The fifth grade class at Lincoln Elementary School in Chicago was very excited - too excited to sleep. They were now on a bus heading north to Minnesota. It would take them all night to get there. They were going on a weekend field trip to the great north woods to learn about the many animals living there.
As the bus rolled along the long dark highway, the children laughed, sang, told jokes and riddles, and very hungrily ate their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
And just before dawn, the bus finally stopped in front of a large wooden building surrounded by giant pine trees. The sign above the doorway read, ‘Loon Lake Ranger Station.’
As these children excitedly jumped off the old bus, a tall dark-skinned man in a green uniform walked out to greet them.
"Hi, kids! My name is Ranger Ben, and I'll be your guide for the next two days. My job here at Loon Lake is to protect all the animals living here. And, I hope to teach you about some of them."
"Have you lived here long?" asked Lucinda Larson.
"All of my life, Lucinda. And my people have lived here for hundreds of years. I'm part Ojibwa Indian. My grandfather taught me all about the many animals living here. You see, my ancestors respected these animals, studied them, and learned many things from them. They even named our families or clans after some of these animals. There's the wolf, bear, badger, turtle, and loon clans for example."
Just then, a very loud haunting cry echoed through the early morning air. It was really scary. It sounded like the cry of a spooky old ghost or goblin. The children all now quickly huddled closer together.
"Uh, what the heck was that, Ranger Ben?" asked Leroy Johnson rather nervously.
"Don't be afraid, Leroy. That's just one of our north wood animals. He's singing out a greeting to you. Come on! Let's go down to the lake to meet him."
The fifth grade class from Lincoln Elementary very nervously held hands and very timidly marched single file behind Ranger Ben as he led them down the rocky forested trail.
When they finally reached the lakeshore, Ranger Ben handed Bobbie Jenkins his binoculars and told him to look at two small objects bobbing up and down on the water in the middle of the lake.
"What do you see out there, Bobbie?" asked Ranger Ben.
"Why, I see two black and white ducks with bright red eyes out there!"
"Those aren't ducks, Bobbie. Those are loons. And they're quite different from ducks. In fact, loons are one of the oldest living birds on earth. They're related to prehistoric animals."
"Wow!" the children shouted in unison.
"My people call these loons ‘The Great Northern Divers.’ Loons can hold their breath for several minutes, and they can dive deep underwater to catch minnows and small perch. They love to eat fish!"
"Cool! How many babies do they have?" asked Betsy Parker.
"Good question, Betsy. In the spring, the female loon lays 1 or 2 eggs. Baby loons hatch from these eggs in about 30 days, and these babies learn to fly when they're about 12 weeks old."
"Look over there!" excitedly yelled Tommie Tucker, "Two baby loons are riding on their mother's back!"
"You're right, Tommie! Mother loons are very protective of their babies, and they often let them ride around the lake on their backs."
"Neat!" the children now chimed in unison.
"What about that real spooky noise we heard before?" asked Pearl Baxter, "did the loons do that?"
"Yes, Pearl. Loons love to call out and sing, and they have four different songs," explained Ranger Ben. "And, each of their four songs has a very unique purpose.
"The wail is a howl-like call and can be heard great distances across these lake waters. Wails help these loons find each other in the dark.
"The yodel is a male loon's call. He uses it to defend his territory on a lake from other male loons.
"The tremolo is a song both the male and the female loons sing to each other to defend their babies or to announce their presence to neighbor loons.
"Finally, the hoot is a call used between a pair of loons or between a parent loon and its babies."
"This is pretty neat stuff, Ranger Ben," said Marcus Phillips. "Anything else unusual about these loons?"
"Why, yes, Marcus. There are many old legends concerning these loons. Sit down in the grass and I'll tell you one.”
The children quickly formed a circle, sat down in the tall grass by the lakeshore, and Ranger Ben now began his story.
"Many people believe that these loons were around when a Great Flood covered the earth long, long ago."
"You mean the flood mentioned in the Bible when Noah built his Ark?" asked Eddie Taylor.
"It could be, Eddie. It could be. When the Great Flood came, many animals clung to logs or to other objects floating on the water. They were all crying, and they were all very scared because they thought they would drown.
"But luckily, a brave little loon knew just what to do. He soon dove deep underwater until he reached the deep dark bottom. Then he scooped up some dirt and mud into his long beak and brought it back to the surface. Then he dove back down and got some more. He worked day and night until he brought up enough dirt and mud from the bottom to form an island.
"And all the other animals soon saw this new island rising up out of the flood waters and quickly swam towards it. They were saved! They owed their lives to the brave little loon who knew just what to do."
"Wow!" yelled all the children in unison.
"Can you tell us another loon story now, Ranger Ben?" asked Joey Gerard.
"Let's get our tents set up first, eat dinner, and start a campfire," said Ranger Rick. “It gets dark awfully fast up here.”
"OK!" cried the children in unison.
After dinner, and after the sun began setting over Loon Lake, the fifth graders now all eagerly huddled around the crackling yellow campfire waiting for Ranger Ben to begin his favorite loon legend.
"Long, long ago, a little native girl walked deep into the vast green forest. She walked and walked for a very long time. Finally, she came upon a family of loons sitting by a pond. She stopped to play with them, and soon became their friend. They taught her many things, including a very special song.
"As the years went by, this little girl grew up to be a mother, and then a grandmother. One day, she was out in a canoe on the lake here with her two little grandchildren. Suddenly, a dark, dark fog and mist rolled in over the lake, and they couldn't see a thing. And the children were now getting very frightened.
“Their grandmother soon told them to lie down in the canoe, and to be very quiet. And now, she began singing a very strange song. Neither of the children had ever heard her sing it before.
“And when they finally looked up, their grandmother had now disappeared, and a really big loon was sitting in her place in the canoe!
"This loon now looked at them, spread its wings, and suddenly flew off. The children quickly paddled after it in the canoe. And this loon soon safely guided them back to their village.
“They never saw their grandmother again. She had now changed into a loon - forever. But they say that you can still hear her singing out on the lake every night. Just listen!"
Just then, very strange eerie calls, wails, and songs suddenly filled the night air. All the loons on the lake were singing again.
As the now very tired but very happy fifth graders crawled into their tents, listening to the strange but lovely loon lullabies out on the lake, they quickly began drifting off to sleep.
But suddenly, these loon songs stopped, and a much different type of song now filled the chilly, dark, north wood night air.
"Owwoooh! Owwoooh! Owwoooh!"
The children all quickly jumped up, and very nervously stuck their heads out of their tents.
"What the heck was that, Ranger Bob?" they all shouted in unison.
"Why that was the song of the timber wolf, children! He's the animal you'll be studying tomorrow. Now go to sleep, kids!"
As the children nervously crawled back into their tents, one of them was soon heard whispering, "I think I'd much rather learn more about the loons!"
Ranger Ben laughed out loud, before he and these fifth graders from the big city now fell fast asleep under the vast, star studded, northwood sky.
©2009, Mr. Ed