Members of the Anchorage Rowing Association can put away the scissors and knives now. For the better part of a week, rowers carried the sharp implements while keeping watch for an entangled Great Northern Loon on Sand Lake.
A week ago, members of the rowing group first spotted a loon with fishing line tangled around its neck. The bird was clearly in distress, with clumps of line hanging off its side and a hook piercing its beak. The tangled mess of fishing gear prevented the bird from closing its beak, eating, or diving for more than a few seconds.
Luckily, the loon was on a lake frequently used by rowers to prepare for the World Masters Rowing Championships in Turin, Italy.
“We saw him on Tuesday, and tried to get to him, but every time we got near, he would dive away from us and resurface farther out in the lake,” said Marietta Hall, a rower and founder of the association.
The rowers are a tight-knit group of motivated athletes that frequently train twice a day at Sand Lake. They began carrying scissors and knives while training and made many attempts to get close to the distressed loon. After too many failures to count, they called Fish and Game for help.
“They said that there was very little anyone could do for the loon because by the time it was weak enough to get close to, it would probably be too far gone to survive,” Hall said.
They kept trying anyway.
On July 5, as a crew of rowers finished their training, Hall and her husband tooled around the lake on a two person rowing shell -- those slick, low-to-the-water boats used by colleges and Olympians.
They heard a constant call from a healthy loon near the east side of the lake and went to check it out. That’s when they saw the injured bird, lying on its side, its beak buried in the dirt onshore.
“We rowed up to a nearby dock, and I got out as my husband held the boat,” Hall said.
“I could see the loon was very weak, so I walked up to it very slowly, and he barely moved,” Hall said.
She took out her scissors and leaned over.
“I reached out as far as I could and was able to snip the line that was tangled around its neck, freeing its beak,” said Hall.
After that, Hall said, the loon started snapping its beak, as if trying to make sure he could actually close it again.
But the hook and a big snarl of fishing line were still hanging off the animal, so Hall leaned in toward the bird again.
“That’s when I thought to myself, ‘Hey, this thing is a lot bigger than I ever thought,’ and I wondered if it was going to bite me,” she said.
Great Northern Loons are among the largest loons in Alaska with adults weighing as much as 17 pounds having wingspans of up to five feet. Their beaks are razor sharp -- great for catching small fish like fry, smolt, and sticklebacks in Alaska lakes.
Hall was able to snip away most of the line, leaving just the hook protruding from the loon’s bill.
“That’s when he kind of rolled and flopped his way back to the water,” Hall said. “The whole time his mate was calling and screaming.”
After a quick reunion and a few nuzzles, Hall said the pair dove, disappearing under the lake’s calm waters.
The loon has been spotted several times since last week, and seems to Hall, at least, to be recovering.
“He is diving and feeding, I am no biologist, but I think he is going to make it,” Hall said.
The loon still has the small trout bait hook in its beak.
“We call him Goth Loon. I mean, I don’t think the hook will hurt him. After all, there are countless teens around the world who do just fine with a lip piercing,” Hall said.
Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com