With the mini-vacation over, it was time to get back into the normal routines – at least until June, anyway. As I started my work-week on Tuesday I found myself impatient for next January and February. It didn’t make sense because I really do not like winter. There’s something about those visiting owls that is alluring, though. We’d have to find other birds to pursue until next winter because the owls were on their way back north. But then on Tuesday night an MOU-Net post from Steve Wilson was waiting in my email. Steve reported that he drove 130 miles in Lake County doing an owl survey and came up with nothing but then had a Great Gray Owl perching in his own yard when he returned at 1 AM. I thought it was neat, but it was nothing to get super excited over. I’m sure there was still an owl here and an owl there. They weren’t all gone.
On Wednesday when I was eating lunch at work, I checked my email and saw that Steve made another posting. My eyes bulged as I read the following:
Apparently the great gray owl in my yard was no fluke. The following was posted to the Ely Field Naturalists site today:
“Not sure if this is the case up in Ely, but the Great Grays seem to be everywhere in Tower right now. We are seeing owls every single day for the past week or so. Specifically, there are Great Grays right by the Marjo Motel, and also right outside of Tower on Hwy. 135 (that new triangle area- the loop detour). There is an owl that seems to like perching on road signs right there on Hwy. 135, and on the Powerain building road sign. Also plenty of sightings by the Y Store, Pike River Flowage, Fortune Bay parking lot, among other places. They are really tame, and don’t seem to be bothered by cars stopping and gawking!
Tower? The town that’s a half hour from my parents’ house? Seeing them everywhere? Sightings every day? My mind was swirling. My lunch companions had no idea that while I sat quietly as they talked sports, there was a major storm brewing in my head. The probability of seeing the Ghost was high. Do I dare consider another trip back up north? Could I possibly yank Evan out of another day of school? As I mulled this over another MOU-Net post came in: Boreal Owl seen all day in a yard in Cook. Cook? The town I went to school in? By now my mind was in overdrive. What do I do with this information? I forwarded these MOU posts to my wife and contacted my new birding friend Steve, about the possibility of a fast trip up north; I knew he needed the Great Gray for his life list too. Melissa responded in an email with, “When are you going up north??” I took it to be her implicit blessing. Now I knew I was going but when? Steve told me he couldn’t do anything until Saturday. Argh. The owls could easily be gone three days later. Plus we had things going on at home on Friday and Saturday.
The questions continued to pound away inside my head. Now as I taught class I was fighting the students’ distractions as well as my own. On the outside I was answering questions about linear models and helping students with surface area – topics I could teach in my sleep by now, but on the inside I was asking my own questions and trying to answer them. If I don’t take advantage of this, how long will it be until we get our Great Gray lifer? Could I take a personal day on such short notice? What would my students be doing if I were gone Friday, or even tomorrow? When my last afternoon class was done, I went to Bridgid, our Human Resources person, to ask about the possibility of taking a sudden personal day. She told me that Friday was out – they didn’t have enough subs that day. She said it would have to be tomorrow if I did take a day off. Tomorrow? That meant leaving for Up North after school! That was a five-and-a-half hour trip. It was insanity. This was at 3:00. The HR person needed to know by 4:00. I went back to my classroom and mulled this all over. Do I dare? It is so crazy, so irresponsible, so…not me. I’ve learned that like investing, birding is sometimes all about timing, and you have to act. These things have wings. There is no promise of tomorrow with them. People go years without seeing another Great Gray or Boreal Owl. Many birders have never seen either. But could I really do the big drive after a full day of work without even planning on it?
The clock said 3:30, and I found my feet walking toward Bridgid’s office. I was doing it. It was the craziest decision I had ever made. I would be driving across the state and sleeping in my parents’ house this very night. I did not see that one coming when I woke up in the morning. I quickly put my sub plans together and was out the door by 4:00, running to my SUV.
Once the decision had been made, a calm set in. I was now in tactical mode. Melissa was picking up Evan in Willmar and would be bringing him home. Meanwhile I changed and threw one set of clothes and some toiletries for both Evan and myself in a bag. Weird. I’ve never packed so little going up north. I packed up our winter gear and got the vehicle outfitted for hauling my two dogs. Leaving these beasts home with Melissa for her to take care of would have just been cruel. It was just as easy to bring them along. I piled about 6 pillows in the back seat to make a comfy environment where Evan could easily fall asleep in the car.
Melissa’s after-school work and errands were taking her longer than she expected, so I ended up going in to Willmar to pick up both kids. As each minute ticked by that we weren’t pointed north, I felt more and more crazy and frantic. I picked up Evan first and told him what was going on. While I expected shouting and screaming, he was fairly quiet, but his excitement grew the more he understood the reality of what was happening. Once we got everybody home, I put together some food for Evan and me for an on-the-road supper. Evan put on his pajamas and made a bathroom stop, we said good-bye to our ladies, and at 6:00 we were northbound. Just a couple hours earlier I had committed to this trip.
Once in the car, I talked to Evan very seriously that at 8:00 there would be no talking, no radio, no books, no nothing. He needed to go close his eyes and go to sleep. I told him that if we ever wanted to do something like this again that he needed to do his part to make it work. A crabby kid on Friday would ruin any fun in the future. He seemed to understand. In addition, I told him that I would hold onto his water bottle and give it to him for a couple drinks when needed. Our last trip up north we had bought him a bottle of water and ended up making three emergency bathroom stops. Time was of the essence tonight. We needed to fly.
Strangely, with each mile traveled, I felt better and better about doing this. It was a real adventure that Evan and I would remember for the rest of our lives, whatever the outcome would be. It was also a treat to be able to have a long ride with my son. He talked on and on about the things going on his world – how he loved the gymnastics unit they were doing in Phy Ed and how he was the only one to climb a rope to the top. Our conversation also included bird-related topics as we’d see a bird here or there and as this budding reader read his field guides and listened to bird songs with the Audobon Society Bird App on his iPod. As the sun set, though, Evan was true to his word and tried to sleep. By 8:20 I was getting no response from the backseat.
Just before 11:00 I was greeting my parents in the flesh with a sleepy boy in my arms. Neither of us expected to see each other so soon. The greeting was quick because the Team would be heading out before dawn on the greatest wild
goose ghost chase of our lives. Sleep was essential, but it was hard to come by with visions of what tomorrow could hold.
To read Wild Ghost Chase – Part 2: The Great Gray Ghost, click here.