22 March 2002
At sunset the winds shift, bringing with them a cold rush of air that would, temporarily at least, end the first thaw that the landscape has experienced in several weeks. My path is into those winds, to a looming stand of aspen that had harbored a male boreal owl the night before.
Three years ago, my route would have taken me through fat stands of aspen and birch, spruce and pine. Now, a square, 40-acre patch was clean, its biomass removed and thrown into a distant pulp vat.
The snow has changed over the last few days as it begins its vernal descent to earth. Warm days and cold nights have left a thin crust, but one still not able to support my weight. For every step I take atop the surface, there is one that breaks through, plunging me to my knees.
In the biting wind my tear ducts are open. Movement is slow and deliberate, but the time inconsequential. Light bathes the landscape and there is no hurry.
Snags and "leave trees" are scattered throughout the clear-cut, but there are no tracks of wildlife; nothing that would suggest that this patch of open land has any value. If the intent is to plant trees here, then it should happen soon, for now, only raspberry and herbaceous wisps of vegetation poke above the snow.
At the end of the clear cut, a downslope leads into a green and brown patch of black spruce. Behind it, bare limbed aspens reach for the sky in a sinuous tangle, silhouetted against the western sky. Within the black spruce stand, the sun has not penetrated and snow remains as powdery as talc. Red squirrels and pine marten have been active. As windy as it is above, the air is calm and still here. Exhaled air rises, its moisture captured by the cold.
When the aspens appear, they are thick and sturdy, their boles supporting healthy lateral branches. Yet, scattered throughout are decadent trees; old forest buffets for fungi and insects. It makes sense that an owl sang from this stand last night.
I find and then sit on a 3" downed spruce, pulling a coat over my wet, yet still warm fleece. From here on out, it is a waiting game. The owl will appear and then I will leave.
A thin film of clouds obscures the moon, but its growing brightness means I can move without my headlamp and my travel will not be jeopardized by unseen branches and limbs.
On this trip, I carry with me a bal-chatri trap and four fat mice. Knowing that I may never cross this way again, I view each owl as an opportunity. Perhaps I will trap, band, and age him before he returns to the night and fills it with song. My whole philosophy on trapping boreals has changed. Now, I see it as a valuable snapshot of the individuals within a population. Before, I saw it as something that I had to do.
After 30 minutes, and now fully immersed in the night, I start to question my journey. The winds, if anything, have increased and straining my ears for hints of life, I hear nothing. Yet, I am warm and the mice are tucked well beneath the pine shavings, oblivious to their role in this adventure.
The cold makes its way beneath the layers of fleece and down and captures my thoughts. I walk within the stand, peering up at the aspen, looking for nothing in particular, simply trying to keep warm. And then to the northwest, I hear a male owl faintly above the winds. Conservatively, I estimate his distance at 1 mile. Yet topography can make 200 meters seem like a mile and a mile seem like 200 meters. I fix and enter his location into my field book and sit again.
With my body temperature dropping, I begin another, oft repeated internal debate: "I'm going after him," countered by "no I'm not." I look at my watch and realize I have no where to go and all the time in the world to get there. I tighten the straps on my snowshoes, resecure my pack, and head towards the northwest.
The open spruce bog is traversable, yet labor intensive. Again, I am atop the crust then beneath it. I have absolutely no idea where my journey will end, but take comfort knowing that with my tracks, the way in will be the way out.
After 15 minutes, I rise up a small knoll and enter a 10 year old stand of aspen. The forest floor is clean, but the hazel is nearly impenetrable. It lodges in my snowshoe webbing and catches, spinning me toward the ground.
I pause to make sure that the owl still sings and that I am closer, still on the right path. The owl sings, but its distance seems daunting.
I move into a thick cluster of alder. Given the choice, I would rather move through alder than hazel, but at this point, I want to move through neither. The only thing worse than alder and hazel is windfall.
At some point, even before the 4th of July storm in 2000, a sudden wind swept over this landscape, sending the weak and infirm to the ground. Spruce and fir were stacked atop one another, waiting to become the detritus for a forest that will thrive long after I am gone. Now, however, they represent an enormous barrier to my movements. Two years ago, in a similar circumstance, my snowshoe had been "secured" by the stub of a spruce tree and I fell. Not just to the ground, but through the disarray of splayed trees, and then to the ground. My shoulder ached for weeks.
I click on my headlamp and hope for an easier path, but none are illuminated. If I am Point A and the owl is Point B, then the shortest distance to Point B is through the windfall.
With each successive step, I raise my snowshoes above the fallen trees, pausing to make sure that my balance was in line with the direction I was travelling. Long lines of mounded snow marked each tree to either step on or avoid. I move 200 feet in 10 minutes, and consider it good time.
When a traversable forest floor again appears, I listen for the owl. I click off my headlamp and beyond the trees, the flat white of a lake appears through the silhouettes of upright trees. Only one thing is worse than an owl tucked behind a distant ridge, and that is an owl tucked away on the other side of a lake.
Sound travels forever across ice and snow. There is no topography to redirect it, no trees to deflect it. As far as I have traveled, my spirits sink when I realize that to get to the owl, I have to cross the lake.
I am not a big fan of crossing any body of water towards the end of March. Springs lay hidden beneath the surface and what looks like a limitless expanse of snow and ice might just be window dressing. One time in 16 years I have broken through the ice, doing so on a day when the high temperature was -8. That experience has left an indelible impression on me.
If I follow the shoreline, it will add at least another mile to my trek. If I proceed on a straight line, the owl is less than a half-mile away. I look skyward and contemplate my plight. The decision is easy.
The same warming sun that has placed a crust atop the snow within the exposed forest floor does strange things to the crust on a lake. There are no interruptions to its structure and to fracture the surface in one place, means the surface is fractured elsewhere. Each tentative step on the ice sends a groan careening away from me. I look for rocks on the surface and move towards them, oblivious to the zigzag movements and extra distance they cause.
When trees again loom before me, both windfall and hazel await my movements. Within 10 minutes however, I am standing beneath the singing owl.
I unzip the fleece to rid myself of the pent-up heat and to prepare for the warmth my down jacket will provide. As noisy as my approach has been, the owl does not seem to be bothered. He sings from atop a white pine, unaware that it was me he was courting. I grab my trap and place three mice within the safety of its wire mesh. They will be warm and well fed, but will they attract the male?
When an owl moves or is interested in something beneath him, he grows quiet. I place the trap under the white pine and move away. His song stops immediately. Minutes later, he hits the metal and I wait patiently, hoping that his feet have become entangled in the nylon nooses. My heart pounds loudly. I move, simultaneously flicking on my headlamp. The owl is atop the trap, but I am uncertain if he has become ensnared. I crouch down, waiting for flailing wings to tell me that his flight has been impeded.
He moves slightly, then flies to a nearby birch stump. It is a scenario repeated 6 times over the next two hours. At one point, I sit less than 4 feet from him, watching him watch the mice. I knew that to trap him, I needed devices that I had not carried with me.
When my body starts to shiver, my inner voice strongly suggests that my patience would have to give way to survival. I gather up the mice and prepare for the journey back to my truck. Even before I depart, the owl starts his serenade again. I pause and listen to his ethereal voice, and then follow my tracks back to civilization.
When my night started, he was not the owl I had intended to pursue. Yet, there are no scripts that guide life in the North Woods. He was the owl that sang for me and he was the owl that guided me to his home.
© W.H. Lane