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The Night Owl Challenge

By Dan OldfieldPublished about a year ago 11 min read


It was the sting of the ice pellets against his face that woke him. That and the extreme pain. As he lay crumpled in the snow, Sam could barely remember how he got there. The Yamaha snowmobile he was riding lay in a silent, dark, twisted heap. He could now feel the warmth of blood as it trickled from the gash in his forehead and blurred the vision in his left eye. The visor on his helmet had been ripped off and he noticed as he took it off, the helmet itself had been cracked.

How long had he been out? It was pitch black now and what was left of the waning crescent moon was mostly hidden by cloud. The storm that had been raging had mostly stopped but the winds continued to whip the fallen snow into small rolling waves. He was now mostly covered with the exception of his head and right arm.

Okay, he thought, time to figure this out. What happened? Where am I?

It was mid-afternoon in Northwestern Ontario when the early winter storm had begun to roll in. It was then he noticed the broken fence and the missing geldings. It would take too long to tack up another horse but he had just finished tuning the Yamaha so it should only take an hour tops to locate the horses. He would follow the tree line and check out the usual places.

By the time he set out, the storm had already dropped half a foot of snow and winds had become gale force, making it hard to see beyond thirty or feet and it would be dark soon.

He would keep the tree line to his right to keep him going straight and he promised himself that if it got too bad, he would turn around. The last thing he remembered was crossing a small clearing where he had removed some dead-fall that summer.

He never even heard the bang as the snowmobile struck the fallen tamarack. He regained consciousness about fifteen feet from the now destroyed Yamaha. He could tell from where he lay that one ski had been torn off, the windshield shattered, and the handlebars were twisted into an odd shape.

He was now beginning to feel the pain from his right leg. As he tried to lift it, the pain shot through his whole body bringing tears to his eyes. Clearly it was broken. He was having trouble breathing the cold air. Could he have broken some ribs?

What now, he thought. Help would be a long way off. He had remained behind for the weekend as the family planned a couple of days enjoying the family deal at the Travel Lodge in the city and taking advantage of the water slides. The cell phone would not work out here and he hadn’t bothered with the walkie-talkies because there’d be no one on the other end anyway. He hadn’t brought food although he did have a thermos of coffee. He needed a plan. He needed to take stock.

Slowly and painfully, he pulled himself out of his snow bank and began pulling himself backwards through the snow towards the snowmobile. It looked worse up close. He could see under the snow the fallen tamarack, hidden under the snow that had trapped his skis and thrown him away like a scrap of paper. He could smell gas from a leaking tank and he noticed the track which pushed the machine through the snow had also come off. He reached for the saddlebag and pulled it toward him. It was surprisingly easy to remove and he wondered how it managed to stay with the machine during the collision. When he opened the flap on the first side, he found what he expected to see: a few small tools, some duct tape, a spare sparkplug still in its packaging, and some jumper cables. In the other side, he found his thermos, an unopened bottle of water, the service manual for the snowmobile, a few chemical hand warmers and a solar emergency blanket. No matches, no lighter. He knew the blanket and his snowmobile suit would keep him warm for a while but he needed fire. Fire not just for warmth but also to discourage the wolves that regularly hunted in the area.

For now, Sam knew the first thing he needed was some kind of shelter and the best place to find that would be the forest which was some twenty or thirty yards away. He placed the saddlebag and his thermos on his lap and began the slow backward crawl toward the trees. A few yards in, he spotted a large spruce, its bows laden with snow but nearly bare underneath. He crawled under. This will work, he thought. Not only was it fairly dry but it also had plenty of cones and small branches that would make good tinder when or if he could get a fire going.

Sam had never been a boy scout. Everything he know about the outdoors had been things he and his buddies figured out along the way or stuff his dad had taught him. So, rubbing two sticks together to create a fire was not something he was likely to make work. Besides, it would probably take him longer to find two suitable sticks than to actually start a fire. Once again, he opened the flap on the saddlebag. Maybe there was a lighter and he’d missed it. He was searching in the dark after all. No luck. Nothing but tools, tape and battery cables. The battery. He would use the battery and cables to get spark. That just might do it.

He stuck a few tools inside his jacket and slowly began the crawl back out to the snowmobile. It seemed take hours. The battery was stored under the seat, which was now a contorted version of itself. It was stuck, wedged under the steering column. Pulling it straight up would not work. He noticed on the opposite side there was a slight opening. It might be possible to push it sideways and reach inside. He crawled around to the far side, took out a wrench, placed it in the opening and with all his weight pushed down. The seat slid sideways and popped open. The battery had not been wrecked. In the darkness, he fumbled to find the fittings that held the battery in place. He had removed his gloves to feel for the nuts that held the bracing and was now feeling his hands freeze up. Somehow, he got one side undone and that was enough. He was able to pry the battery out. Placing it on his lap, he began the long crawl back to his spruce shelter.

Now exhausted, with pain shooting through his body, Sam collapsed.

Not sure what had awoken him, Sam had a sense of something staring at him. It was dark but the clouds had moved off and the light from what little moon was left cast shadows across the snow. Through the spruce branches, he could see the stump that remained from the fallen tamarack. But it looked different. It was then he noticed sitting on top and staring directly at him was a small barn owl.

He would have missed it except for its occasional blinking eyes.

Barn owls were nothing unusual in this part of the world but Sam had an unusual affection for these creatures and the sight of this one brought back a strong memory from when he was a boy.

His first and only close encounter came was he was nine or ten years old. As he was making his way to the barn to muck some stalls, Sam noticed something lying on the ground under an old water tower. At first, he wasn’t sure but realized that it was a baby owl. It obviously had fallen from a nest high up in the tower. Way too young to fly, it was hardly moving. He picked it up and as he did, the owl turned its heart-shaped face toward him, its eyes half the size of its head unblinking. Not knowing what to do, Sam ran to the house to show the family. Yup, a baby barn owl, his father had proclaimed. Too bad, he said, a lot of them die at this age, killed by predators or, like this one, falling from the nest. Put it back, he urged. It’s nature’s way.

To Sam, the very idea of put it back was never going to happen.

Instead, Sam had fashioned a nest of his own, made up of an old milk crate, lined with straw and surrounded by chicken wire to keep the cats and other creatures away. He placed the nest in an unused stall. After a comprehensive search on the care and feeding of owls, Sam took over parenting responsibilities for the owl.

He called him Mac. He had read that the face of the barn owl looks like an apple when cut in half. And indeed, it does. Sam’s favourite apple being the MacIntosh, Mac seemed more than appropriate.

Feeding was a priority and at times a gruesome affair. Owls eat small animals. A friend who raised snakes shared some mouse fetuses in the early stages. Later on, Sam would trap mice and star-nosed moles. Much to everyone’s surprise, Mac survived and it was a festive day in the household when he was released back into the wild.

Sitting in the darkness under the spruce bows, Sam thought about those days trekking out to the barn to check on and feed Mac. Now here he was with pain surging through his body and feeling as vulnerable as Mac must have felt on the day Sam rescued him. Those big eyes, rarely blinking, staring back at him.

He was beginning to feel the cold. Time to get serious about a fire. Sam gathered up the twigs and cones and, with a screw driver, dug a hole into the hard ground. The service manual provided extra tinder. Connecting one end of the cables to the battery and touching the other ends together, sparks flew. After just a couple of tries, a corner of a piece of paper caught. Sam scrambled to add more sticks and paper and he watched it bloom into a full-fledged fire. Reaching up, he was able to break off some of the lower branches of the spruce. For the first time in what had seemed like days, he felt some warmth. He grabbed the thermos and took a long sip on his now very cold coffee.

He lapsed into a deep sleep. When he awoke it was dead calm, the fire now embers. Sam nursed it back to life with a few sheets from the manual and more twigs and cones. The water bottle had now frozen but the cold coffee was still drinkable. He placed the water closer to the fire, hoping the heat would allow him to drink it later. The pain had subsided but every part of him seemed to hurt. He was also feeling hungry. He had left before lunch, thinking he’d eat once he got back from rounding up the horses.

He glanced at the stump from the tamarack. Was the owl a dream? How was he going to get out of here? Crawling back to the house was not an option. It was a long way to crawl back through a couple of feet of snow. The seriousness of his situation began to confront him. He knew the key was to stay warm, stay hydrated and not to panic. But it was hard to imagine how he was going survive.

Throughout the day, he made himself busy, crawling through the snow and brush, gathering wood wherever he could find it and stacking it nearby. Out of exhaustion, he’d fall into deep sleep and unsettling dreams would fill his head. He’d often wake with a start. Darkness fell for a second night. Again, he woke with that sense that he was being watched. Almost out of habit he focused on the tamarack stump. There again sat the barn owl. Mac, he called out, is that you? Ridiculous, he thought. It was more than 15 years ago he found Mac. Barn owls don’t live that long.

On the third day, when he awoke with a pounding headache, he had managed to melt some of the water in the bottle. The coffee was now gone and he was feeling hunger pangs. For the first time, he thought he might just die. He began to crawl out from under the spruce bows, intent on filling the thermos with snow, hoping that the melting snow could quench his growing thirst. As he pushed sideways, he felt something under his right hip. It was a rabbit, specifically a dead white rabbit.

How had it come to be there? Was it there all along? No, impossible, he thought, I’ve been in and out of here a bunch of times, I would have seen it.

However it got there, it was food. Gutting it and skinning it out took some time with a screw driver. It looked pretty bad but it was edible and Sam began to feel some energy returning to his body. The mystery rabbit had saved him, at least for another day.

The night felt colder than normal and the high Sam had experienced with the discovery of the rabbit had worn off. Desperation began to take over. Don’t panic, Sam continued to remind himself. Help will come. He had done little that day outside of preparing and eating the rabbit. Although tired and in pain, Sam could find no sleep. Suddenly he heard a quiet rustle and he immediately looked to the stump. There sat the owl but this time with a small ground squirrel in one claw. The owl flew quickly to the spruce tree, dropped the squirrel at Sam’s feet, and just as quickly flew back into the darkness.

For Sam, the mystery of the rabbit was solved.

The next morning Sam awoke to the sound of voices and snowmobiles. He could hear his name being called.

“Here,” he shouted, “I am here!”

Short Story

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