Silhouette of loon with chick at sunset

Loon Boy

By Yelizaveta P. Renfro 13th Annual Contest in Nonfiction Winner

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An encounter with a loon connects two spheres of life, American and Russian, and the choices that bring us into greater intimacy with the wild world.


We were rowing back across Tobin Harbor when we saw the loons.

By then, we had been two weeks on Isle Royale, the island national park in Lake Superior, and we had canoed in the harbor and seen loons at least half a dozen times. This was not even a pleasure row, but more of a commute. It was nearing dusk, and we were returning from our most strenuous day of hiking yet—a 16-mile trek—and we still had to row a mile across the harbor to reach our cabin.

Our day already burgeoned with sights—the moose we startled on the trail that snorted and pounded the ground in hasty retreat, the sandhill cranes that croaked their prehistoric cry over the slate blue waters of Lake Superior before taking flight—and I was grateful that the water was now placid, that we could easily weave our way among the small islands that dotted the harbor. I was done with day, ready to boil the kettle on the camp stove for ramen, then strap on a headlamp and read aloud from a worn 1944 paperback of Famous Ghost Stories with my 13-year-old son, who was my companion on this adventure. My thoughts were on putting the day away for good, tucking it into the past.

And it was then, when we rounded Glenns Island, that we suddenly came upon the loons: an adult in its striking and intricate black-and-white nuptial plumage being closely trailed by a fuzzy brownish-grey juvenile. Perhaps 15 feet from our canoe, they seemed unconcerned about our presence. We immediately stopped rowing.

The adult looked out across the water, away from us, and then it vocalized, calling out its long, haunting wail, as though crying its own name. Loooooooon. In the distance, we saw a speck on the water, another loon approaching. Loooooooon, it responded in the same plaintive register. The three loons—the two adults and the juvenile—joined up and floated together on the still surface of the water. And we kept watching.

When we had arrived on the island, the babies had been so small that they rode on their parents’ backs—from a distance, we sometimes spotted the downy tufts adorning the black-speckled backs of adults. We had always steered clear of the loons—as instructed by park rangers. But these loons didn’t seem to notice us. One of the rangers had told us that because the park was barely operational last year due to the pandemic—the commercial boats didn’t run all season—there were more loons than ever in Tobin Harbor. Even though people had returned this year, the loons seemed unfazed. Perhaps two people in a canoe was barely worth their notice. With motorized boats on the water and the seaplanes roaring in multiple times a day overhead—their summer home becoming a runway, or the runway being their home—maybe the loons were inured to us, the quiet, unmotorized version of human. Still, we didn’t want to start rowing again, startling them, breaking the stillness.

And then suddenly, without perceptible communication, both of the adults dived underwater, and the scrappy little chick was left floating by itself on the surface. We watched it bobbing there in the adults’ wake. My son spoke quietly.

“Do you think it wonders where its parents went?”


On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth when he was flung into space inside a metal sphere. His single orbit lasted 108 minutes. This happened before I was born—as indeed had all of the 1960s space race—yet people still argued over who had won. The Russians had the first man in space. Okay, granted, but the Americans put the first man on the moon. I had heard these arguments countless times in my childhood, but to me, it didn’t matter. With a Russian mother and American father, with a Soviet passport and an American address, I got to win the space race either way.

I pictured him plunging into space, that miraculous dive into the unknown. The son of a carpenter, of peasant stock, he actually rode a rocketship into space—the stuff of science fiction. With a name that was easy to pronounce and transliterate, with his broad boyish grin, he was a ready-made hero of the people. How could you not love him—with his affable nature, that smile that could melt hearts all over the world. He smiled more than any Russian I have ever known. “I have never seen such a smile anywhere,” remarked the daughter of Pavel Popovich, one of Gagarin’s fellow cosmonauts. “Direct, like the sun. Like a light bulb. Everything around it lit up.”

Even his backup—the man he was selected over—the intellectual, Pushkin-quoting Gherman Titov, recognized his lovable nature. “I’m not lovable,” Titov said in one of the last interviews before his death. “I’m telling you, they were right to choose Yura.” Though he would be the second cosmonaut in space, though he would orbit the earth 17 times and be the first human being to spend over a day in space, how many people, aside from historians and space race aficionados, know Titov’s name now? He understood that Gagarin, the lovable boy-cosmonaut, would always outshine him. Gagarin was picked because he was so wonderfully himself. We had to love the man we were lobbing into orbit. This was important, in case he survived, actually returned alive. In case we had to revere him forever as a hero. By some accounts, his chance at succeeding was just 46 percent. Meanwhile, NASA kept Alan Shepard on the ground because the chance of his success was calculated at only 98 percent. That was one reason the Russians got a man up first: a greater tolerance for risk.

The spring Gagarin made his flight, my mother was 15 years old, living in Kuybyshev, an industrial city on the Volga River. The ice was just breaking up on the river during the spring thaw. That day, she was rehearsing with her school choir when the news came: a Soviet cosmonaut had gone into space. The students were dismissed, given the rest of the day off in celebration. Instead of going home, my mother and her friend Lyuda made their way to the Volga where they watched the ice floes. Suddenly, the ice they were standing on broke away, and they began to be swept out into the frigid river. At that moment, out of nowhere, their classmate Volodya Migunov appeared and rescued them, somehow wrenching them back onto the beach. My mother doesn’t know how he managed to save the both of them, but he did—and then he vanished. They were not lost to the icy torrents after all. Gagarin had gone into space, and they were still alive.

My father, 18 years old, was finishing his first year of college in his native southern California. The flight left little lasting impression on him. He had yet to discover his deep passion for Slavic languages, which would eventually lead him to graduate school, to Russia, to my mother. On that April day, they were still over a dozen years from knowing one another.

It seemed apropos of nothing that I had started thinking about Gagarin while serving as artist-in-residence on a remote island park in Lake Superior, 60 years and three months after his flight. But nothing is ever apropos of nothing. Wasn’t it odd, I thought, how I had started thinking of him here, of all places? Wasn’t it strange how the mind works? I tried to figure out a connection but could find none. Perhaps it was just that I’d been looking at the nighttime sky, blazing with more stars than I’d seen in years. But this felt inaccurate, or at least incomplete. And I was cut off from the internet, with no phone service, no Google. Not that Google would be able to offer a satisfying answer to my pressing question: Google, why am I thinking about Yuri Gagarin on Isle Royale? There are many things Google doesn’t know.

There is a category of word that lives in my mind in two separate rooms, the English room and the Russian room, and the door between them has remained shut.


As we drifted in the canoe, I thought about the book I was reading in our cabin: Call of the Loon by Paul Strong. The loons’ wail, which he describes as “a long, drawn-out call that sounds like the howl of a wolf,” is used to bring two loons that are far apart closer together. A mated pair often speaks to one another this way, as we had just witnessed. Unlike most birds, loons have solid bones, making them heavy enough to dive 200 feet, but their weight makes takeoff a challenge. Strong describes the loon as a “feathered fish” that is “sometimes more finny than feathery,” living on the “razor’s edge” between life in the water and life in the sky.

Worried that our presence was what prompted the loons to dive, my son suggested that we gently row away from the chick, to give it space. A short distance out, we stopped and drifted, watching, waiting for the loons to surface. The chick bobbed on our small waves.

“What if they don’t come back?” my son asked.

“Do you remember the first time you went hiking?” I said, and then I told him the story. He was just two, and we were visiting my parents in Southern California, in the neighborhood where I grew up. Trailheads to the Box Springs Mountains are accessible a half a mile from my parents’ house in a 1950s subdivision. On a foggy day, my brother and I took him on an easy trail on a low hill. At first, we all walked together, but I grew impatient at the pace and went ahead, disappearing into the fog. Suddenly my son started calling for me with such despair that I understood he thought we were separated forever. His uncle picked him up to carry him, but he was inconsolable. “Mooooom! Moooooooom!” he wailed mournfully, though I was just 20 feet away. Of course, I circled back and returned to him.

As I came to the end of my story, the loons still had not surfaced. And then another loon, far up the harbor, sounded its tremolo, that maniacal laugh that is as famous as the wail. One of my guidebooks suggested that I would hear the “eerie, demented laugh” so incessantly that I had imagined the voice of a lunatic perpetually cackling just outside my cabin window. But the actual tremolos we had heard were distant and far between, the vocalization subtler, more expressive. Strong writes that the tremolo is a call of alarm, given when a loon is disturbed or threatened. By now, I had heard the call a number of times, echoing through the harbor.

But this time, I heard something new in the tremolo. The loon seemed to be speaking a word I could almost, just barely, understand. I felt a glimmer—an awakening of something I had once known. I knew I knew something, but I didn’t know what it was.


Many Russian last names are formed from common nouns. For example, Yablokov comes from yabloko, apple; Lebedev from lebed’, swan; Komarov from komar, mosquito; Kamenev from kamen’, stone; Morozov from moroz, frost. My mother’s maiden name, Stulova, comes from the word stul, or chair. In almost all cases, I knew the name of the common noun before I ever encountered the surname. So when I see Lebedev, I think swan-man, and Yablokov is apple-man, and Medvedev, bear-man.

Occasionally, though, I learned a surname before I ever learned the noun from which it is derived, and nowhere is that truer than in the name Gagarin. I had known his name for as long as I can remember. It meant cosmonaut, space-man. It meant national hero, space race triumph. It meant Soviet might. By the time I got here, Gagarin was already reduced—transformed—into a series of statues and hard-lined steel monuments soaring upward, images on postage stamps and coins. By the time I got here, his heroism, his sanctity, was galvanized by his being dead. His 34 years of life had blazed and burnt out. He had been lost, finally, to aviation—not in space, but in a routine training flight on a more ordinary aircraft. He left behind a wife and two young daughters. One day, their father dove back into the sky and didn’t successfully resurface. One day there was no safe return.


There is a category of word that lives in my mind in two separate rooms, the English room and the Russian room, and the door between them has remained shut. Common objects—a spoon, for example—always lived in my head in both languages simultaneously, the door between thrown wide open. Spoon and lozhka. I knew all the common animals, domestic and barnyard: dog and sobaka, cow and korova. I knew the exotic zoo animals: elephant and slon, rhinoceros and nosorog. But that category of flora and fauna that lived out in the world, distant from me, that was neither domestic nor exotic, that was part of the landscape, part of the wild—the trees and plants, the fish and birds—is where the partition was, where the words didn’t connect.

Part of this was the effect of geography—two radically different places, one Old World and one New, would not be home to all the same flora and fauna. But perhaps more than this, these were species that could be encountered by spending time in the outdoors or pursuing field guides or natural history books, which were not the kind of books my parents read or collected. Of course, I amassed a great many tree names: maple, oak, poplar, pine, fir, and so on. And the same was true in Russian: doob, klyon, el’, lipa. But most of these lived in their separate rooms. Only as an adult, only with intentional effort, did I open some of the doors: klyon is maple, el’ is spruce. I taught myself that grachi are rooks, that lastochki are swallows.

Another part of the problem is lack of exposure. Prior to coming to Isle Royale, I had never to my knowledge seen a living loon to which my concept of loon could adhere. A loon, until then, was just a ghostly avian abstraction. I did not hail from northern lake country. And yet I had known of loons, perhaps due to their “cult status,” as Strong describes it, that began in the 1970s when “the loon gained status as a symbol of wild, unspoiled things.” Loons appear on shirts, bumper stickers, wall art, furniture, and jewelry. And their vocalizations are popular Hollywood sound effects, appearing in countless films and TV shows. The 1981 film On Golden Pond, which I had watched as a child, prominently features loons and their distinctive calls. “Whenever a producer wants to say you’re far from civilization (or help), in goes the wail,” writes Minnesota writer Frank Bures. 

Though I had come to associate the English word loon with its wail—the long, haunting cry of a bird speaking its own name—the word is not in fact onomatopoeic. Rather, it derives from a Scandinavian word meaning clumsy for the way the bird lumbers on land. Its association with insanity, according to Hartford Courant language columnist Rob Kyff, is coincidental: “What’s fascinating is that the ‘loon’ meaning a mentally unbalanced person, while originally derived from the Middle English ‘loun,’ has been seriously amped up in its ‘crazy’ meaning by two other linguistic power sources: ‘lunatic’ (an insane person) and ‘loon’ (a slightly unhinged bird).”

In Britain, the bird is called the great northern diver, and the French word also refers to the bird’s diving ability. Indigenous peoples in North America called the birds too-lik, hakweem, kwee-moo, and mahng (which means “brave-hearted one”). In every language, the word for loon refers to only one facet of who they are. And not all loons are the same. There are five living species of loon within the genus Gavia; the common loon of North America is distinct from Eurasian species. I am not intending to conflate all loons. And yet, perhaps I am.

Because here is the incredible claim I have been building towards: that evening when we were sitting in the canoe and I heard that loon cackling out its tremolo far up the harbor, it spoke to me in Russian. These two birds—the one who wailed its doleful loooooooon over the water, and the one now sounding out its ululating laugh—suddenly coalesced and became one in my mind. I remembered a faint echo of a fact I once knew: that gagara is a noun that means diving bird. Suddenly, a door flew open, the fresh-faced smiling cosmonaut transforming into a diving bird, a loon boy. In that moment, I understood that gagara must mean loon, or loon must mean gagara—they had the same referent. Through some backdoor of my mind, my thoughts led me here: I had been thinking about Gagarin since my arrival on the island because the first time I heard a loon’s tremolo, I heard it speaking its Russian name. Gagara.

It’s a fairytale ending: a man falling from the sky, making that plunge back to Earth—a kind of reverse surfacing, a return to life, to air, to breath.


A five-year-old girl was planting potatoes in a field with her grandmother when she saw something orange and beautiful descending from the sky. Her grandmother grew frightened and grabbed the girl’s hand, intending to rush back to the house, but by then the apparition was coming across the field and speaking. The girl said, “Grandma, stop. Listen. He’s speaking Russian. He’s probably human.”

It’s a fairytale ending: a man falling from the sky, making that plunge back to Earth—a kind of reverse surfacing, a return to life, to air, to breath. I imagine the girl and her dumbfounded grandmother. The logical conclusion that someone who speaks Russian must be human—or someone who is human must speak Russian—is both naive and astute. For strange things had recently fallen from the sky: capsules containing space dogs, a shot-down American spy, and even a mannequin named Ivan Ivanovich, who made two flights with a whole cabinet of curiosities packed into his chest cavity, thighs, spacesuit, and in the capsule around him: 40 white mice, 40 black mice, guinea pigs, reptiles, plant seeds, human blood samples, cancer cells, bacteria, fermentation samples, and a dog companion. Not that the girl or her grandmother would likely know any of this.

“Where are you from?” asked the astonished grandmother. “How did you get here?”

“On a ship,” the man replied.

“There’s no water near here,” the grandmother said. “What ship?”

“I came from the sky,” said Gagarin.

Rita Nurskanova described this scene to a BBC reporter for a story that aired in April 2021, 60 years after she became the first person to greet Gagarin back to Earth when he parachuted out of his capsule. She was that five-year-old girl, helping her grandmother in a potato field in the Saratov region, not far from where my mother would attend university in just over a year.  

When asked by the reporter if she remembered anything about the spaceman who suddenly appeared in front of her, Nurskanova said, “His smile, of course. His smile.”


Three days after our loon encounter, we would leave Isle Royale, embarking on the six-hour boat ride aboard Ranger III to Houghton, Michigan. A couple of hours into the trip, the other passengers, one by one, abandoned their card games and conversations, powered on their phones, and fell silent as they scrolled through the avalanche of messages awaiting them. We were back within range of cell service. I held out as long as I could—I’d been without internet for nearly three weeks, and I didn’t miss it—but then I gave in, turned on my phone, and asked it my question: are a loon and gagara indeed the same bird? They are, Google confirmed. I also learned that etymologically, the word gagara is onomatopoeic. A related verb, gogotat’, often applied to geese, means “to cackle.” The loon did speak to me.

I looked over at my boy, engrossed in reading a tattered sixty-year-old mass market paperback edition of Mark Twain’s complete stories that he pilfered from the cabin for the long ride back. I thought about telling him my loon news, but it could wait. One day, we will be floating in a canoe or ascending a peak or pitching a tent, and I will tell him the story of seeing the loons in Tobin Harbor when he was 13.


Of course, I can’t leave those loons underwater. I have to return to Tobin Harbor, to the canoe, to our expectant wait. I have to return the chick to its parents—or the parents to their chick. It was as though we’d been holding our breath ever since the loons dived under—only of course we hadn’t, since loons can stay underwater for five minutes. What if they don’t come back? My son’s question echoed in my mind. And then, 20 feet away, one of the adults broke the surface, making reentry, and the chick sailed confidently in its direction. Farther away, the second adult surfaced, and the family reunited and headed away from us into the harbor.

We started rowing towards our dock.

Some nights on the island, I had gone out after dark, after my son was asleep, and looked up at the night sky and thought about a cosmonaut in space, not yet understanding why, not yet knowing that it was a bird that had spoken his name to me. Two nights prior, I had awoken my son at two in the morning, to climb out on the rocks of Scoville Point and look at the stars, the fine powder of the Milky Way, to feel small and human under a night sky, to imagine what it might be like to streak across the cosmos inside a metal ball, wondering if you will return whole, or at all. I wanted him to see the sky with me, but he was too sleepy to care, wanting only his bed. I had pictured him remembering this moment under the stars his entire life, even as an old man, decades after I was gone, but perhaps that isn’t the memory that will stay with him. Perhaps it will be the loons on the still water of Tobin Harbor. Perhaps it will be that tiny pocket of time—the span it takes a loon to dive and then to resurface, to tell a story, to hear a bird speak. Who is to say what will be remembered, what will be forgotten, what doors of memory will remain closed or will be thrown open? Who is to say what is more miraculous—that initial plunge, or the safe return?



Judge Janisse Ray says...
“One small incident, that of seeing a family of loons at evening on Isle Royale, inspires this author to gather many threads and weave them together in a deftly written essay that on the surface is about loons, but more deeply about two histories, Russian and American. A tiny fear, that loon parents will not return to a chick, becomes the point for many counterpoints, many ways that we fling ourselves into voids, including space, how we are almost lost, how we are saved. The author’s epiphany is small, a personal connection to a bird via history, but one that is made monumental and magical by layers of connections. One of these layers is the tension of enemies—Do the Russians reach space first or do the Americans? Another layer is a rumination on parenthood, love and loss, and the changes that come to all of us, inevitably, and here the author skirts the edge of danger without being heavy-handed. Too, this lovely essay becomes a movement between folk traditions and science, as well as an exploration of language as the author plies the limitations of words and the possibilities of words. Fairytale-like in its execution, metaphorically subtle, this work is about an encounter with a bird that connects two spheres of life and the choices that bring us into greater intimacy with the wild world. Generous and powerful, “Loon Boy” will stay with you and lend to your own encounters a mythic pulse.”


Yelizaveta P. RenfroYelizaveta P. Renfro is the author of a collection of essays, Xylotheque, and a collection of short stories, A Catalogue of Everything in the World. Her work has appeared in North American Review, Creative Nonfiction, Orion, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Witness, Reader’s Digest, and elsewhere. She’s served as artist-in-residence at Denali National Park and Preserve, Isle Royale National Park, and Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.

Read other essays by Yelizaveta P. Renfro appearing in “The Twentieth Bear” and “Woods in Winter”.

Read Yelizaveta P. Renfro’s Letter to America in Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy, published by and Trinity University Press.

Header photo by Agnieszka Bacal, courtesy Shutterstock. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.