Sam Cook column: Close encounter in the wild
Sometimes, it’s hard to predict what wild critters will do.
BOUNDARY WATERS CANOE AREA WILDERNESS — Late on an October afternoon, we were getting weary. The four of us had paddled several miles and made a half-dozen portages on a wilderness river system north of Ely.
We were eager to make camp at a spot we knew and settle in for a few days of fishing and exploring. But the trumpeter swans put a hold on that.
We had come upon them as they were floating in a wide bay of the river, bathed in rich fall sunlight. We stopped paddling to watch them: two brilliant white adults and five smoky gray young, called cygnets. The young, now a few months old, were nearly as large as their parents.
Trumpeters are America’s largest waterfowl, with a 7-foot wingspan. (Pelicans are considered water birds, but not waterfowl.) Their deep and resonant calls sound like notes from a French horn.
We thought this group of swans might flush at our intrusion. We were wrong. Slowly, deliberately, the swans all began swimming directly toward our two canoes. We sat as still as possible, speaking only in whispers and finally not at all.
The swans kept coming until they were only a few feet away. The inquisitive young, almost as large as their parents, swam within a paddle length of where we sat in our canoes. The adults hovered just behind them, observing the encounter. None made a sound.
This inspection tour — or whatever it was — lasted a good 15 minutes. We sat in place, feeling privileged to be in the company of the swans.
Years ago, it was very rare to see or hear trumpeters in the canoe country. That has changed. While they are perhaps not as common as loons and ducks, their numbers seem to be increasing year to year. They often fly past our camps. We hear their deep, mellifluous calls echoing off the ridges. We see the birds feeding in shallow bays.
Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources began swan reintroduction efforts in 1966, and those efforts were expanded in the 1980s. The population has increased until now the birds nest throughout much of the state.
We couldn’t figure out why the trumpeters were so interested in us. Maybe they had become accustomed to seeing wilderness paddlers. Maybe, we thought, other paddlers had offered them food, though we hoped that wasn’t the case.
Eventually, the swans glided off to a small bay of the river and paid us no more attention. We were left with no clear explanation for our memorable encounter.
Some wilderness experiences, perhaps, are best with a touch of mystery in them.