Posted by: Jim E | November 26, 2010

Alone In The North Woods…A Merit Badge…And The Great Gray Owl…

I was reading the newest Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine this week…it is a source of wonder every time it comes…you can get some of what it has every month or so by going to http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/volunteer/index.html…there are great stories about animals, hunting, fishing, conservation, wonderful photography and other great stuff…click and try it…it’s all about Minnesota but much of it transfers to other states…in other words you will see your own state in most of the articles and pictures…but either way it will make you think…and that is what all of this is about anyway…

What the magazine brought about in my mind goes way back to my growing up years in Minnesota…I was in Boy Scouts, working on my Eagle award in scouting…I was about 15 years old…my, oh my, that is 53 years ago…anyway, that summer of between my 9th and 10th grade years I worked as a counselor at Many Point Boy Scout Camp in Northern Minnesota…a fairly rugged camp at the time…but it had everything from campers eating in a mess hall and staying in cabins to gradually working up to tents and as the scouts moved further out to other camp areas around the lake, they were sleeping in tents and fixing your own meals over a fire, etc…it was a wonderful experience…

I had camped up there with my troop a couple of times but that summer I was working at the camp…living in a Baker tent and learning the ropes…anyway, I was finishing up on my Eagle Scout that summer…and one of the merit badges I had to complete was, I believe, the Nature merit badge…Sidebar…I really don’t remember which one…it was Nature or Conservation or Forestry or something like that…remember that was 53 years ago…they have changed many of the merit badges designs and even dropped some of them…but the Nature merit badge has stayed the same…End Sidebar…

Pretty nice design if I say so myself…in fact beautiful…most of the badges are well designed and attractive…this one is no exception…one of the requirements my counselor gave me to earn this badge was to spend time alone in the woods…remember in those days…no cell phones, or IPods, or “I” anything…not even a cassette player, portable radio, you name it…I didn’t have it…anyway, even if I did I couldn’t have taken it…I had to take a notebook and pencil (I think ballpoint pens had just came out in the 1950’s but I don’t know if I owned one yet…gel pens, etc…not invented yet, so it was a pencil…oh, we did have mechanical pencils, but only the rich and well-well born had those)…

So off to the woods…I had to find a place away from any people…any noise that may be around…that was not hard to do, I was in a wilderness area for the most part…with camp areas carved out of the woods here and there, sometime miles apart…so a short hike down the road around the lake…take a direct turn to the right or left…and go into the woods 20 yards or so and you were alone…really alone…the task was to find what kind of trees, plants, and other living things that may be there…and then to sit quietly for an hour or two or three and watch, listen, and write what you saw and heard and felt…I don’t really remember how long it was but it is kind of like praying…try and pray for five minutes…and you think most of an hour has gone by…

It was deadly quiet…and I had to sit still…and listen…I, of course, imagined any number of things happening…and it seemed like forever for the first few minutes to go by…I thought I had written about everything that there was around me…but be here for an hour or more…man, that was too much…but I endured…and began to see things I didn’t before…heard things I never heard before…and relaxed as I got into the time I had…I don’t remember how long I was there…no doubt it wasn’t the full time…but I did learn more than I thought I would and saw more than I thought I would…different ferns, animal tracks, insects, colors, the way birds fly differently, how the bark on trees is different…it gave me a deeper love for the outdoors…and learning about what is around me…that interest lasts right up to today…and the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine…I devour it, when it comes…

One of the articles this time was about birds in Northern Minnesota…and one of them reminded me of the winter of 2004-2005…it was an unusual winter in Minnesota…as I drove around our area where we lived…I saw a couple of huge birds I had never seen before…they were Great Gray Owls…they do not normally live in that part of Minnesota, they live way up in the northern one third of Minnesota and then into Canada…but that year they called it a major Great Gray Owl irruption…it was the largest in many years…there were thousands of the huge birds in our area…and people came from all over the country to see them…these irruptions are a direct result of a “boom and bust economy” of  the owls…because their main food are “voles”…a vole is a small mouse-like rodent…they have what experts say is a 3 year cycle…many voles in the first two years and a crash in the third year…the Great Gray Owl feeds almost entirely on voles…so when the “bust” comes the owls suffer accordingly…that is why thousands of the birds came south to Minnesota to find food…but 2004-2005 was especially bad and many more birds came south…

These birds are phenomenal…they are about 2-3 feet tall…weigh 2-4 pounds and can fly noiselessly, in light or dark…and can hear a vole under a foot of snow…they perch on a tree or post or telephone pole and listen for voles scurrying under the snow or ground litter…the owl’s facial disc works like a pair of parabolic reflectors to focus sound back to its ear holes, positioned asymmetrically alongside its head…when the owl pinpoints its prey, it drops from its perch and glides silently toward it…its needle sharp talons and beak plunge into the snow…and come up with the vole…to take off on its 60 inch wingspan to a safe place to eat…Jim Duncan who has followed this bird for years and talked about how Great Grays protect their young…when asked what a wallop from a Great Gray would feel like, he said,”Like being whacked by a two-by-four with nails sticking out of it.”…

That winter went by…I have never seen a Great Gray Owl since…but I remember driving the back roads around our house and seeing more Great Grays…what an opportunity…seeing what most have never seen…one of God’s wonders right in our own backyard…

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