9 April, 2000
The auroras were spectacular, the owls were not. April 6th was one of those rare nights in the North Woods. A burst of energy from the sun sent a torrent of electrons towards earth, and at the poles, excited oxygen and nitrogen molecules let go of their energy with shimmering curtains of green and red on black. It made I-Max look like an Etch-a-Sketch.
The auroras visited, but winter has returned. Cold air and a layer of snow have the robins and woodcock second guessing their travel itineraries. Snow changes the night. It illuminates and insulates and life again leaves its footprint. The prey move across travel lanes, the predators move down them; looking for those unfortunates that make the wrong move, at the wrong place, at the wrong time. Finally, this April felt like every other northern Minnesota April I have known.
Tonight, Rich and I went in search of an owl that, two nights earlier, had sung from the cusp of the Wilderness. He sang from the end of an old logging trail. Today, the trail is obscure and overgrown with alder. Less than a decade ago, it was busy with the machinery of harvest. Trucks headed to the south with stacked, 8 foot lengths of aspen and pine, and returned empty. Then, when their work was done, a flame was touched to the forest floor, and pine cones spit out their seeds like popcorn.
Where the pines end, 30 year old aspen stand, tall and firm. They too tell the story of an earlier visit by the same machinery and the same trucks running towards the artery by the Lake. The aspen here are healthy, with fat buds that drip deciduous plasma when squeezed. In two weeks, their lateral branches and crowns will cover their portion of the earth like an umbrella. The area has owl potential. Not now, but eventually.
Rich and I split-up about a half-mile up the trail. He stayed near the aspen and pine. I followed the footprints of a lone wolf to the north. There seemed to be some symmetry in that. A quarter of a mile later, I did what I so often do: I huddled beneath down and fleece and waited.
A slivered moon sat above Jupiter and Mars, but then was lost as winds swept angry clouds beneath the stars. The low pressure system exhaled like a great bellows. Breezes then gusts. Breezes then gusts. Tree tops bent in submission and limbs were released from their burden of ice and snow. If the owls were singing, I never would have known it.
After 30 minutes of thick clouds, a dark band of clear skies appeared on the northern horizon. Beneath the last of the clouds, the night sky fluoresced. The solar flare had unraveled.
The owl that I couldn't hear, Rich did: two bouts before its movement and song were lost to hurried air. It would have been easy to feel disappointment, but there was little to be disappointed with. Rich and I followed our, and the lone wolf's footprints back to the truck, pausing periodically to listen and then look towards a sky that pulsed with energy. The owl didn't matter, at least on this night.
© W.H. Lane