Our route is the same each year. We begin a half hour after sunset, stopping every one-point-six kilometers along the stretch of road that swings around Sturgeon Bay and climbs up the Nor’Wester range away from Lake Superior. It traverses varied terrain, from goose-clogged waterways, past rushing spring melts, through recently cleared boreal forest and along farmer’s fields to connect with Hwy 61 about 20 km from our starting point.
Usually by the end, the hot chocolate has spilled, the snacks are gone, the kids are asleep (or pretending to be) and my husband and I are the only ones standing outside, shivering in the chilly April air, straining to hear a reply to our recorded Boreal Owl call, while worrying about fending off the annoyed dogs from a nearby farmhouse whose barking sounds closer by the minute. And just as in Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon that inspired our very first night of owling, sometimes there’s an owl, and sometimes there isn’t.
It was a different experience this year.
This year, the kids are grown and dispersed, so I recruited some of my writing group to tag along and lend a listening ear.
We set off after yoga class, clasping mugs of tea, chatting editing and agents, African safari’s and child soldiers, granting programs and indie publishing. We managed to steal a few minutes of conversation time to refresh our knowledge of owl calls, but only just.
The night was clear, not a wisp of cloud in the sky, and temperatures were mild. Our first few stops were disappointing. The honking geese and rush of melting ice tumbling down rocky watersheds to the lake interfered with our listening, and we heard only faint high pitched hints of Northern Saw-whet Owls, the trilling of American Woodcocks, and the thud…thud…thud-thud-thud-d-d-d-d of Ruffed Grouse calling out into the darkness.
I reminded them of Jane Yolen’s wise words: sometimes there’s an owl, and sometimes there isn’t.
As darkness wrapped around us, the stars pricked vividly to fill the inky sky. Far, far away from the lights of the city, and hours before moonrise, they twinkled to brilliance until the ceiling above us was awash with diamonds and alive with the creatures of myth. Ursa Major, the bear along with her cub, the Pleiades, Polaris, pointing north, Cassiopeia, Venus… even Draco, the dragon, was on the prowl.
At each stop, we broadcast our CD, and listened, gazing up at the shadowed points of pine trees poking into the sparkling sky, and as the night progress, we watched Orion march towards the west, his bow always ready. We imagined the creatures we knew were crouched hidden in the trees, or perched on branches peering down at us. We felt their eyes on us. We gave them voices.
Between stops, we munched on fresh cheese curds and pretzel crisps, sipped San Pellegrino and told racy jokes. We paused to say hello to a moose after his dark form broke the beam of our headlights when he ambled across the road. He took a moment to stand in the bush and gaze inquisitively at us, ears pricked as we commented on his beauty.
And then, at our last stop; who-who-who… whoooo, whoooo.
A Great Horned Owl. No... two. Calling to each other.
They paid little attention to the rush of highway traffic; ignored our broadcast Boreal Owl and Great Grey Owl calls. They conversed. We stood long after we needed to, eavesdropping on their conversation.
We didn’t see them. But they were there.
And as we drove home to fall into warm beds, we knew; sometimes there’s an owl.