6/11 Idaho Magazine Features - "The Demons of Boulder Lake" (non-fiction)

Daniel Claar - Idaho's Premier Backcountry Writer

Winner - Idaho Magazine Publisher's Choice Award 2010
"The Proper Filter"

Winner - Idaho Magazine Judge's Choice Award 2011
"Where the River Leads"

"Hot Spring Break "

"Stampede! "

"Seeing Things"
Winner - Idaho Magazine Second Place 2011

Friday, June 17, 2011

Wilderness is Where you Find It

          From a branch thirty feet in the air, a juvenile great horned owl leans forward until its momentum is about to carry the predator off its ponderosa perch. At the last second, the raptor changes its mind, and with a panicked flapping of developing wings, manages to balance itself once again. The young owl has successfully flown a couple of times, but despite its natural instincts, is still far from comfortable with the idea. I don’t blame him, those first steps into thin air constitute a leap of faith most of us can barely imagine. Despite the aborted hunt, the owl’s golden eyes remain riveted on two squirrels darting around my feet. The feathered carnivore’s head bobs up and down and swivels in circles seemingly independent of its shoulders. Thinking I might have a treat, the rodents are oblivious to the fact I am actually trying to get one of them eaten.

          “C’mon, Bubbles,” I say. “You can do it. Mom isn’t gonna help anymore and Squeak is tired of you stealing her food. “

          I hear footsteps on the sidewalk behind me and turn to see a middle-aged, blond lady escorting an older gentleman with a cane. The gaunt, white bearded man is dressed in a black leather jacket adorned with faded military patches, and the elbow of his free hand is hooked around the woman’s arm for support. They step off the sidewalk giving me a wide birth, possibly wondering why I am staring at the sky and talking to myself. Not surprising. Some of the regulars on these grounds don’t possess the well-groomed, manicured thought processes you might associate with the perfect lawns and flowerbeds. Some folks here are visibly damaged, while others suffer from demons unseen. I hear her say something about “aggressive squirrels” and realize it is actually the free-loading rodents they are trying to circumvent.

          “I’m trying to thin out their numbers,” I offer, “but my great horned attack owl is still in training.”

          As I have come to expect over the last two months, the woman’s face brightens with curiosity. “A great horned owl?” she asks, forgetting about the squirrels. Stepping shoulder to shoulder with me she peers into the branches overhead. “Where?”

          Although the young owl is sitting in plain sight, almost nobody can spot them right away. Even when I point them out, people still struggle to see them. Humans are no longer programmed to truly take note of their natural surroundings, and why should they? It isn’t like we need to worry about sabre-tooth tigers. Because of our gradual separation from the outside world over the last 10,000 years, our environmentally regulated homes, and a former wilderness now almost entirely subjugated to mankind’s indomitable will, we rarely pay attention to nature’s subtle cycles, account for the changing seasons, or wonder what marvelous wildlife might be sitting directly overhead. However, once I point out one of my owls, the reaction from strangers is quite predictable.

          “Oh my,” she exclaims, “would you look at that. Dad, do you see the owl?” she asks, her voice laced with enthusiasm. The man’s eyes light up as he locates the brown and tan creature barely visible against the identically colored tree bark.

          “Now that’s some camouflage,” he says admiring the bird, “those squirrels don’t stand a chance.”

          “Ol’ Bubbles has a big sister around here somewhere,” I tell them. “This one is the more cautious of the two. He can barely fly at this point and tends to let Squeak do the hunting while mooching the rewards.”

          “Bubbles?” the lady laughs. “And Squeak?

          “Yeah,” I say, and can’t resist tacking on my usual joke, “Bubbles is the serious one.”

          I have been watching the owls since early spring when they were small football shaped mounds of down bouncing around in their nest just outside the entrance to the Veterans Affairs Hospital. Working for the State Veterans’ Home on the same property allows me the opportunity to check on them during my morning and afternoon breaks. However, now that the kids are flying and the trees have filled out with plush greenery, the young owls are much harder to find. Between the two kids and mated parents, I am fortunate to spot one of the four owls during any given walk.

          In addition to serving military vets, one of the reasons I chose to work for the Division of Veterans Services is the quiet, expansive grounds nestled in at the very edge of the Rocky Mountain foothills in Boise. Years ago, I lived a few blocks away and would jog here as morning broke over the city. At the time, the entire complex was overrun with adorable wild rabbits. I would see patients, family members, and employees feeding the bunnies during those tranquil dawns and I remember thinking it somehow odd that an area built for military personnel could radiate such an overwhelming sense of peace. Although barely separated from a major city’s downtown madness, the towering old trees and lush expansive lawns feel like an outdoor cathedral for the wounded warriors and their dedicated healers. The hospital and home radiate a quiet sense of respect not always found in the medical field or long term care facilities.

          Although not a military veteran, I too feel the need for this quiet removal from the chaos of everyday life. When it comes to crowds, traffic, and noise, I am the proverbial long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Without constant retreats into the isolated Idaho backcountry, I would lose my mind altogether and the results wouldn’t be pretty. That’s no exaggeration. I have struggled with mental illness most my life, fighting a battle against an enemy I barely understand. I don’t know if there is a technical diagnosis for what ails me, but because I refuse mind and mood altering medication, the only cure I have found is recharging my batteries in the wild. Thankfully, only a handful of people have seen me on days when I am in danger of losing the war altogether, and I a regret having ever involved innocent bystanders in the collateral damage of my internal conflict. 

          I detect similar upheaval in some of the veterans walking these grounds. As a testament to their training, intestinal fortitude, and inherent character, the majority have somehow weathered their individual storms with good humor and laughing eyes; they nod at passersby’s, are quick to smile, and often times, despite some readily apparent disability, look like they are quite willing to stare the world square in the face and ask, “What else you got?”

          Other veterans shuffle by, trapped in their own nightmare, staring at their feet and looking as though as stiff wind could topple them over. A few even remind me of the skittish mule deer who work their way down from the foothills and spend the spring raising their fawns on our sea of lush grass. And who can blame them? I’ve never seen combat and still, depending on which side of the bed I wake up on, my thought processes are loaded with anxiety, violence, and paranoia. Despite this chemical imbalance, I can’t begin to imagine the sights, sounds, and smells some of these soldiers have been subjected to, or what might have happened with my own mental state had I ever experienced anything even remotely similar.

          There are all sorts of hell out there in the world, all types of trauma that can reduce the strongest man to a shadow of his former self, and sometimes, that is just the inescapable reality of war. All we can do is help pick up the pieces, honor their sacrifices, and do our best to make their daily lives as free from pain and fear as we possibly can. By working here, volunteering, or just visiting, one can’t help but adopt the mission statement of “Caring for America’s Heroes.”

          As the blond woman and her father move on, I continue my walk around the V.A. Hospital wondering what ever happened to all those rabbits. I haven’t seen one in years. I suspect there was human intervention at some point as breeding bunnies can quickly spiral out of control, but I bet prior to that they were making regular meals for the fox and coyote who patrol these grounds. I have seen these wild canines make a meal of our quail and squirrel hordes with brutal, bloody efficiency.

          Hunters like them, my owls, and one particularly sassy feral orange cat who enjoys taking naps on warm car hoods, create a peculiar dichotomy on these grounds designed for healing. I have even heard a nurse wonder aloud as to why predator and prey populations can’t get along. Of course, she said this after I showed her the severed face of squirrel with its brain eaten out as an example of what my great horned owls are capable of. The vets I have taught to locate owls by searching the base of trees for their pellets of half-digested victims, simply find the carnage fascinating. Even those who have seen their share of violence, still accept the natural order without blinking an eye.

          Rounding the back corner of the V.A. grounds, I am greeted by the inevitability of a hospital and long term care facility. An older man lies on the sun baked asphalt between a strip of parking spots and the hospital’s main entrance. He has collapsed in the street and there is a nurse at his side, cradling the man’s head and whispering in his ear. On the narrow road, cars have piled up behind the two people, some people impatiently inching their car to one side to see if they can slip around. A couple police officers, standing still as statues, serve as living hazard cones behind unblinking sunglasses, but do nothing to physically assist the man.

          As I approach the almost surreal scene, I can hear the man apologizing for the traffic jam. Showing his true veteran colors, he is more concerned about momentarily interfering with the lives of others than whatever ailment dropped him straight to the ground in the middle of a busy street. Meanwhile, the auburn-haired nurse tries to assure him the cars can wait and that everything will be okay. Feeling somewhat useless, I continue past the huddled group without breaking stride. Approaching me on the sidewalk is another old timer dressed in a weathered unbuttoned camouflage jacket about two sizes too small and a black Harley Davidson t-shirt. With expressionless eyes he surveys the situation and just as we pass, I hear him break into song beneath his breath. In a flat, mono-tone voice, he quietly chants the chorus to Queen’s classic, “Another One Bites the Dust.”

          My initial reaction is take offense at the man’s callous indifference of what is clearly another human being suffering, and not only that, a fellow veteran. However, it’s then I realize, the fact it is a vet might very well be what led to such a response. Veterans tend to have a more realistic and familiar relationship with death. Many have seen it up close and have long abandoned the foolish notion that any of us are getting out of this mission alive. Death is the great equalizer of all life be one rich, poor, white, black, man, woman, animal, plant, civilian or soldier. The nature of a vet’s occupation ensures they are more prepared to deal with that reality than others. There is no glee, or twisted humor in the singing man’s eyes, but rather just a sense of resignation knowing a similar fate awaits us all.

          The man’s response ultimately reminds me of my own when I recently discovered the mangled body of a baby owl. There were three of the great horned raptors growing up in that nest at one time, but as it often times happens in nature, one of the young ones fell from its sanctuary to impending death below. A midnight marauder, most likely fox or coyote, sniffing around tree trunks for the ripe feathered fruit of early spring found the helpless infant and tore it to pieces. An exposed rib cage and some bare legs ending in budding black talons were all I found. A grisly scene for sure, but one I was prepared to deal with after a lifetime of experiencing the raw Idaho wilderness. The natural order of things teaches that every miracle of birth also guarantees a future death; it’s just a matter of time and circumstance.

          I like to believe that despite our obvious differences, I have something in common with these old soldiers. In the absence of backcountry wilderness, the aura radiating from the V.A. campus is one I find myself craving. I feel a similar soul cleansing when strolling these grounds, a calming effect that is more precious to me than I can possibly quantify or explain. The vets, their families, the nurses and other employees feel this sensation as well, of that I am certain. We may come from different backgrounds, we may have walked vastly different paths, we may have differing opinions on politics and war, but when I see the eyes of a stranger open wide to experience the simple joy of a great horned owl infiltrating civilization, I know on some base level we all need a little help to ease our mind’s burden of turmoil and keep our lives in perspective.

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