Michael Meissner illustration
“I want to see the beaver lodges again,” my son had said, remembering a family hike from years ago, and I was happy to oblige. He was fifteen, and this was a rare request as adolescent interests shift to socializing and ubiquitous electronic distraction.
We were walking the Pink Beds Loop near the Cradle of Forestry, a wooded, level trail making a four-mile figure-eight, crisscrossing, on logs and plank bridges, the headwater streams of the South Fork of Mills River. Not too far into the upper loop was where the beavers should be.
A few minutes past the crossover, the path suddenly submerged into the dark water we had been shouldering. Sticks and grass stems rose from the bog but there was no more solid ground.
“Unless you want to wade,” I said, “this is as far as we go.”
“Where are the beavers?” he asked.
“Further up, I guess. Their dams have flooded this area. Can’t see the lodges from here.”
“You mean we came all this way for nothing?” His shoulders slumped. “Great.”
Distraction from disappointment is part of one’s parental role, such as suggesting ice cream when the sea lions exhibit at the zoo is unexpectedly closed. But childish ploys don’t work with teenagers. They cultivate ennui with masterful excess, and then when a snag in the plan occurs, surprise! They do care, if only to justify a cloud of melancholy which can oppress a whole afternoon, or an entire vacation.
I was forming some sharp words about coping skills when behind us, very loud and very close—Hoo-hoo-hoooo. We froze. Again—hoo-hoo-hoooo.
“Easy,” I whispered as we swung around in slow motion. On a white pine branch twenty feet up and no more than twenty yards away sat a great horned owl. Rotating its head in incremental jerks, it seemed to stare directly at us during each sweep. It hooted again, the call echoing slightly.
“It’s huge,” my son whispered. “I’ve never seen one.”
“Me neither, in the wild.” The owl sat for a few minutes, then lifted off with several heavy flaps and glided up to a tall snag. From there it surveyed the maze of tiny blackwater streams and grassy humps tossed with gray, barkless branches. I felt brave enough to try my own call, so I cupped my hands and hooted. The owl ignored me. Soon it flew further up the flooded trail out of sight. I hooted again. This time it replied, but it seemed more like a correction than an answer. You need practice, it seemed to say; get it right. We stayed until the light was nearly gone, hearing it call a few more times until the woods fell silent.
“Sorry about the beaver lodges,” I said when we reached the car, using our flashlights over the last half-mile. “Next time we’ll bring poles and wading shoes.”
“It’s all right,” he said, pausing at the open door. We were both feeling the human inclination to signify, to verify by pronouncement our inexorable need for meaning. But most benedictions, like most parental advice, are rituals of superfluity. He saved it, though, with just enough.
“The owl,” he said, closing the car door. “That was pretty cool.”