Until last Thursday, swimming in Munn Lake has been a relaxed affair This early in the season, we swimmers have been sharing the lake with just a few fishermen, a scenic drift boat or two, and the delightful soundtrack of red-winged blackbirds in the cattails. Canada geese fly over the lake and might be nesting somewhere on the shore out of sight, but they are usually not on the lake when we are. Oh, but Thursday morning was different. There were two geese in the middle of the lake when we entered the water and then they flew off and we lost track of them. We must not have been paying attention. Suddenly it seemed a single goose was on the water and moving toward us. I have never had a personal encounter with a Canada goose but I knew they have a reputation for being aggressive, strong, and defensive when protecting a nest or goslings
So I put on my swim goggles to protect my eyes. The goose continued toward us and we made the assumption that it was protecting a nest so we swam toward the opposite shore. This goose was not posturing defensively, honking, or hissing at us. It was simply swimming toward us. Closer and closer.
When it got within a few feet of us (yes as in 2 or 3 feet), my friend splashed it with water and told it to go away but to no avail. In hindsight, splashing water on waterfowl was not a brilliant defense. Likely the goose thought “Fun! My people!”
We swam harder to evade the goose, but it continued its pursuit. We decided to swim in different directions to reduce our “army of two” and lessen the goose’s perception of us as a threat, but the goose picked one of us to follow: my friend. Who decided to simply tell the goose that we were friends and we were not going to harm it or bother its nest. The goose took my friend at her word and decided to continue on the path toward friendship. We decided to put our heads down and swim crawl stroke toward the boat ramp and leave the goose in our wake. Ha!
The goose followed us and waddled up the boat ramp and into the parking lot where we had left our towels and thermos of tea. When it came within a few feet of us, it stopped and began preening.
That’s when we noticed the monofilament fishing line wrapped around its ankle. From a few feet away it didn’t seem that the line was constricted the goose’s ankle but was more of a foreign-object irritant to the goose. It began tugging at the line and, because we believe in trans-species communication, concluded that the goose was asking for our help. It was pursuing us on the lake but couldn’t show us its ankle until we were on land. With the heartbreaking images of the mother orca whale displaying her dead calf above the waters of Puget Sound last summer still fresh in our minds and hearts, we were only too willing to answer this goose’s plea for help.
We didn’t let the fact that we had no wildlife rehabilitation skills, goose wrangling experience, or pair of scissors between us hold us back. Both of us imagined we could just throw one of our towels over it to keep the goose’s wings still while we untangled the fishing line. Yes, the goose was asking us to do exactly this. This is how goose whisperers are born.
After a few towel tosses and goose stepping…we admitted that maybe we should just call the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which manages the boat ramp and stocks the lake with fish. Perhaps they had a wildlife biologist with the necessary skills and a pair of scissors at the ready. Until then, we couldn’t do much for the goose so we decided to help future geese by picking up strands of monofilament, lures, and cigarette butts from the area around the boat ramp. There was more than there should have been given there is a monofilament disposal tube right there next to the ramp. Our good deed done, we began walking toward our car, assuming the goose would turn back to the lake. Ha!
It followed us to my car and stood buy the driver’s door. Uh oh. I had read stories about young goslings and ducklings imprinted on humans and had seen the movie “Fly Away Home,” but this was an adult goose and we had only spent about 15 minutes in its company on the lake and another 5 on land. I slowly backed the car up and drove toward the road. The goose ran alongside my car by my window. And then it fell behind the car. Phew. We had outrun it.
I looked in the rearview mirror expecting to see the goose in the distance waddling toward the lake. But no. My rear-view mirror was full of Canada goose. This crazy bird was flying behind the car right at the back windshield. What is the only thing to say in a situation like this? “Holy shit!”
The goose didn’t expect me to slow down and stop before turning out of the parking lot and onto the road. So when I slowed down, the goose flew over the top of the car and slid down the front windshield. Yes, I had a goose on my front windshield, its wings stretched across the entire windshield for a few seconds before it landed in front of the car.
Had this goose imprinted on a blue 2002 Prius? What to do?
We’d turn right (away from a major road) and into the neighborhood where we would make a series of left and right turns and elude the goose. I turned onto the road and before I knew it, the goose was flying along side my car at eye level. Soon, I feared, it would be flying into the car, nestling down in the back seat, and putting on its seatbelt. I pulled the car over to the side, made a U-turn, and hoped the goose would fly back toward the lake as we passed the entrance to the boat ramp.
The goose turned and ran along side the car (see video above). Illegal move #1: I grabbed by cell phone and tossed it at my friend. “Quick! Take a video!” The only reasonable response to this request was, “No, I’ll hold the steering wheel and you take the video.” Illegal move #2: My friend held the steering wheel and yours truly fumbled with my android camera and managed to capture the video of “our” goose. When I noticed a car coming toward us and the goose, tossed my camera onto the floor and flashed my headlights. The car slowed down and then stopped. The goose landed and stopped. This was our chance to escape.
We drove past the goose and the stopped car, but for reasons neither my friend nor I can explain, I turned back toward the boat ramp and parked the car behind the port-a-potties. Because this is what trained wildlife biologists do. They hide from wildlife so they can better observe their behavior. Tucked behind this impromptu "duck blind,” we were sure we would be soon seeing our goose waddling or flying back down to the lake. We waited and waited. And then my friend got out of the car and snuck up toward the road. No goose. The coast was clear. Phew.
We drove away from the lake again and headed home. Only to see our goose standing in the middle of the road about 500 feet ahead of us with cars stopped on both sides of the road. We figured the goose would be confused by so many cars and not be able to track mine. We lucked out this time. And headed home, hoping the goose made it back to Munn Lake safely.
Upon returning home, my friend called a few wildlife biologists and rehabilitators and described our encounter. The listened patiently. “Uh-huh.” “Uh-huh.” “Huh.” “Wow.”
The only explanation they could think of was that this particular adult goose had likely imprinted earlier on someone who had been feeding it and may have looked like one of us. Which might have made sense if were were standing in a yard tossing cracked corn at it. But all this goose saw of us was our heads sticking up out of the lake as we swam.
I'm not sure we'll ever know the real story. I have been back to the lake twice since our Close Encounter of the Goose Kind. Our goose wasn’t there nor were any of its buddies. I am hoping our goose will return so I can be sure our encounter wasn’t a dream. It was so surreal that I sometimes wonder.
When I told this story to another friend, she loaned me her copy of Bernd Heinrich’s Geese of Beaver Bog. This lovely book chronicles his time raising a Canada goose gosling named Peep when his son was 3 years old. This is a story of intentional imprinting and opens this way.
“The speed limit on the highway a mile form my home in Vermont is 45 miles and hour, and Peep was pushing it. She was winging along a foot or two behind and just to the left of the cab of my Toyota pickup truck…”
So it’s obviously a Toyota thing. Just to make sure, I’ll read past page 1 and let you know.