be tired out, while he himself crept carefully between them and the shore.

Musquash knows well that when a young loon, or a shelldrake, or a black duck, is caught in the open like that, he always tries to get back where his mother hid him when she went away. That is what the poor little fellows were trying to do now, only to be driven back and kept moving wildly by the muskrat, who lifted himself now and then from the water, and wiggled his ugly jaws in anticipation of the feast. He had missed the eggs in his search; but young loon would be better, and more of it.-"There you are!" he snapped viciously, lunging at the nearest loon, which flashed under water and barely escaped.

I had started up to interfere, for I had grown fond of the little wild things whose growth I had watched from the beginning, when a great splashing began on my left, and I saw the old mother bird coming like a fury. She was half swimming, half flying, tearing over the water at a great pace, a foamy white wake behind her.-"Now, you little villain, take your medicine. It's coming; it's coming," I cried excitedly, and dodged back to watch. But Musquash, intent on his evil doing (he has no need whatever to turn flesh-eater), kept on viciously after the exhausted little ones, paying no heed to his rear.

Twenty yards away the mother bird, to my great astonishment, flashed out of sight under water. What could it mean! But there was little time to wonder. Suddenly a catapult seemed to strike the muskrat from beneath and lift him clear from the water. With a tremendous rush and sputter Hukweem came out beneath him, her great pointed bill driven through to his spine. Little need of my help now. With another straight hard drive, this time at eye and brain, she flung him aside disdainfully and rushed to her shivering little ones, questioning, chiding, praising them, all in the same breath, fluttering and cackling low in an hysteric wave of tenderness. Then she swam twice around the dead muskrat and led her brood away from the place.

Perhaps it was to one of those same little ones that I owe a service for which I am more than grateful. It was in September, when I was at a lake ten miles away-the same lake into which a score of frolicking young loons gathered before moving south, and swam a race or two for my benefit. I was lost one day, hopelessly lost, in trying to make my way from a wild little lake where I had been fishing, to the large lake where my camp was. It was late afternoon. To avoid the long hard tramp down a river, up which I had come in the early morning, I attempted to cut across through unbroken forest without a compass. Traveling through a northern forest in summer is desperately hard work. The moss is ankle deep, the underbrush thick; fallen logs lie across each other in hopeless confusion, through and under and over which one must make his laborious way, stung and pestered by hordes of black flies and mosquitoes. So that, unless you have a strong instinct of direction, it is almost impossible to hold your course without a compass, or a bright sun, to guide you.

I had not gone half the distance before I was astray. The sun was long obscured, and a drizzling rain set in, without any direction whatever in it by the time it reached the underbrush where I was. I had begun to make a little shelter, intending to put in a cheerless night there, when I heard a cry, and looking up caught a glimpse of Hukweem speeding high over the tree-tops. Far down on my right came a faint answering cry, and I hastened in its direction, making an Indian compass of broken twigs as I went along. Hukweem was a young loon, and was long in coming down. The crying ahead grew louder. Stirred up from their day rest by his arrival, the other loons began their sport earlier than usual. The crying soon became almost continuous, and I followed it straight to the lake.

Once there, it was a simple matter to find the river and my old canoe waiting patiently under the alders in the gathering twilight. Soon I was afloat again, with a sense of unspeakable relief that only one can appreciate who has been lost and now hears the ripples sing under him, knowing that the cheerless woods lie behind, and that the camp-fire beckons beyond yonder point. The loons were hallooing far away, and I went over-this time in pure gratitude-to see them again. But my guide was modest and vanished post-haste into the mist the moment my canoe appeared.

Since then, whenever I hear Hukweem in the night, or hear others speak of his unearthly laughter, I think of that cry over the tree-tops, and the thrilling answer far away. And the sound has a ring to it, in my ears, that it never had before. Hukweem the Night Voice found me astray in the woods, and brought me safe to a snug camp.-That is a service which one does not forget in the wilderness.


Cheplahgan, chep-lah′-gan, the bald eagle.

Chigwoòltz, chig-wooltz′, the bullfrog.

Clóte Scarpe, a legendary hero, like Hiawatha, of the Northern Indians. Pronounced variously, Clote Scarpe, Groscap, Gluscap, etc.

Hukweem, huk-weem′, the great northern diver, or loon.

Ismaques, iss-ma-ques′, the fish-hawk.

Kagax, k?g′-?x, the weasel.

Killooleet, kil′-loo-leet, the white-throated sparrow.

Kookooskoos, koo-koo-skoos′, the great horned owl.

Lhoks, locks, the panther.

Malsun, m?l′-sun, the wolf.

Meeko, meek′-ō, the red squirrel.

Megaleep, meg′-a-leep, the caribou.

Milicete, mil′-?-cete, the name of an Indian tribe; written also Malicete.

Moktaques, mok-ta′-ques, the hare.

Mooween, moo-ween′, the black bear.

Nemox, n?m′-ox, the fisher.

Pekquam, pek-w?m′, the fisher.

Seksagadagee, sek′-sa-gā-da′-gee, the grouse.

Tookhees, t?k′-hees, the wood mouse.

Upweekis, up-week′-iss, the Canada lynx.

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