owltalk 2002


28 March 2002


It lies in the remotest part of northern Minnesota, stretching from Hovland to the Canadian Border, then west to the Gunflint Trail. It meanders through old and young forests, through sterile patches of land where the State's last applications of herbicide were liberally applied years ago, and through isolated patches of thick, fat aspen. It is a path through upland forests with few pockets of spruce that define where the boreal owl thrives.


When I started my surveys, the Arrowhead route was a convenient, albeit distant circular route. On its 50 km swath, I could make my presence felt and have my silence ignored, just like every other route I traverse. The road was plowed then to allow for trucks to haul out loads of birch and aspen, and the cold air reverberated with the sounds of jake-brakes on the long downslopes that led to asphalt.


But even in the "good old days", my Arrowhead route was not a survey route that I looked forward to. I can drive to Lake Saganaga on the Gunflint Trail and survey from sunset to sunrise without giving it a second thought. But when I hit Hovland, I know I am in for a long night.


When I resumed my surveys in 1996, a six mile stretch was no longer plowed. There was no reason to. The timber sale units had been outlined on maps, placed on someone's desk, and then allowed to fester on the landscape. But in the interest of science I made do, skiing, mountain biking the stretch in both darkness and under bright moonlight. If I was fortunate, an assistant would wait for me at one end and I would only have to struggle with 6 miles of silence. More often, however, it was 6 miles out and 6 miles back; a 12 mile journey of sweat soaked fleece and empty water bottles.


It was on one of my ski-ins in 1996, that I had my second "close encounter". Unexplainable occurrences that grabbed me in my isolation and shook me into humility. You never forget, yet know it is just a matter of time before you are shook again.


And last night, I sat at the start of the unplowed road and wondered what to do. I didn't want to ski and truthfully, didn't even want to survey it. I know what it holds and it is silence. Vast and encompassing silence. I paused again, looked up the corridor, put the truck into 4-wheel drive, and headed towards the Gunflint.


At each half-mile stop, embraced by the cold calm air and moonlight that created sharp shadows, there were no sounds. Nothing. The Arrowhead route had accepted my challenge and was thrusting it back in my face.


Slowly, I made progress towards the gravel, moving through undulating mounds of snow and up steep slopes where my vehicle's momentum came to a groaning halt. With less than a mile remaining, I could go no further. A windswept swath of snow had created its North Woods barrier. I thought of shoveling, but instead surrendered, backing up along the same tracks for a half mile, then turning around and starting the long drive through Hovland, then Grand Marais, to the point on the landscape that I could virtually touch an hour and a half earlier.


I have a firm sense of owl karma and believe that every effort is rewarded. It was obvious, however, that my reward would have to present itself on another night, on a different route. The Arrowhead showed itself as it always has: obdurate and unbending. I knew that, but met it on its terms anyway. It won again.


W.H. Lane