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In Our Own Backyard....Cooking and cleaning will wait 'til tomorrow

I should have been cleaning toilets. I should have been packing away summer clothes and digging out wool sweaters. I should have been stashing my flower pots in the shed for the winter, and I should have been changing the sheets on the bed and making up my grocery list.

But all it took was for the sun to break through last Friday morning, and I left all my chores behind and headed for the lake.

I knew the weekend's forecast called for snow, possibly lots of it, and I couldn't bear to let that beautiful day go by without getting outdoors to enjoy it. I packed an impromptu lunch -- a couple of pieces of cold chicken, some carrot sticks and a thermos of coffee -- grabbed my camera and scrambled down the hillside to my kayak.

It was late morning but the day was still nippy and I wore polar fleece and a stocking cap. The midday sun began to warm me as I took my first paddle strokes, and I couldn't believe my good fortune at being out on so rare an autumn day, with winter nipping at my heels. There wasn't the slightest stirring of a breeze and the lake was like glass. The water was so clear I could see all the way to the bottom, like looking into a giant aquarium, and my progress was effortless as I glided along. It was the perfect kayak morning.

It had been a week since I'd been out on the water. When last I paddled there were still many splashes of color along the shore of our little lake. Now, most of the leaves were gone and only an occasional burst of gold or russet graced the shoreline.

My eyes scanned the horizon for the familiar silhouette of the loons. I knew their time on the lake had to be coming to a close. The week before, they seemed to be spending a lot of time making soft hooting sounds to one another, as if they were planning their trip south. I soon spotted a black dot floating on the surface that signaled the familiar silhouette of the loon.

As I paddled closer, I could see how its bright black and white breeding plumage of summer had faded dramatically. The black feathers around its face were now interspersed with white, like an aging Labrador retriever. Its ebony beak seemed to be almost dissolving to a utilitarian gray, and even the characteristic ring around its neck had begun to disappear. It gave the regal bird an almost old, tired look, but I knew that the bright feathers were being replaced by flight feathers that would take it on its long journey to the Gulf of Mexico.

I snapped a few photos of the lone loon, guessing its mate had probably already departed. But mostly I was just content to sit silently on top of the water, watching it dive for fish and flex its wings, taking in its beauty for possibly the last time this season.

"Don't wait too long, little one," I uttered under my breath. "Snow is on the way...."

After a while, I paddled on to the quiet waters of the channel on the other end of the lake where I ate my lunch. A giant pileated woodpecker landed in one of the trees overhead, outlined against the bright, blue sky, and I was able to fire off three quick photos before the sound of my camera scared it away. The treetops were filled with chickadees calling back and forth, as though they were spreading the word that this fine weather was soon to give way to winter.

I spotted the loon once again as I returned down the lake, but this time it began to sound its mournful call again and again. It was then I spotted a pair of eagles on the shoreline just beyond it, circling over the treetops. The eagles always excite the loons, even when they don't have a baby to protect, and this time was no exception. The loon disappeared into a long dive and reemerged far down the lake.

The eagles weren't interested in the loon today, however. As they plied the shoreline, one of them suddenly cartwheeled into a nosedive, crashing into the water to pluck up a fish and flying into the nearest tree to eat it. The other eagle landed just above it, almost as though they were team fishing.

The second eagle flew away as I drew nearer, but the first remained in its branch until I was right under it. It looked peculiar, sitting with its wings dropped straight down at its sides, simply hanging there. I was a little afraid that something might be wrong with it, but as I paddled away it spotted the other eagle way down the lake and flew toward it. The eagle must have been drying out its wet feathers after its dive in the lake before finally moving on!

In all, I was out on the lake for an hour and a half. The height of the day was well past by the time I returned, and I knew there was little question of getting much work done.

I should have been cleaning toilets -- but instead, I was talking to loons.