How I mistook a humpback whale for a loon

July 17, 2011

From the time I first arrived in British Columbia until my return home from the trip, my sense of proportion was out of whack.  Trees in B.C. are huge.  Everyone knows that.  The fish are huge.  That’s good.  But blackberry stems are as wide across as my thumb, and the thorns would tear you apart if you tried to push through them.

The Fraser River is an immense, roaring engine tearing its way through the heart of the province.

Even small local mountains have snow on them in late June.  As far north as the Haida Gwaii it didn’t get dark until 11:00, and it was bright enough to read by 4:00 a.m.

The mouth of Naden Harbour lay just to the north of the Queen Charlotte Lodge – a run of a bit over five miles.  The fishing spots were five to seven miles further along the coast.  That amounted to at least twenty-five miles of ocean swells to leap over just to go fishing and get back to base afterward.  No wonder a fishing trip usually took 11 hours.

As a lifelong boater I have an interest in all floating vessels.  I asked our guide how long the tugboat where we had lunch was, 65 feet?  “Uh, the Driftwood is 135 feet.”  Ulp.  Are my perceptions that far off that I underestimated the size of a large boat by half?

Then came the group of humpback whales a mile or two out to sea from our fishing position.  I was delighted to see them, more than anything so that I could cross another line off my bucket list.

But then I lay myself open to no end of ridicule from my boat-mates when I looked over the stern and yelped, “Hey, there’s a loon!”

Brian immediately turned to look, as loons are unheard of in the North Pacific.  He let out a hoot.  Apparently my “loon” was some part of a humpback whale, seen from over a mile away.

Well somehow the thing configured its tail or its flukes to imitate the v-form of a loon’s wings when it raises them from the water to warn off a fisherman or another bird.  It’s a familiar, characteristic loon move, and I thought I saw it in that glimpse of the water at the stern of our boat.

Brian was a bit relentless in his teasing about my loon, and I mentioned this embarrassing incident to Roz. She thought about it for a bit and then sent me a copy of an Edgar Allan Poe story she remembered reading as a kid: “The Sphinx.”  In it the narrator, a nervous, superstitious fellow, becomes convinced he is seeing a monster running up and down the mountain as he gazes through the window of the house where he is a guest.  He sees it as an omen of his impending death.

Eventually his host gets wind of this apparition, asks probing questions, then locates a description of the monster in a book.  He explains gently to his guest that he has been observing, not a 75-foot monster dwarfing the trees on the neighbouring mountain, but a tiny spider spinning a web on the window pane at the tip of his nose.

Perspective is everything, and mine didn’t recover from the shock of British Columbia until I had caught and released several dozen largemouth bass on Newboro Lake.

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