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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Silent Summer

The Voice of the Wilderness Fades Away

By Farwell Forrest

August 28, 2001

Judging from the pages of the outdoor catalogs, the common loon is second only to the gray wolf as a symbol of North America's northern wilderness. It's easy to see why. The loon is a mighty impressive bird. When one was brought to eighteenth-century British naturalist Gilbert White, he described it as "incomparably adapted to its mode of life," and he was right. The loon is a diver—an underwater fish-hunter—and, as White himself wrote, "every part and proportion" of the bird is adapted to this end:

The head is sharp, and smaller than the part of the neck adjoining, in order that it may pierce the water; the wings are placed forward and out of the center of gravity…; the thighs quite at the podex [rump], in order to facilitate diving; and the legs are flat, and as sharp backwards almost as the edge of a knife, that in striking they may easily cut the water; while the feet are palmated and broad for swimming, yet so folded up when advanced forward to take a fresh stroke, as to be full as narrow as the shank.

In fact, so obvious is the loon's adaptation to its way of life, that it's known as the great northern diver in Europe. Since "common loons" are neither common nor loony, this seems to be the better name by far.

Still, it's easy to see how the loon got its name. Even if folks visiting canoe country never see one of these big birds in the distance, most will hear its call. Usually described as "haunting" or "chilling," the loon's cry is unmistakable. One writer describes it as "the voice of the wilderness." Often heard by night, echoing from some far-off pond or bay, the call is varied and complex. Sometimes it's simply a prolonged wail. At other times, it's a tremulous, vibrato "laugh," and on still other occasions, an ululating yodel. Each call conveys a specific meaning. In wailing, a loon resembles an anxious mother, searching for a missing child. "Where are you?" the loon cries, and then she pauses, hoping to hear a reply. The yodel, by contrast, is a sort of business card—or challenge, come to that. "Here I am!" a yodeling loon says. "This is my place!" But it's the tremolo that gets the most attention. Frequently likened to maniacal laughter, it's both a shout of alarm and a warning of danger. "Look out! Look out!" it cries. "Danger! Danger!"

Nowadays, on many busy northern waters, the tremolo's the call that's heard most often. Jet-skis, water-ski tow-boats, even over-curious canoeists and kayakers—all of these disturb loons, driving them from their nests and interrupting their feeding. Again and again, their frantic, humorless laughter echoes over the water: "Danger! Danger!" Their cry rings out, to be taken up and passed on from one body of water to the next, spreading like a ripple in a disturbed pool, and continuing long after the original threat has passed.

During all this time, the essential business of feeding and raising young is set aside. The effects aren't hard to guess. In many places, loons are failing to raise healthy chicks. Sometimes the adults themselves die, succumbing to exhaustion, illness, or perhaps—who can really know?—despair.

As bad as this is, though, it's not the only bad news. More and more often, along a great swathe of North America from New York's Adirondacks to the Maritime Provinces of Canada, loons are weakening and dying even on undisturbed, protected waters. Once superb aquatic hunters, they now dive fruitlessly, surfacing again and again with empty beaks. They starve to death in waters teeming with fish.

Or, having incubated a brace of eggs successfully, apparently-healthy parents then "forget" to feed their newly-hatched young, or feed them only insects, newts, and the like, rather than the fish that the chicks must have if they are to survive. The result is as predictable as it is disheartening. Instead of growing bigger and stronger with every passing day, the chicks slowly waste away and die.

What's going wrong? The answer's almost certainly not a simple one, but it now looks as if the most important clue can be found in a rather unlikely place: an industrial city on the island of Kyushu, Japan. That city's name? Minamata.

Minamata is a coastal town and a seaport. Local fish and shellfish have long found their way into the city's markets, and from there onto the tables of city residents. In the lean years immediately following the Second World War, there was very little food in Japanese households, and pet food was almost unknown. So Minamata's cats ate table scraps. More often than not, those scraps were bits of fish.

All was well at first. Japan and Minamata began the long struggle back to normalcy after the nightmare of war. Then, in the early 1950s, Minamata's cats suddenly began to act strangely. Once swift and graceful, they began to stagger. Their limbs shook. They lurched uncontrollably from side to side, tripping themselves up and bumping into things. And their keen eyes dimmed, too. Cats that once delighted in batting dangled toys about—a small ball on a string, say, or a roughly-tied wad of cloth—now lost all interest in them, unable to follow the motions of the swinging baubles. Some cats even had trouble finding their food when it was placed in front of them.

Clearly something was going badly wrong. Suspicion initially fell on infectious encephalitis, but none could be demonstrated, and chemical poisoning seemed the next most likely culprit. Then the first human cases appeared. As had been the case with Minamata's cats, people now found that their limbs were no longer obedient servants to their will. Their legs trembled. They stumbled and fell. Worse yet, their field of vision darkened and shrank. In time, the world seen through their eyes collapsed to a single, dimly-lit pin-hole.

There was still worse to come. Newborn children—even some born to apparently healthy women—mysteriously failed to thrive. Their arms and legs moved in jerky, uncoordinated rhythms. They learned slowly. No treatment proved of any use. The effects of what was now being called "Minamata disease" were apparently irreversible. Medicine could offer no cure, only palliative care.

The search for the cause continued, and twelve years after the first cases were identified, a villain was named. It was methylmercury, a biologically-active form of the familiar silvery metal. Minamata disease was methylmercury poisoning. But where had the methylmercury come from? That question was more easily answered. An industrial plant discharged its wastewater into Minamata Bay. The wastewater contained both methylmercury and metallic mercury. Bacteria in the bay's sediments then converted the metallic mercury into still more methylmercury, adding to the bay's toxic burden. Over time, as myriads of bottom-feeding organisms were themselves eaten, methylmercury moved steadily up the food-chain, ultimately contaminating the flesh of the fish and shellfish that made up such a large part of the local diet. And the more fish that people (or cats) ate, the more of the poisonous methylmercury they ingested.

In 1966, the discharge of methylmercury into Minamata Bay was stopped, but by that time thousands of men, women and children had suffered irreversible brain damage. Thanks to good nursing and the care lavished on them by loving families, many are still alive today.

By now, you're probably wondering what connection can possibly exist between the tragedy of Minamata and the troubles of North America's loons. Surely there aren't any industrial plants dumping mercury into American lakes, are there? Well, sadly, that's not quite true, though the story's a little more complicated than was the case in Minamata. Coal-fired power-generating plants in the Midwest discharge large quantities of mercury into the air. The EPA estimates that some 40 tons go up in smoke every year in the United States alone. And what goes up must come down, washed out of the sky by rain. It's one result of the hydrologic cycle, but this time the rain does more than replenish lakes and rivers. Each storm that breaks over the northeastern United States and Canada drops mercury on both land and water.

Nor is this the end of the tale. The same power-generating plants that send mercury up their stacks also belch forth great quantities of sulfur oxides. When these wash out of the clouds over the Northeast, they fall as "acid rain." Since mercury is a common trace element in much of the country rock in eastern North America, and since acid rain leaches this mercury out of the rock, washing it away into the nearest body of water or aquifer, even the scenery in canoe country adds to the toxic assault on eastern lakes and ponds.

I'm sure I don't have to spell the rest out. The same bacteria that converted mercury to methylmercury in Minamata Bay are at work throughout the northeastern United States and Canada, busily transmuting inorganic mercury from midwestern power-generating plants into a biologically-active form. Once that process is complete, the methylmercury moves up the food-chain and into the fish—and these fish are then eaten by loons.

Loons are fish-hunters. They depend on sharp eyes and powerful, well-coordinated muscles for their survival. If a loon's vision dims or if her muscles cease to obey the commands of her brain, she and her chicks will starve. This is already happening throughout the Northeast. Mercury has been found in the livers of more than three-quarters of the loons autopsied by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in recent years. To the east, in Maine's inland waters, loon chicks are now regularly starving to death, despite their parents' best efforts to feed them. Still farther east, in the Canadian Maritime Provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, loons have for all intents and purposes stopped reproducing. When the last of the current generation dies, the summer waters of the Maritimes will be silent, their stillness broken only by the rumble and chirp of frogs and the whine of jet-skis.

This need not have happened, of course. Federal rules to curtail power-plant emissions have been in the air for some time, but action has been repeatedly postponed. Regulations are currently scheduled to take effect in three years' time. Will this be enough, or—in the present era of smaller government at any price—will the new regulations even be enforced? I don't know.

There's one more thing to bear in mind. Remember Minamata's cats? They were the first victims of methylmercury poisoning, but they certainly weren't the last. So the next time you hear a far-off loon's tremolo call echoing over the water—"Look out! Danger! Danger!"—pay close attention. Not only could it be the last chance you'll ever get to hear this voice of the wilderness, but it's just possible that the loon is talking to you. Perhaps he's trying to tell all of us something, in fact. And maybe it's time we started listening.

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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