it may be april 1st to you, but to me, it is april 1st 1992 because every april 1st since 1992 i get to relive my one and only owling evening that nearly ended with me and my thermos on-board the mother ship.
even time hasn’t lessened the adrenalin and panic of that evening, and it was all because of an owler’s curiousity and willingness to try new and adventurous things.
one night in the north wooods…
for years i have been reluctant to tell this story. instead, i have remained silent, not because it isn’t worthy of a retelling, but because i didn’t want to shake the roots of my north shore existence. i didn’t want people to whisper that my field technician’s name was jack daniels, or that the owlman’s medication wasn’t adequately addressing “his problem”.
tonight, i will “celebrate the 19-year anniversary of the “occurrence”. everybody remembers where they were when history was written and this is no different. it shook me to my foundation and not a sunset goes by without me thinking about that night in 1992.
ten years ago, my technician’s name was not jack daniels, it was david mccormick, and he came to the rescue when my first technician left for greener pastures and the daylight they entailed. dave and i were omnipresent in the western portion of my study area. we sat on owls and we found owls, then we sat some more. on our daybreak return to the ramshackle trailer we called home, we drank beer, threw darts, and listened to talk radio. we had perfected the field experience.
the snows were deep that year, but by the end of march, there was a hard thick crust at the surface and during a brief window created by warm daytime and cold nighttime temperatures, access to the forest was there for the taking.
i had long been intrigued by the lowlands along the toohey lake road, but never had the luxury or the time to survey its length. the road stretches from lake county 7 to the sawbill trail and at one time, was the substrate upon which trains moved. it is flat and straight. local legend has it that a locomotive was lost along the road, sucked up by a bottomless bog, never to be seen again. being a railroad brat, i like to think that the train is just running a little behind schedule.
to the north of the “grade”, the timber-frear loop connects the quasi-wilderness chain of lakes, including timber, frear, and elbow lakes. i have fished those lakes under the billowy clouds of summer but even then, saw the surrounding hillsides as promising for the obligate, secondary cavity nesters that now control my life.
david and i structured our plans with coverage in mind. he would drop me off at the westernmost reach of the grade and continue with surveys to the north, then east. meanwhile, i would pedal the nearly 25 miles, stopping frequently to tally the music of the night. sometime before the first light of day, we would meet at the sawbill trail. with safety in mind, david and i carried portable radios, although we both knew the inherent risks associated with our isolation.
at sunset, we moved up the road to the grade. dave dropped me off and paused as i pedaled my way towards the eastern horizon. two miles later, i watched a pair of saw-whets as they danced their furtive then frenzied dance of reproduction. pausing, i listened as dave and the truck moved beyond a distant ridge, leaving me alone in the night.
after the saw-whets, the enthusiasm for my journey quickly eroded. my fingers and feet lost touch with their world as near-zero cold penetrated my clothing. i labored up the slopes and fought frostbite down them. but just when i was lamenting my decision to take this journey, i took in my surroundings.
the sky was as rich and as dark as it gets on a north woods night. black and gray streaks from distant galaxies were framed and interrupted by stars and planets that have created both fear and poetry through the ages. the wind was non-existent and any sound (had there been any) would carry for miles. i took a deep breath of the north woods smelling salts, drank hot coffee from my thermos, listened, and heard absolutely nothing.
pedaling in a low gear, coming out of one draw and then entering another, my mind wandered as it so often does when silence bathes my nights. i identified and solved all of the world’s problems, and resolved to change those things in my life that needed changing. but then everything became irrelevant. for it was there atop a small knoll, that i saw hanging in the sky, the “lights”.
my first reaction was calm and focused. i cynically shook my head, rolled my eyes, and said, “oh great, now i have to wait for these snowmobilers to move through.” and then, the electricity of awareness shot through my system: the snowmobilers were in the air, there was no sound, and…hailing the depths of instant paranoia…my approach surely had been observed.
my heart pounded like a kettle drum, my breaths could not supply enough oxygen, and my eyes welled with the tears of complete and total fear. i straddled my bike, unable or unwilling to move. i watched as the lights rose slightly, banked at a 30º angle, then settled lower to the ground. they were framed by the road i had once followed to meet my technician. now, however, it was the road i followed to meet my fate.
thoughts become jumbled when evidence of ones’ demise is presented as it was that morning. i was instantaneously turned into a buffet of irrational thoughts. i reached for the radio and was about to call dave, when i realized that if i used the radio, “they” will know i’m here. “my headlamp, jeez, why didn’t i turn it off?” i waited for the beam of light to appear and pull me to the mother ship. .
but then, in a sure sign of desperation and panic, i became emboldened. i reached for my thermos and decided that i would not pass easily into the night they could come and get the owlman, but not without a fight. i was going to crack some alien skulls.
and so i waited, and i envisioned the headlines: “owl biologist vanishes from the landscape.…..thermos found…..details at 10.”
if this was a chess match, i was waiting for my opponents next move. the lights tilted a bit more and then disappeared behind the ridgeline. the cliché of “out of sight, out of mind” had never been more incorrect. i felt strongly that out of sight meant the “landing party” was on the ground.
i slumped to the snow, resigned to this unforeseen ending of my life. i waited, but nothing happened. with temperatures near zero, shivering woke me from the abyss of helplessness and despair, and i realized that survival may not involve contusions on alien noggins caused by a flailing thermos, but it did involve moving.
underway again, i tried to put a good spin on what had just occurred, but it all came back to the fact that i was going crazy. too many nights fueled by half-gallons of coffee and too many days without enough sleep. i pedaled towards the ridge that hid the lights, and didn’t care what happened. i had given up.
when i stopped, i could only look at the ground. i didn’t want to see the sky, didn’t want to know what lurked or hovered above me. i listened for owls, but not very well. my concentration had deserted me.
the last 5 miles, i pedaled as though in the tour de france. ironically, the only boreal owl heard that night sang less than a half-mile from where dave sat, his headlamp flashing down the corridor of spruce during my sprint to companionship.
it was 3 in the morning, i was late, and i apologized. dave and i made small talk and i tried not to alert him to the fact that i was going crazy. but i think he sensed something was wrong.
“how’d it go?” i asked.
“anything unusual happen?”
“did anything unusual happen?” i repeated.
“you mean with the owls?” he asked.
with that, dave moved towards me, grabbed me firmly by the arm, and said, “the lights, you saw the lights.” i crumpled to the ground, swearing, relieved, still sane. “shit dave, you saw them too?” i cried tears of exhaustion and relief.
never, in the history of mankind, was so much beer consumed and so many misdirected darts thrown after daylight then were consumed and thrown that morning. in his retelling, dave was north of windy lake, driving to the next survey stop, when something caught his attention. he stopped, didn’t see anything and exited the truck. then, he saw the lights, not knowing that as he watched from his distant vista, i was watching the same thing from a much more tactile location. he said he hurried back, shut the door and watched. his mind raced because this was an anomaly in the night sky and he “didn’t need to see an anomaly in the night sky”. “it freaked me out,” would be his oft-repeated saying the remainder of the spring.
the next day, i called the cook county sheriff to register an anonymous report. the dispatcher took my call, said she needed a name, paused, and then said kind of quietly, “yeah, one of the deputies saw the same thing.”
dave and i stayed trailer-bound for two nights. we didn’t speak about owls, we didn’t speak about the lights. we avoided any references to reality and made several trips to the liquor store. if nothing else, biologists know how to avoid reality.
for weeks, dave and i wanted to speak with the sheriff who had unknowingly shared his night with us. in a roundabout fashion, his story gradually found us. it turns out that while on patrol, he saw the lights, and watched through binoculars at the “object” rose in the sky before the lights vanished. but, even with the lights off, the outline of an object remained. another deputy told me, several years later, that the deputy was kind of “freaked out” by the incident. after analyzing dave’s, the sheriff’s, and my reaction to the occurrence, i am now convinced that “freak out” is a generic term used to describe that very moment in life, where the decision to shit in your pants is no longer a decision.
and so several nights later, after putting off the inevitable, dave and i were back in the woods. the owls were active beyond the capacity of our ears most nights and we worked ourselves into exhaustion making sense of all the music. and as we just had experienced, on some nights in the north woods, the music is all that makes sense.
in 1997, i attended the second international owl symposium in winnipeg, canada. during one of the pre-conference socials, i spoke with other biologists whose passion places them in darkness. after animated conversations about owls, i changed the subject to the things that happen when owlers are owling. i was surprised at the response. and while ufo stories were the most common, there were also stories of poltergeists and apparitions that, at the very least, made an evening in the woods seem not so important. one noted finnish researcher confided to me in broken english that after his sighting “ah vass freaked owt.” it’s good to know i wasn’t alone then, or on april 1, 1992.