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WHEN THE LOONS CALL, Pat McCaw - YA Survival

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Hey everyone! This is the opening scene to my YA Survival novel (the title likely getting changed soon). Each chapter alternates the POV of the stepsisters, Emily and Skylar. The opening scene is from Emily POV and sets up the remote wilderness setting and the personal relationships. The formatting of the paragraphs and spacing is off after I copy and paste the pages... Sorry about that. 


Chapter 1


“Nature in her green tranquil woods heals and soothes all afflictions.” – John Muir


An entire week without electricity, running water, or Wi-Fi, on a private lake packed with walleye . . .


Dad and I travel to the same cabin, in middle-of-nowhere Canada, every year. We fish in the rain until our fingers grow numb and cook fresh filets over an open fire. For most of my sixteen years, it’s been our special trip.

Not anymore.

As our plane gets closer to Loon Lake, the carpet of trees hasn’t changed, but life sure has. It’s hard to spend a week with the man I used to idolize when now I my stomach turns whenever he’s around.

            Dad presses his nose to the airplane window and scans the landscape. 

My breath quickens. I’d usually tell him how excited I am to go on hikes, eat shore lunch, search for wild asparagus, and fish until dark, but instead, I turn toward the window.


Dad turns to Skylar hoping that his enthusiasm will rub off. “What do you think?” 

            Skylar, my new stepsister, grips her Gucci purse with white knuckles and dry heaves over her glossed lips. Our small four-passenger plane bounces through the clouds, but the princess is too pretty to puke. She chokes it down. “I’m going to toss my scone if we keep getting jerked around like this!” 

She prances around like her mother. At least she’s not here – one diva is enough.

Ignoring them, I yell over the plane’s engine. “Hey Chuck, how’s fishing been at the lake?” 

Chuck lowers his radio. “You’re the first ones up this season, Emily. I’ll need a fishing report at the end of the week.” He smirks. “Ice out was only two weeks ago, so they may be slow to bite, but I know you’ll find ‘em.” He holds his hands wide. “You still hold the record for biggest walleye caught on Loon Lake. Such a beauty! You should see the faces of the other fishermen when I tell them you’re a girl.” 

I can’t help but grin. Yeah, I can out-fish any guy. Any day. Chuck’s awesome – even if he’s a Cardinals fan. (Cubs rule). He reminds me of a cowboy who’s been riding the range in the blazing heat for too long, but Chuck’s hardened edges come from whiskey. He flies us to our cabin every year. He manages the property at Loon Lake for the Westons, the old couple who owns it. Dad and I won’t consider other fly-in fishing trips. Who needs a lodge with electricity and running water? We prefer Loon Lake. It’s tradition. 

            “Even if the fishing’s slow, we’ll find ‘em.” Dad and I know every fishing hole. We’ve never had a bad year of fishing on Loon Lake. “We’re eating fish every day, so they’d better be biting. If not, that’s a lot of peanut butter and jelly!”

            “What did you just say?” Skylar bolts upright in her seat. “We’re eating fish, like, every day?” She covers her mouth with her fake fingernails. “I can’t stand fish.”

            Good thing Dad brought her on a fishing trip. I can’t even look at him. I wonder if he realizes that I haven’t spoken to him since we left Iowa this morning.

Skylar’s a Barbie doll that expects everyone to kiss her feet while she buffs her nails. She just finished her freshman year at the University of Iowa, but, unfortunately, she’s home for the summer. We couldn’t get on the road this morning until she’d curled her hair, changed her outfit three times, and painted her face. Then she waltzes out of the house in a pink romper covered with sequins and – get this – rhinestone-studded sandals. And Dad said nothing.

            He leans toward Skylar. “We eat fish while we’re here, Sky.”


Dad uses a sickening voice as if he’s reasoning with a three-year-old. “We can’t pack a lot of food because the plane can’t hold much gear. We eat what we catch.”

            She bats her eyelashes at Dad. My dad, not her dad. “Can’t I eat something else?”

I squeeze the armrests of my seat with both hands. My ‘are you fricking kidding me’ vibe ricochets around the plane. If he gives in, I’m jumping.

            Dad stammers and knows better than to look at me. We’re in the wilderness of Canada, not some beach resort. We eat fish. When I create the menu, it accounts for one fish meal a day. 

Dad leans towards Skylar. “We have plenty of peanut butter. We’ll figure something out.” He adds under his breath with the courage of a worm, “Maybe you’ll like the fish.”

            Skylar crosses her arms over her chest to pout. I can’t wait for Skylar’s first trip to the outhouse – my camera will be ready.

            My Canon Rebel EOS dangles from my neck and travels with me everywhere. It was a gift from Mom. She would pore through my photos as if they were worthy of National Geographic. I lower my camera onto my lap because it suddenly feels too heavy to hold. 

I miss her so much it hurts. My chest gets heavy, and fog fills my brain. I try to swallow the lump in my throat, but it doesn’t move.

After a deep breath, I wipe the tears and hope that Skylar doesn’t see. I’ve become skilled at driving the hurt deep into a compartment of my brain that’s filled with the thoughts I can’t handle, but t’s nearing capacity. I snag a picture of the horizon cloaked with trees and try to think about photographing the sunrises, the loons, the flowers, and the fish I’ll catch.

            Chuck yells over the airplane’s rattle, as the engine sputters and threatens to die. “We’ll land in about five minutes. The wind has picked up so make sure you’re buckled.”

My stomach flips, but I can’t give Dad the satisfaction of seeing my excitement. It would be easier if I didn’t love this place so much. I crane my neck for the first peek at Loon Lake. If only I could be dropped off alone for a week without drama.

Nothing stirs in the mass of trees below. I haven’t seen another clearing or sign of life for the last ten minutes. The Westons’ cabin is the only property on Loon Lake, so we have it all to ourselves. Untapped fishing potential.

            Chuck drops the plane to the treetops. He wrestles the wind and we’re tossed around like flies in a hurricane. We wobble back and forth as Chuck fights the controls to find horizontal.  I scoot closer to the window because Skylar’s going to hurl at any minute. Over the tree line, Loon Lake’s unique Y-shape stretches across the horizon. Our cabin is in a tiny clearing at the fork of the Y. My insides do a loop-de-loo from the turbulence mixed with the thrill of seeing Loon Lake.

            I see the same glimmer on Dad’s face.

            Skylar leans forward in her seat, scans out the window with wide crazy eyes, and tightens her seatbelt five times. “Where’s the runway?”

            I burst out laughing. Dad flashes me a knock-it-off.

            Dad’s syrupy voice returns. “There’s no runway. Chuck lands on the lake. The plane has pontoons for landing gear. It’s great!” As if he will convince her.

            Skylar’s face turns ghost-white leaving red streaks of blush and painted lips to stand out like a clown. As the plane lurches, she moans and pulls her knees to her chest.

            Chuck pats the dashboard of the plane. “Come on, Lou. Take us down easy.” A gust of wind shoots the right wing upward and I hit my forehead on the back of Chuck’s seat. He yells, “Damnit, Lou!” He sits up tall and counters with the stick to level the plane. The engine sputters… and then stalls. 

            “What’s happening?” Skylar screeches – her specialty.

            We float through the air as the pine trees draw near. Silently falling. We plummet so fast that I can see the waves rippling on Loon Lake. We’re going to crash. I take a deep breath and scan the land below looking for the nearest clearing. Is there a place to land? Will someone call for help? There’s no sign of life for miles.

            Skylar’s nails dig into Dad’s arm. She steams up the window as she bawls. “Eric, do something! I don’t want to die!” She sprays snot onto his arm.

            I’m glued to the window. Frozen. Trees are so close that I can tell the elms from the maples. “Chuck?”

            Chuck’s voice cracks and he plasters on a fake grin. “It’s all good, it’s all good. I got this.” He pounds the dash of the airplane with his fist and flips switches off and on. “Lou’s just being a bitch.” With another flip of a switch, the plane’s engine stutters and then starts up again.

            I blow out a whoosh of air and realize that I’ve been holding my breath. Chuck regains control and the plane levels. I should never have doubted him.

“Thank, God!” Skylar hugs Dad’s arm for comfort, and I clench my teeth so hard that my jaw pops.

Skylar’s father ditched her when she was four. Yeah, I know that sucks, but it doesn’t mean she moves in on my territory. Skylar dotes on Dad constantly and he loves every minute. I’m sure Dad hopes that trapping us together in the woods for a week is going to make me and Skyler BFFs. Think again.

I break my silent treatment to bust up their moment. “Hey, Dad. Look!” I point to the lake.

            A pair of loons dive for fish. 

            Dad leans forward and breaks Skylar’s hold. Mission accomplished. “The loons are building their nests for the spring.”

            It’s hard to beat fishing for walleye and hiking through the forest, but I could lay on the dock and watch the loons all day. Loons mate for life. They patrol the water to protect their nest and would do anything for their babies. 

My loon pictures were Mom’s favorite.

I focus my lens and snap a picture out the window, but they’re too far away. When we land, I’ll zoom close enough to see the fine black and white lines that circle the loon’s neck and capture the glint in its red eye. I can already hear their songs echoing across Loon Lake to drown out everything else.

            With one last wobble and lurch of the plane, Chuck hollers, “Hold on!” He wrestles Lou onto the lake with a thud and a splash. Water pelts the windows.

            After we settle onto the water, Chuck and Lou get along. We cruise down one leg of Loon Lake’s Y toward our dock. The plane sputters once more and then stalls – again. Chuck laughs it off like it’s part of his plan. He opens the airplane door, grabs an oar, and paddles until he gets close enough to lasso the dock with a rope. “We’re here! Welcome to Loon Lake!”

            Dad slaps Chuck’s shoulder as he steps off the plane. “Interesting landing, Chuck.” Dad can’t hide his clenched jaw as he grins through gritted teeth. “Might be time to upgrade Ol’ Lou.” Dad’s bulging neck vein is about to burst. 

Chuck pats Lou on the wing. “This girl’s got lots of life left.” He ties off the plane and offers me a hand as I step onto the dock. “Welcome home, Emily.” He pauses and then fakes a smile at Skylar. “I bet you’ll love it here.” 

I’ll take that bet.

-------------end of chapter 1


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Hello Pat. I really enjoyed this. You've got a great YA voice, and I love how you've loaded this chapter with so much conflict. A jealous daughter, a spoiled city girl about to have a rude awakening, a dad just trying to do his best, and an old plane that is surely going to be a huge problem. And the Canadian wilderness. As a Canadian, British Columbian to be precise, I am a huge fan of the great outdoors, with a very healthy respect for bears, (which make a frequent appearance in our neighbourhood.) I'm hooked. Brava!

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Hi Pat, 

I love this opening! You weave in characterizations along with the action of flying on that scary little plane so well. I wonder if the moment when Emily thinks they're going to crash can be a little more intense for her viscerally. Right now, I don't believe she truly thinks they will crash. She is too analytical about it all when in that moment there would be shorter sentences and more physical reactions to the fear. For example "We float through the air as the pine trees draw near. Silently falling." That sounds almost peaceful, when inside she must be hot with adrenaline and scared out of her mind, right? Poor Emily, dying in a plane crash with Skylar of all people! 

Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to seeing Skylar's growth and their inevitable friendship, or at the very least, understanding for each other. 

I'm a little thrown off by Emily being so upset with Dad that she went from idolizing him to having her stomach turn whenever he's around. Is that just because he got remarried? When I first read that I was thinking he must have done something truly awful and maybe even criminal. But he remarried? I get that Emily might be upset about that, but her reaction seems out of proportion. If she idolized him, he must have been worship-worthy, right? So what happened? Wouldn't a guy like that with a relationship like that with his daughter have handled the whole remarriage thing in a sensitive way? How long ago has Mom died? Did Dad have an affair with the new stepmom while Mom was alive? That might explain Emily's strong reaction. I guess I want to know a tiny bit more to understand so I'm not bumped out of the story wondering about that when I think you'd rather have me wonder about how Emily and Skylar will get along and how Emily and Dad will mend their relationship. 

I would definitely keep turning pages to read more about this exciting adventure as well as the complicated relationships. Great job! 



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Nice work setting up how Emily feels about Sky and the divorce. The plane having a problem in the air was great to get reactions. We have friends who own a fishing lodge in Alaska, and this reminded me of them and how their daughter can out-fish and out-gut any man since she's done it all for so long. I think you've struck the perfect voice for YA!

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