Thursday, May 10, 2012

Animal Stories -- Channeling Dr. Doolittle

The great northern wilderness comes stuffed with wildlife of all sorts or it wouldn’t be wilderness. From the notable bear, wolf and cougar down to a host of tiny creatures unnoticed, all manner of beasties bring character to the woods. Even the smallest is critical to the health of the place and in ways we might never suspect.

Over the last few decades, many species once lost to the Superior Basin or winnowed down to the significance of rarity are resurgent. That’s due in part to what we’ve done but more to what we’ve stopped doing. That is, mostly we no longer harvest, poison and otherwise destroy with abject abandon.

We’re better these days at recognizing hard choices and the information necessary to make those wisely is more readily at hand, so the real world occasionally holds the argument over relentless construct. These are comparatively better days for wilderness and everything that prospers from it, to be sure.

Forty years or so ago it’d have made your trip, to see a single eagle. Today our national symbol is busy feasting on fresh road kill off the shoulders of highways, with your trip well and truly made should you happen to drive off the road while trying not to hit one. And there’s a bit of a story to tell about just how long it was locals knew the cougar again roamed the shaded hills before the State finally confirmed the popular consensus. We’ll get to that sometime later.

Insect life is particularly robust in the wilderness. Worth a mention, as you’ve not lived ‘til some five inch bug drops from the night and lands on your bare flesh to pursue unknown intent...

Spend enough time in the home of myriad critters and your paths are bound to cross. In the midst of such abundance and diversity, that intersection will range anywhere from sublime to ridiculous and sometimes all at once.


The Barred Owl

Barred Owls are at home in the northwoods. Their distinctive voice is often heard at night and conversations between birds can carry on at length.

The woods that on three sides surround the Presque Isle campground in the Porkies are as good a place as any to hear these. It’s tall forest sporting a dense canopy over sparse understory and much of what falls is annually picked over by a steady stream of tourists gathering wood for fire. On clear nights the light of those fires is seen a long way out over Superior.

Towards the forest away from the lake, light fades fast and when you venture out at night home fires fail completely. We’d walk those dark woods with flashlights turned off because when needs be your feet have better vision than they generally get credit for and once you figure that out it’s only natural to press it, just to see what’s what.

Sure we’d bump around some or now and again take a fall, though not so often as you’d expect. And walking the woods at night without construct to preserve expectation is primal, which can be an exercise in fun. So off we’d go, the occasional minor injury proudly worn as a badge for time in the woods well spent.

The Barred Owl’s voice proved simple to imitate reasonably well. That’s rare opportunity for me as I can’t whistle worth a damn and typical bird calls are well outside my reach.

One night at Presque Isle a particularly incessant bird rang out from the woods. No answer forthcoming, it called from near the same spot again and again. Inspired, I went off into the forest to talk with it, partly to pursue the aforementioned pleasures of blindly stumbling around at night and mostly because when you make weird noises while sitting in the dark at your picnic table in an otherwise crowded campground, the neighbors tend to look askance.

Maybe fifty yards or so into the night and no calamity having claimed me, I found a likely tree to lean upon and commenced as best I could to talk bird.

I called once…twice. A third time, then went quiet to listen. The owl of my ambition maintained place and pace. We parried like this for a bit. By all evidence, the bird was unimpressed. Eventually I slipped down to the forest floor, content to sit and listen to the owl.

Wilderness works in shifts. If anything, nightshift is more active than day. It’s fine to be in the woods in the dark with your back against a sturdy tree and the world around wide awake. Sit still enough long enough and all sorts of things might come to visit -- some even that you can hear and not see, which is quite the thing.

After awhile my owl fell silent. I grew chill in the night and missed the companionship of friends and fire. I stood slowly, all but defeated. With desultory effort, I made one last stab at talking owl before returning to relative civilization. My voice croaked off through the night, “Oout, ‘o oout, ‘o oooooo…”

No sooner had the sound cleared my throat than the genuine article answered back from my tree, not twenty feet above my head. Reflexively, I ducked.

“Geez Louise!!” I cried aloud, or words to that effect. That's strictly human talk, but I'm bettin' the owl got the gist of it.

I’ve often wondered and of course there’s no way to know, whether I’d managed to call that Barred Owl to me in the dark or whether he’d just wandered over to see what the stupid human was up to, sitting in the woods at night, pretending to talk like an owl. Not to mention the chance to startle the stupid human right out of his skin, a sport that animals sometimes engage in just for fun, trust me.

Doesn’t matter. When I returned to the comfort of the campfire, it was with a tale to tell.

No comments:

Post a Comment