Quinn’s First Letter
Take a sneak peek at Quinn’s first letter, written here to a girl named Sally.
450 Spencer Lane
La Conner, WA
I’m writing to you because honestly, I need someone like you to talk to and there isn’t anyone else. I need a friend. You probably think I’m weird for writing when I don’t know you. So I have to explain some stuff first.
A really kind of crazy – but good – thing just happened, and now I have to do something. I can’t tell anyone about it. They would stop me, and I really, really don’t want to be stopped. That’s why I’m writing to you. I think you’ll understand. No one else would.
I’m staying with my gramma and grampa right now. They live in Washington State, in a small town called La Conner in Skagit County. It’s nice. Kind of. I mean, it’s pretty. There’s a river, and the buildings are nice. Lots of places that sell art to rich people. Coffee shops. That kind of thing. It’s TINY. So yeah, I mean, it’s nice. But I hate it. There’s no one to talk to, everyone is super-old. Well, not everyone. But everyone I know.
I really live in Fairbanks, Alaska. My mom and dad teach at the University there. (They are environmental scientists. They work with wildlife conservation and habitat and stuff.) I have lots of friends, there’s lots to do, and the best is going with mom and dad and exploring. We canoe a lot. We take my friends along and we’ve seen eagles and moose and wolves. Not in the city, of course. You can canoe in the city too, because the river runs through it. It’s just kind of boring. I like going out in the wilderness.
My parents made me come stay with gramma and grampa because my dad broke his leg badly when he was rock climbing. Mom has gone to do field work in a wilderness area in the south of Alaska. The University sent her. Just because it’s summer, it doesn’t mean she has time off. She has to work too hard to spend time with me. Dad can’t take care of me, so they sent me down here.
I miss them. So you can most likely see why I want someone to talk to. No friends, no parents, just a bunch of old people in a tiny little town.
Anyway, let me tell you what happened. I’m going back, going home, and nobody knows about it. It will be difficult but I can figure it out. And the best bit is, I’m not going alone. Here’s why.
I said that there is a river that runs through La Conner, where I’m staying, right? It flows out into the sea just a short distance from the town, and there are lots of little islands and stuff. I told my grandparents that I’m a good canoer. (It’s true, but they called my dad to make sure anyway.) So they borrowed a small canoe and now I’m allowed to go out on my own and explore. It’s summer, the weather’s great, the wildlife is cool, lots of water birds. I have my binoculars, I watch the birds a lot. It’s not Alaska, but I love it.
This morning my grampa made me sandwiches and I went off for the day with the canoe. I’m supposed to be back by 6pm. I won’t be, though.
I paddled down the river, past the First People’s reservation that goes down to Fidalgo Island. It’s wide and pretty easy, as long as bigger boats don’t go by too fast. I got to where the river opens out into the sea (the place called Hole in the Wall – I love that name) and saw Goat Island up ahead. I paddled around there for a while, and then I decided to turn and head towards Ika Island, which is like a tree-covered mountain sticking up out of the bay.
The water is super-shallow, even far out from land, because the river silts up the whole Skagit Bay area. Sometimes when I’m exploring my boat gets stuck on the bottom and I have to get out and push it till the water is deeper. Not today, though. The tide was going out, but it was still quite high and I got to paddle all the way over. Then I started out around the island, looking for a good place to pull my boat out and have lunch.
Okay, so then this happened.
I paddled past a rocky outcrop, and I saw something big and white moving in the bushes at the edge of the water. I am telling you, Sally, I thought it was a ghost. I have never been that scared out canoeing before, even when I was with my friend Chris back home and we saw a bear.
I almost turned around right then.
But I didn’t. I took out my binoculars.
It was a swan.
I put the binoculars away and went closer. It was a huge Trumpeter Swan, which was weird, because the swans have migrated away already. Except this one. Its leg was tangled in a long mess of fishing line. It hid among the bushes and hissed at me, sticking its black beak out through the leaves.
Swans are big, strong and dangerous. Mom and Dad never let me go close to them back home, though we see them on the river a lot. I wasn’t about to go up to this one, it was angry already. I didn’t want to get attacked by an angry, scared swan.
But it was beautiful, and it was in trouble. I couldn’t just leave it. Right? I edged the canoe forward a little bit.
The swan said, “You come close, human person, and I break your arm.”
Woah. That’s right. It spoke. It talked to me. I understood it. Crazy, right? But that’s what happened.
It almost didn’t even seem strange. I swallowed and talked right back to it.
I said, “I’m not coming closer. I’m over here. Don’t worry.”
It came out from the bush and hissed again, stretching its wings like it wanted to attack. I backed up the canoe in a hurry. Then suddenly it just flopped down. I could see it better now it was out from behind the leaves, and it was in bad shape. It was thin and missing some feathers. It looked sick.
I said, “I’m going to get help. Okay?”
It was like a shudder went through it. “No! No! No help. No humans.”
I had a small tool box behind the seat of the canoe, in case of accidents, grampa said. I knew there was a wire cutter in it. I said, “Let me cut the fishing line off you. I can do that.”
It hissed at me again.
“Don’t do that,” I told it. “I’m trying to help you.”
“No good,” it said. “No good.”
“How come you can talk?” I asked.
“Of course I talk, human person. YOU talk – that’s strange. Most humans make stupid noises like baby seals.”
It lifted its head on its long neck and looked at me sideways.
“You talk,” it said, “I understand you.”
“Let me help you,” I said.
It was still for a moment, like it was thinking. Then it lifted its huge webbed foot, and I saw where the fishing wire had rubbed it sore. I dipped my paddle in the water and moved the canoe slowly closer.
I was really, really nervous. What if it got mad again? But I did it.
I got the canoe right up against the rocky edge where the bushes grew, and climbed out. The swan stood on a rock and watched me. I opened the tool box really, really carefully and took out the wire cutter. The swan didn’t move. It just watched me sideways.
”May I touch you?” I tried to say, but my voice came out as a squeak. I cleared my throat and tried again. “May I touch you? I have to, if I’m going to get the line off your leg.”
The swan said nothing. It lifted its foot again, and I took its leg gently in my hands.
It was amazing. I was holding a Trumpeter Swan. Amazing.
I clipped at the fishing line. It took a few tries because it was so tangled, but bit by bit I got it all off.
The swan’s leg was rubbed raw and it looked really painful, but it was free. I let it go. It stepped down off the rock and into the water, hissing a little with pain. Then it stretched its wings without saying a word and beat them and beat them in the air.
After a few minutes it flopped down again, exhausted.
“Can’t you fly?” I asked.
“Stupid human person. Use your eyes. Molting! Feathers still growing back. Can’t fly till then.”
I picked up a feather from the ground. There were lots of them, scattered around.
Then it talked to me. I should say “he”. He’s not an it. Not a thing. He’s a person like you or me, but a bird. Still a person. He told me he was about to migrate north with his bevy when he got trapped. They had to go on without him. He’s been trapped for weeks, hiding in the bushes at the water’s edge, scavenging for plants and seaweed.
He told me about you, too. He said a gull had stopped and talked to him one day, about another human child living near big freshwater seas. The gull said this human understood about birds. The gull was carrying a scrap of paper around, but she dropped it before she flew off.
I looked under the bush. I found the scrap of paper. It was dirty and water-damaged, but I could still read it. It was a torn scrap of an envelope, like from a birthday card or something, and I could read your name and address.
The swan went on talking. He told me about his wife. She was with his bevy. She had to leave him too, when he was trapped.
He stopped talking, suddenly.
“Do you miss her?” I asked. He looked at me sideways again, and his eye was full of this really, really deep sadness. I totally got it. I miss my mom and dad that way, too.
Finally I asked, “Where are you trying to go to?”
He told me, “Many, many days’ flight north. The western sky is light all night long, and ice-rivers flow into the lake. Beautiful. Cold. My people raise babies there.”
My heart started beating really hard.
If swans can shrug, that’s what he did.
“Human names. I don’t know. It is wild and clean and free. Many, many swan people. My people and more. Bear people. Moose.”
Alaska. I was sure of it.
I said, “I’ll take you.”
“You? Small human person? You can’t fly!” he said, and laughter trumpeted out through his little nose holes.
“I can’t fly,” I said, sharply, “but I can do other things.” I wasn’t about to let a swan laugh at me. I had an idea, right then. I’m sure I can do it. It’s going to be hard work, but I don’t care about that.
I told that swan to get in the canoe. Then I grabbed the rope at the canoe’s nose. The tide was almost out now, and I walked through the shallow water across the channel to the mainland, pulling the swan behind me. It got splashy and deep in some parts, but I got across. My shorts and t-shirt were soaked but I didn’t care.
There’s a place on the mainland where a track comes right down to the shore. I left the swan there, hiding under a bush. Then I canoed back to my grandparents’ house as fast as I could.
They weren’t home. I changed my clothes and shoes. I filled up a backpack with all the food I could find. I know they won’t mind when they find out why. Then I went to the garage – they have a bike with a covered trailer. I borrowed it. I put another bag in the trailer with more clothes and a jacket. I know it’s warm right now, but where I’m going it might be cold. A toothbrush. My binoculars.
There was still plenty of space in there.
I left a note and told gramma and grampa not to worry. I said I was going exploring around the farms, which was a lie, but I don’t want them to follow me. I don’t know how long that will keep them happy, but it’s all I could think of to say.
Then I cycled out to find the swan, down the back roads towards Hole in the Wall until I found where the track turns left down to the water’s edge. The swan was there, waiting. He stepped into the trailer like he was in a daze. I don’t think he really understood what was happening. I turned the bike around, pulling the trailer behind me, took a deep breath, and started to ride.
North, towards Canada. Beyond Canada is Alaska.
We’re cycling to Alaska.
It’s a long way. There are mountains. Cycling is going to be hard work, but I’m used to that. For right now, we’re on our way. He’s going to find his wife. I’m going to find my mom and dad. The swan and I, we’re heading home.
Thank you for reading my letter, Sally. If anyone finds out I wrote to you, tell them I’m okay. But don’t tell them where I am. They’d send the police for me and I don’t want anyone to stop me doing this. I’ll keep writing so you know how we’re doing.
I’m sending you the swan feather I picked up on the shore I hope he can fly again soon