Loon spotting boat ride operating in Crosslake

Free boat rides teach participants about loons and habitat management.

Passengers on the StewardShip spotted and identified loons on Cross Lake during an outing Friday, July 22, 2022.
Travis Grimler / Echo Journal
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CROSSLAKE — The National Loon Center in Crosslake now offers educational boat rides as a part of their loon-centric programming.

The StewardShip, a 31-foot-long tritoon boat, hosts people on free outings onto Cross Lake on Thursdays-Saturdays. These outings depart once a day at 9 a.m. and return at 11 a.m. after those on board learn about loons, lake health and more. The first trip was Thursday, July 21.

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Natasha Bartolotta, with the National Loon Center in Crosslake, guided a boat full of loon enthusiasts Friday, July 22, 2022, on the second voyage of the StewardShip, a tritoon designed for loon-centric lake outings.
Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

"It's part of our loons and lake stewardship program," said Natasha Bartolotta, National Loon Center communications and outreach coordinator. "We take people out on the boat, up to around 15 people per group, free of charge. It's a fun opportunity to get out on the lakes and learn about loons and their biology and behavior. They also get to do some hands-on activities like water quality testing."

When people send us observations it kind of fills in the gaps of our knowledge.
Natasha Bartolotta

The Friday, July 22, outing started at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Cross Lake Recreation Area, venturing out into the bay past Sand Island and then returning, scouting wildlife along the way.

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Spectators try to identify the bands on a loon's leg during a Friday, July 22, 2022, outing of the StewardShip, a tritoon boat owned by the National Loon Center.
Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

The chief target was the loons that inhabit "territories" around the lake. These territories have names that are used to identify the loons nesting there, like "Happy Bay" or "Twin Islands.” Researchers band and monitor loons from approximately 140 of these territories on 80 nearby lakes.


Spectators on the boat were encouraged to look for colored leg bands to see if they could identify the loons they spotted on the ride. Present and accounted for were the Twin Islands loons, the Arrowhead Point pair, a loon from Daggett Lake, the Happy Bay pair and a pair from Unhappy Bay.

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A loon conveniently shows off its teal colored leg band as passengers on the Stewardship try to identify which territory, and which mate, it belongs with on Friday, July 22, 2022.
Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

Unhappy Bay is a newly identified territory shared by one loon that was once paired with one of the loons from Happy Bay.

The Twin Islands loons did not have a successful mating year and were alone. The Happy Bay, Arrowhead Point and Unhappy Bay pairs each had two chicks that were several weeks old. The Daggett Lake loon had one chick.

Bartolotta said local researchers cannot monitor all of the territories at all times, so the StewardShip can help supplement their researchers' findings.

We take people out on the boat, up to around 15 people per group, free of charge. It's a fun opportunity to get out on the lakes and learn about loons and their biology and behavior. They also get to do some hands-on activities like water quality testing.
Natasha Bartolotta

"We have three research interns," Bartolotta said. "As you can imagine, we can't get to everything as quickly as we'd like to. We're usually on a schedule eight to 10, even 12 days apart for each territory. When people send us observations it kind of fills in the gaps of our knowledge."

One of the first StewardShip trips onto the lake was responsible for finding and identifying the Unhappy Bay loon pair.

Bartolotta guided and taught the boat full of loon-lovers many loon facts to tide them over until the National Loon Center is constructed at the recreation area.

The StewardShip is a community-driven project funded through generous donations from groups like the Crosslake Ideal Lions Club and the Land and Preservation Trust, along with individuals. The StewardShip will continue to go on trips onto Cross Lake throughout this summer following the same schedule.


The schedule may change next year depending on the turnout for this year's program. The schedule could even expand.

"We're definitely hoping this will be a year-after-year program when the center itself is built to add even more to the area so you can come to the loon center and go down to the docks," Bartolotta said.

The National Loon Center welcomes observations from those on the lake in their mission to monitor the local territories. More information and contact information may be found at

Construction is expected to start in 2024, but educational programs are underway now

Fun facts learned on the StewardShip

  • Loons are territorial: It can take a lot of trial and error to find a place where a nest isn't susceptible to wave action, predatory raccoons or boat traffic. As a result, loons tend to claim territories where they find suitable nesting sites and defend them against interlopers. In some cases, this can be a new nest site, but quite often it's a nest site set up by other loons. Loons that have established a territory do not give them up easily, however, often leading to loons fighting one another, often resulting in "eviction" or death.
  • Contrary to popular belief, loons don't necessarily mate for life: Bartolotta said that while it can be advantageous for loons to continue fraternizing with the same loon over years of time, this is often determined by practicality. Pairs that last longer often tend to have held a territory together over time, and sometimes have had one or more successful hatchings. Sometimes, however, banded loons have been observed to pair with different partners from year to year.
  • Unlike many birds, loons have solid bones: Because they sometimes dive as deep as 250 feet and can stay underwater for up to five minutes, hollow bones would not benefit the loon lifestyle. Instead, loons have dense bones, almost like flightless animals. There is a tradeoff, however, as loons require a long runway to take off from the water.
  • Loons that spend a lot of time on land or too close to humans may be sick with lead poisoning: Loons have feet at the far back of their body, making them too off balance on land to stand. As a result, loons on land are limited to hopping clumsily from place to place. This makes land dangerous for them. Because of this, Bartolotta said loons that are spotted on land for a long period of time may be ill, possibly with lead poisoning.
  • Loon calls can tell you much about the loon you are hearing: The loon "wail," possibly their most familiar call, is a long-distance call to communicate between mated pairs. The pitch and number of notes in a wail can determine if the loon is in distress.

The "hoot" is a short range sound made between loon family members.
The "yodel" is a male-only loon call. It starts low and gets louder and they often repeat it several times. It is a sign that the loon feels threatened by predators or territorial rivals.

The "tremolo" is a quick call often described as a "crazy laugh." It is a warning call often given due to perceived threat or even while flying over other occupied territories.

"Cooing" is a low, quiet and very short ranged sound loons make while very close together. it almost resembles the sound of a brooding chicken. This sound is used in courtship and while raising chicks.


  • The feathers and eyes of loons change color while migrating: Loons migrate as much as 670 miles in a single day in the fall and spring. They only mate in freshwater, but they spend the winter in the south, often in saltwater.  Loons that are basking in the sun down south during the winter lose their black and white feathers and look more like their gray-brown juveniles. When they molt their northern feathers the loons cannot fly until the molt is over. Their eyes even turn from red to brown, making them difficult to recognize.
  • Loons have a life expectancy longer than most dogs: Young floater loons that haven't claimed a territory are often between the ages of 2 and 7 years. Loons have a natural life expectancy of about 20-30 years with the oldest documented common loon being 36 years old.

Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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