My dad is a Yooper expat. He grew up in the tiny town of Saint Ignace, Michigan, overlooking the Straits of Mackinac, straddling Lakes Michigan and Huron. My dad was a semi-feral boy who grew up to be a semi-feral man. My mom can verify this; her own mother once said of her son-in-law, "You can take the Indian out of St. Ignace, but you can't take St. Ignace out of the Indian." The "Indian" in this quote is my dad. He is only truly a little bit Chippewa (the more appropriate "Ojibwe" and "Anishinabe" were not in use in the U.P. of his childhood, I think). One has to ascribe the impolitic implications of my grandmother's nickname for Dad to her own limited worldview, and for her I think "Indian" was synonymous with "wild." My dad's wildness can simply be ascribed to growing up in the U.P. Of course, many of his friends were Ojibwe, but white or Indian, when you grow up in a rural place hunting and fishing, you all share a particular comfort in nature. Anyway, Dad is a rabid conservationist who quit shooting deer when I as a kid. Now he shoots animals digitally. He has a wildlife camera set up at his house in rural New Hampshire and has collected God-only-knows-how-many photos and videos of animals feeding in his hot dog buffet back yard.
My dad is an obsessive collector of knowledge about animals. And he likes to get close to them-- the closer, the better. Before there was Steve Irwin, there was my dad. My daughters have a game they like to play with Grandma and Grandpa. It is called, "Let's Catalog Grandpa's Owies." Dad's body is a record of his adventures and exploits in the great outdoors; each scar has a tale to tell. One scar reminds us of the time he picked up a Water Monitor in Vietnam. There was the time he chopped his knee with an ax. Then he blew off his eyebrows when he put a match to a cookie sheet full of black gunpowder (I was there for that one). He broke his thumb trying to hook a tarpon off the Seven Mile Bridge. His pinkie no longer bends, hasn't since he was a kid. Know why? He sliced the tendon with his Lash La Rue jack knife when he was skinning an animal in his bedroom; yes, he perfected the art of taxidermy through a correspondence course at the age of twelve. By the way, Dad thinks Steve Irwin was incautious and foolish, and yet, my father is a grown man who wades with alligators, or sharks, while fishing (and chumming). But this winter, Dad has had exciting, and fairly safe, up-close and personal encounters with owls, and I am extremely jealous. Here he is, Dan Olmstead, writing (in his Grandpa voice, I think) about his experiences with Snowies; round up the kiddies, and read aloud:
When I was a young boy in Michiganʼs U.P., back around 1950, my father told me that over 40 Snowy Owls had been seen perched on top of a barn near the town of Detour-- a wondrous event! I took a correspondence course in taxidermy from the Northwestern School of Taxidermy in Omaha, Nebraska when I was about 12 and about that time my sisterʼs boyfriend presented me with a dead Snowy Owl that he had shot from on top of his own family barn (no one should ever shoot owls!). I mounted the owl perched on a piece of driftwood, itʼs wings spread wide, and for a number of years its majestic form dominated the sky in my bedroom. I saw Snowy Owls on the frozen ice ﬂoes of Lake Michigan from time to time back then, but sightings were very rare. This year is different.
Every few years the lemmings in the Arctic have a population explosion and there are millions of them in the spring and summer months. The Snowy Owls have plenty to eat: lemming barbecues, lemming picnics, lemming church suppers. Then the owls lay more eggs than usual and have many more chicks than usual. During normal years, many of the baby owls starve to death while they are learning to catch their own dinner. When they have many lemmings to eat they donʼt starve. Then, when winter comes, there are too many young owls in the Arctic. You can tell the young owls from the adults because they have more brown feathers mixed in with their white feathers. Most adult males especially are pure white. When there are too many young owls in the Arctic, it is hard for them to ﬁnd and claim a territory of their own. If your yard is your territory and you don't want someone in your territory, you say, “No trespassing! Stay out of my yard!” Now most of the land in the Arctic is already claimed by adult Snowy Owls. The adult male owls especially drive the young owls out of their “yards.” So the young Snowy Owls ﬂy south to ﬁnd a place where they can hopefully live in peace for the winter and ﬁnd enough to eat. Scientists have a word for this event. They call it, “irruption.” A volcano erupts; a Snowy Owl irrupts. These young owls ﬂy hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles south. This winter there are more Snowy Owls ﬂying south than there have been for over 50 years! Some of these owls have come south to Minnesota too. For some reason, many more of them have ﬂown to eastern Canada and the eastern states next to the Atlantic Ocean. There is one place in Labrador in Canada this winter where people can see over 150 Snowy Owls in one day! And I thought 40 on one barn was pretty exciting! I hope they ﬁnd enough to eat. Snowy owls are being seen this year on the east coast all the way down to northern Florida, and even the island of Bermuda!
Snowies like to live in open areas like big parks, ball ﬁelds, and even airports, because these places remind them of the Arctic. At Logan airport in Boston, people are using sound cannons to try to scare the owls off the runways so airplanes donʼt crash into them. People have been sighting many Snowy Owls where I live near the ocean in New Hampshire. I went looking for owls two times but didnʼt see any. Then my wifeʼs hairdresser (my wife is named Janet; she is Marlaisʼ mother; I am Marlaisʼ father), told her that if I would go to a certain park by the ocean, I would see the owls for sure. So the next morning at 8 oʼclock I arrived at the park and immediately saw cars parked by the road and next to the cars were people with cameras with big long telephoto lenses (telephoto lenses are like telescopes on cameras. You can take pictures of things like owls that are far away and they will seem to be much closer.) Two of the owls were very close to the road and I wondered why these two owls, with several square miles of open frozen marsh land to live in, chose to be sitting right next to the road where all these people were. Perhaps they are just as curious about people as people are curious about them. They came to gawk at the people who came to gawk at them. In the Arctic, there are very few people to bother them and so they seem to have little fear of people. I took several photos of three different owls and you can see some of them here. The owls in New Hampshire perch on top of buildings and on telephone poles sometimes, but in the Arctic, where there are no trees, the Snowy Owls sit on the ground, and that is mostly what they do in New Hampshire as well. There are no lemmings here for them to eat, but in the marshes there are many different kinds of ducks and seagulls and ﬁeld mice and squirrels and voles, so hopefully they will ﬁnd enough to eat while they are here.
In the spring, the Snowy Owls will ﬂy back to the Arctic and raise families of their own. But while they are here it is exciting to see them. They are strange and exotic creatures from another land. It is almost the same as if monkeys from the far away jungles suddenly appeared in your back yard!
|Dan & Jan (she likes nature too)|