DEDHAM, Maine — On a cold, rainy recent morning, Heidi Riggs and Harvey Chesley began their day the same way they often do: They sat down in the lodge at Camp Capella, where both work, enjoyed a cup of coffee, and chatted about the tasks they’d take on during the day.
Before long, their day took an unexpected turn, prompting the duo to team up with a game warden to rescue a loon that was struggling on Phillips Lake.
“There were two loons that were right out there,” Riggs said, pointing toward a mooring ball at a property that neighbors Camp Capella, which services people with disabilities. “We couldn’t tell, really, what the behavior was, but they were lifting their whole bodies out [of the water] and spreading their wings open wide and kind of thrashing about.”
Riggs, the camp’s director, and Chesley, who serves as the development and facilities director, weren’t immediately sure what the ruckus was all about.
“We didn’t know if they were mating or fighting,” Chesley said. “We said, ‘That’s a little odd.’”
After the scuffle ended, one loon moved away and circled warily, while the other remained next to the mooring ball.
“The lake was perfectly flat calm, like a mirror that day,” Riggs said. “So we were watching, and when the mooring ball turned, the loon went with it. I thought, ‘that doesn’t look normal.’”
Because there was no wind, Riggs and Chesley figured that the mooring ball must be moving because the loon was attached to the ball. They quickly called an expert for some help.
“I paddled out to look, and there was [the loon] just kind of laying there in the water,” Chesley said. “That’s when we called the game warden.”
Unfortunately, the warden, Shannon Fish, wasn’t nearby, and wasn’t going to get to the lake very quickly. Chesley said Fish then asked him a question he wasn’t expecting.
“Me?” Chesley said, repeating his answer. “You want me to go out there and get that loon?”
Chesley thought things over, and fearing for the loon’s well-being, decided to try his own rescue mission. He untangled the loon from the mooring rope, which had been looped around the bird’s wing. When Fish called back, Chesley gave a grim progress report.
“I said, ‘Well, I freed it, but I think there’s still something wrong with it,” Chesley said.
Riggs said she watched as Chesley returned to shore, and the loon floated slowly behind him, heading into shallow water.
When Fish arrived, he went down and surveyed the situation.
“He watched it for awhile, and it was just like it was out of ‘North Woods Law,’” Chesley said, describing the Animal Planet TV show that used to feature Maine Game Wardens. “He caught it, then he called me on the phone and said, ‘Get out here in a hurry. Bring a box. I’ve got it.”
In another parallel to a “North Woods Law” episode, Chesley hustled back to the lake carrying a plastic tote. Both he and Riggs said the remembered the episode of the show that featured Warden Kris MacCabe rescuing a loon by using a similar box.
With the loon in the tote, the group realized they had another problem to address: The loon had fishing line wrapped around its body.
“When I got there to help [Fish] with the tote, he said, ‘Use your left hand to cover its eyes and use your right hand to hold its head back,” Chesley said. “The thing thrashed a lot. It had probably 30 or 40 feet of [fishing line wrapped around it].”
The loon, as you might imagine, was not overly impressed with all of the attention.
“Once his eyes were covered so he couldn’t see, he was all right,” Riggs said. “But he was crying out, which was kind of heartbreaking. You hear the beautiful loon call out on the lake, but then to hear that sound coming and they’re in distress, it was different to do that.”
Chesley said seeing a loon up close was a new experience.
“It has a long beak on it,” he said. “It’s a beautiful and majestic animal when it’s out on the water, but it looks intimidating when you have to play with it, or deal with it, or hold it.”
Riggs and Chesley also said the loon was very strong as they tried to subdue it. After a half hour or so, Fish had removed all of the line. Then Fish called Avian Haven, a bird rehabilitation facility in Freedom, and arranged for the loon’s transport.
Riggs said Diane Winn, the executive director of Avian Haven has told her that the loon was a male, and that the initial battle was likely a territorial struggle. The loon had some puncture wounds in its leg, and is still recovering.
In an email update to Riggs sent on Tuesday, Winn said the loon still has progress it needs to make in order to live in the wild.
“The loon has shown a small amount of improved use of the left leg, especially when using the leg in a dive,” Winn wrote. “We’re trying to give him as much time as possible in our outdoor pond; his tendency to beach is still a concern, but we’re cautiously optimistic about released potential. We would not send him back to Phillips Lake, given the history of fighting with another loon there. Offshore is ‘neutral territory’ and he could make a living there without having to do much if any flying.”
Riggs said she’s glad that she and Chesley were having a cup of coffee and looking out at the water when the incident unfolded.
“It was kind of crazy. You never know what’s going to happen at camp,” she said. “It’s not in our job description [to save loons], but it felt good.”