Winters are cold in the interior of Alaska. We can see the temperatures plummet to below minus 60º Fahrenheit which can be painfully cold. One of my prized possessions was my fur trappers hat that I wore to keep my head, ears and cheeks warm.
I was traveling by snow machine with a friend to clear and mark the trail for The Yukon Quest, a thousand mile sled dog race from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory to Fairbanks, Alaska, that literally went through my backyard. It was late in January, so we didn’t get much sunlight, and most of our trail breaking was done in the dark.
Luckily, the temperatures had risen to just above zero and along with that, it brought fresh snow. That meant that in places it was difficult to find the trail and we spent a lot of time creating new paths.
A sliver of a moon had already risen, even though it was early in the evening, casting silvery shadows in open spaces and leaving the trees as dark splotches against an even darker sky. The headlight from the snow machine cast a bouncing yellow light that reflected off the drifts and left long chasms of shadows the seemed to move on their own.
I was kneeling on my machine to help keep it stable in the soft snow as I followed my friend who had taken the lead since I was hauling the sled with the trail markers and reflectors. The sound of the engine and the rushing wind drowned out most sound and caused a hum in my brain that tried to lull me to ignore the world around me.
We pulled out of the woods and dropped down onto a wide creek and after taking a right, I noticed that my friend had stopped not far up the creek. We frequently stopped to mark the trail or simply to warm ourselves up or let our machines cool down.
I stopped and marked the trail showing the mushers that the trail was about to turn and leave the creek. Finished, I climbed back on my machine and sped along the trail to my waiting friend.
As I approached him, I could see he was sitting on his machine and drinking from his thermos. I was thinking about how cold I was and looked forward to taking a break and drinking hot chocolate from my own thermos being kept warm near the exhaust manifold.
He turned and looked at me as I approached and I saw his eyes go wide and his jaw drop open in either surprise or trying to yell something. Of course, even if he had yelled, I wouldn’t have heard him.
And that is when something struck me upside my head causing me to shift on my machine and go off the trail and sink into the snow.
In that moment, my brain slowed down as it tried to process all the information. One part tried to keep my machine from sinking while another part processed the pain at the side of my head and yet another part tried to process what had caused the pain.
My machine slowed and immediately sunk as I tried to stay on and I knew I was going to get stuck, so I turned my attention to my friend who was frantically pointing behind me.
I swung my head around and watched a huge dark shadow fly up and disappear into the trees. As the snow machine stopped, I turned it off and felt the side of my head to see if I was bleeding.
Luckily I was not. I pulled my hat off and found a large scratch along the leather on the earflap. I checked my head again and found that pain was coming from just over and behind the ear.
“Holy cow! Did you see it?” my friend yelled as he ran to me. It was hard to understand him as my ears still thrummed from the roar of the vibrations of the snow machine. He point to the trees. “That was a huge owl! Are you okay?”
I checked the side of my head again and was relieved to find I still wasn’t bleeding, though it hurt enough that I was sure there should be some kind of gash there. As I spun my hat around, I saw that I was now missing the last four inches of my prized fox tail that tended to flutter in the breeze behind me as I rode.
“Man, it got your tail!” my friend said as he inspected the side of my head. “It came out of nowhere and WHAM! It must have thought your tail was food!”
I spent a few minutes lamenting my hat and my head before spending the next twenty minutes getting my machine and the sled out of the soft snow.
As we continued down the trail, more than once I was sure I spotted phantom shadows out of the corner of my eye causing me to duck.
Even today, if I am walking near woods or working in my yard, when a shadow passes overhead, my instinct is to duck and I think of that great horned owl that took the tip of my tail.