For nearly 20 years I lived on an island.
One year I had a house way down by the great ponds — big shallow brackish ponds just inside the sand dunes. Very few people down that way, quiet and lush, a wildlife haven.
Each fall a huge flock of swans did a migration stop on the pond near the house. We’d seen them fly over a few times and settle into the great pond a ways down the road. So one morning, very early, a girlfriend and I decided to see the flock up close.
We took the canoe and paddled quietly across the pond, through the little strait, into the smaller pond where hundreds of white swans were feeding on the pond vegetation.
We crouched low in the canoe and paddled very slowly toward them. I was so-o-o naive about disturbing wildlife back then, but I was about to receive three lessons in natural history that would ensure I never tried this again.
The swans were, of course, well aware of us and casually but deliberately moved toward the far side of the pond. My idea was that we’d coast silently through the flock as they nibbled water lilies.
Oh, how little I knew.
Eventually we got about 50 feet away from them. The swans were now quite aware of us and were massing into a snickery mumbling group. I turned and whispered to my friend, “How close do you think they’ll let us get?”
Apparently the answer to that question was 50 feet because suddenly all hell broke loose. That was lesson number one.
Hundreds of swans turned in the blink of an eye, squawking and swearing at our presence and readying for takeoff.
Usually a swan goes into flight by gracefully rising up out of the water, taking a few gliding steps across the water’s surface and effortlessly lifting off.
But we’d inadvertently herded them into a tight corner with no room to maneuver, so instead of gently rising up, 400 huge swans turned to face us and the open water behind us. With a sound like a barreling freight train, they ran straight at us. Thundering wings, splashing webbed feet and unbelievably loud “ong-ong-onging” swan honks.
Here’s where I got my second natural history lesson: It takes a swan approximately 48 feet of swan running room to hit airspeed.
Lines of swans broke from the water scant inches from the side of our canoe in a deafening roar. We yelled, screaming at the sky of swan underbellies and feet inches over our heads.
Then we dove for the bottom of the boat, arms over our heads as the third natural history lesson revealed itself: Each swan defecates all extra weight on takeoff!
It seemed like it took an hour for all 400 swans to fly over and poop on us but I’m sure it was over in under a minute. Oh, but I tell you, that was one endlessly long, loud, unbelievably rank, smelly, wet, never-will-I-bother-another-swan-again minute.
The romantic image of being underneath a rising flock of white swans in the crisp morning air was tempered by the reality of my girlfriend and I, covered — and I mean covered — in swan poop, laughing hysterically.