owltalk 2002


9 March 2002


I should have had my GPS unit with me when I drove up to Kawishiwi Lake the other night. The snows have changed things, access being one of them. I had two choices yesterday: watch the the amorphous greens of precipitation on my computer or return to Kawishiwi. With the snow, a vehicle might make it, then again it might not. Traveling by foot, at the very least, one is assured he will not get stuck.


Two cavity trees sit in a geologic bowl in my favorite aspen stand in the world. Yet, they are situated 3 miles from the plowed road. On a whim, I decided to snowshoe into them yesterday. I planned my travels as any biologist would, utilizing the magic of the crepuscular twilight to move in, and the darkness to move out. If you haven't experienced the North Woods at daylight's end, do so. It is the witching hour, when things stir and the night shift takes over.


In a vehicle, what you see is what you stumble upon. On foot, what you see is what you search for. Great-horned owls are not an overly common species here, yet they are like every other owl: when hungry, they must hunt. Moving through an old clear-cut, I saw the silhouette course up the road corridor, then registered the colors: browns and tans against the white of winter. He moved into a lowland pocket and perched, watching me. I grabbed my camera and tried to steady myself over rapid breaths and a pounding heart. He sat and I watched. A boulder became my tripod.


The fresh snow leaves its story. During the 3 mile hike northward, old tracks become shallow, obscure depressions; anonymous signs of past life. New tracks tell a different story, one of foraging and fleeing, to resources both familiar and undiscovered. Yet, I was surprised by the lack of wildlife sign that had appeared since the snowfall ended some 12 hours earlier. Red squirrels moved back and forth to the conifers, but that was it. The moose and wolves traveled elsewhere.


When darkness finally arrived, I took off my snowshoes and moved inland to the aspen. From below, cavities positioned up the boles of trees reflected my headlight, the brightly colored pith the sign of a tree in decline. I paused, aware of the trees as a resource, but for wildlife not for the waferboard industry.


With my tree locations fixed, I returned to my abandoned snowshoes and headed south. The winds had stirred to life and anything audible in the forest would be lost on tree limbs bent by the approaching storm. My headlamp shined a sharp beam forward, reducing my perceptible world to 20 feet. And then I saw the tracks that were not there on my journey north. Small mammals had come to life. Were the great-horned here, he surely would have left his imprint, a deep plunge mark into the powder. But the tracks moved uninterrupted from one side of the road to the other; mad dashes towards herbaceous cover.


When I finally arrived back at my truck, I was exhausted. My thighs burned and my remaining water was quickly depleted. Six miles of exposure to the North Woods. I thought about the drive up this road on an earlier night, then realized my good fortune that I did not have my GPS unit with me then.


W.H. Lane