Got him! (Or her!) One of our (at least two) resident Great Horned Owls here in Chignik Lake.
As the sun doesn’t rise till around 9:00 AM this time of year in Chignik Lake, it’s still a long way till dawn as I write this. Eddie Vedder’s Hard Sun is playing softly on the Bose, and the owl is still calling from a wooden utility pole close to our house. Two fingers of bourbon and too wired to sleep now. In addition to a number of technical challenges in getting a photograph of an owl at night, there’s the 2:00-AM-in-the-morning-courage thing.
I lay awake in bed, listening to the hoo! hoo! hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo…
wondering whether to bother getting up, knowing the wary bird would probably be gone by the time I could pull on clothes, fumble with my camera and make it out the door into the black, freezing night. Barbra’s deep, steady breathing tempts me to turn my pillow to the cool side, roll over, and give in to dreams.
But there it is again. Insistent. Calling…
I resent the light I must flip on, knowing the owl can see it illuminating the window. I resent the jangle of my belt buckle, the zipper of my jacket, the bump of my tripod agains the table, imagining the owl can hear this racket through the walls. As I turn the knob on the outside door to open it as noiselessly as I can (even though it seems to me it makes a great deal of noise) I picture the owl nervously lifting from its roost and gliding away.
This might very well be the definitive image of “a baleful eye.” When I first saw this frame, Yeats’ lines, from Under Ben Bulben – “Cast a cold eye/on life, on death/Horseman, pass by!” galloped through my mind. Owls evoke emotions like no other bird.
Outside, the sky is black. And silent. I know where this owl likes to perch and watch for voles. With no choice but to be patient as my eyes adjust to the inky dark, I work myself into position a cautious distance from where I think it will be.
There it is again! That familiar hoo! hoo! hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo.
The call is a time machine.
Not like a time machine.
A time machine. I’m 17, back in Clarion, Pennsylvania. From the waist up I’m as brown as sand on the beaches of North Carolina where we used to vacation. From the waist down, faded Levis and Nikes. All day I’ve been perched precariously on a long extension ladder, painting fuel silos – squinting into the white glare, or lugging rolls of tar paper slung on my shoulder up the ladder to a leaky roof, or out by the warehouse rolling fuel oil drums and stacking tires at Keith Martin’s Exxon plant.
By the time I get off work, I’m beat. I take a quick bath (no shower at our place), pull on a pair of running shorts, my Nikes and maybe a cotton t-shirt and head out Doe Run Road for a five-mile run. It’s cool under the forest canopy, big strides on the road that is sometimes old pavement, sometimes old dirt. Once in a while I kick out a grouse along the roadside edge or spook a few whitetail deer. I know now – but did not know back then – that the crazy, laughing bird calls I heard were shy pileated woodpeckers.
From head to tail, Great Horned Owls average over 20 inches tall with a wingspan of four feet. Their feathers are exceptionally soft, designed for absolute quiet – a necessity for hunting at night. Their faces are almost flat, which gives them pinpoint depth vision and amplified hearing. Their enormous eyes are loaded with tapeta lucida, a light-reflecting tissue behind their retina that allows for excellent night vision.
After the run I take a second bath, get back into jeans, my favorite linen button-down shirt and my fishing sneakers. I tuck a small plastic box into the shirt’s breast pocket. It holds a couple of Rapalas, a Baby Lucky 13, a few split-shot sinkers and a few #6 hooks. That and my pocket knife are all I need. I grab my spinning rod, my hat, the keys to the family’s “second car” — a light green Chevy Chevette hatchback -, and I’m off.
Smallmouth bass. I’m obsessed with them.
Up Route 322, northwest on 66, past cornfields, strip mines and copses of oaks… I have to watch for the turnoff to the river. Sometimes mayflies spatter the windshield as I cross the steel-grate, single-lane bridge. Then it’s left up a couple of hard-packed dirt ruts, the center section grown in with blue-eyed grass and white pine seedlings.
Wiped out after an eight-hour day where I didn’t use my mind, the run, the drive, the river, the prospect of fish… have me energized. I park the Chevette, grab my rod, tap the minimalist box of gear in my breast pocket and walk to the bridge I just crossed over Cather’s Run to have a look at the trout that are usually there.
At first, I have to train my eyes to see through the sunlight-dappled surface of the creek. Once I find the multi-hued stone-cobbled bottom, I start looking for shadows.
Claws facing toward camera, the owl demonstrates its legendary ability to completely turn its head backwards – kind of like me at Costco (don’t ask). Looks a bit like Batman.
And there they are. One… two… three… four trout. Browns. This in a stream locals consider to be fished out this late in summer. I know how to catch these trout, and I know that there are more upstream. But its enough to know that these fish are here, somehow comforting. I never told anyone about those trout. Years later, crammed into a berthing compartment on the U. S. Blue Ridge with 70 other sailors, bunks stacked three high, toe to head and maybe three feet between rows, I’d think about those trout as I was trying to fall asleep. I still think about those trout.
The waters of the Clarion River in July and August were warm under the summer sun and I could wet wade till dark without getting too cold. And so I’d walk out into the river in sneakers, jeans and a shirt, thigh deep or waist deep, and start casting.
I don’t think I ever didn’t catch at least a few bass.
Looking upriver, on the right-side bank rising from the lawn of the lone house there (almost never occupied), was probably the most magnificent, ancient, verdantly-green, sky-reaching White Pine tree I’ve ever seen. One evening, coming from the direction of that house and that tree, I heard a distinctive hoo… hoo… hoo…
I was puzzled. The voice sounded… human. It sounded like “who.”
They’re beautiful. Mysterious. Regal. Unique. Yes, they invite being remade as throw pillows. They’re a Halloween icon, a symbol of of everything from wisdom to death to any other superstition humans might ascribe to a being that merely wishes to stay comfortable, eat, and have offspring. Their existence can be rationalized a dozen ways – they eat rodents, keep aways crows, etc. But, look at this exquisite animal. And then imagine a world without this creature.
There was a considerable pause. I continued casting. And then, again, either louder or closer or both…
Looking back, I suppose I placed a rising inflection on the vocalization as I turned it into a “Who?” and an implied “Who are you, fishing the water in front of my property?”
I hollered back, giving my full name and explaining that it was my car parked near the bridge. I was trying to make sense of the fact that I still couldn’t see the (I presumed) old man who must surely be standing on the lawn somewhere making this inquiry of me.
Subsequently, all was silent. Assuming I had satisfied his (whoever “his” was) curiosity, I resumed fishing and didn’t give the matter further thought, save for a mental note to knock on his door if a light was on when I came in and thereby make proper introductions.
As was the case every night on the river, swallows were gradually replaced by bats, mayflies by caddisflies, and rustlings in the tall grass along the banks indicated that skunks, muskrats and raccoons were becoming active. The appearance of the first star or two in the deepening blue sky provided a signal to start wading to shore.
One more cast…
As I retrieved my Lucky 13 across the shallow break where the bass came to feed at dusk, neither startled nor not startled I picked up a silhouette flapping toward me from my right. And then something like alarm did set in as the object rapidly grew larger, seeming to hone in on me. I ducked a little. The owl flew so close to my head I could feel the breeze from its wings.
And yet, I could not hear it.
I’ve been buzzed by any number of birds. You can always hear them.
I could not hear this one.
In that moment, I learned that owls are capable of otherworldly silence.
It is probably only in my mind that that owl and I became something of friends over the course of subsequent fishing trips. Often times he or she would vocalize from the pine before swooping across the river, but never again as close as that first encounter.
Back in the car, I’d crank the heater against the Pennsylvania cold of wet denim and the Allegheny Mountains’ rapidly falling night temperatures and turn the radio to KDKA to catch game two of a Pittsburgh Pirate twi-night double header, mayflies and caddisflies and moths dancing in the headlights.
Here I am in Chignik Lake, Alaska. Forty years later, living on good water, an owl outside my window bringing back memories like they happened yesterday.