We can see these swells as we loop around past the end of 27 and into the parking lot. A flock of ring-billed gulls scatters as we pull into one of the many vacant spots. Good for them, I think. They had looked frozen to the pavement.
“Where’s the owl?” Ricky asks.
“Just below the restaurant.”
“On the rocks?”
“Not that far south.”
“Good. I’m way too fat to climb.”
From the restaurant patio we get an expansive, birds-eye view of the sea. The waves are alive with eiders and seabirds, but we’re focused on the sand today. Somewhere down there is the most beautiful bird in the world. Like the bluebird, it should stand out.
“Nothing,” Ricky almost screams through his binoculars and over the wind. “And my toes are numb already.”
“He’s supposed to be right here.”
“It’s a male?”
Then Ricky turns and gives a look that goes almost through me. “We are finding this bird.”
We descend. Down the sloping steps usually reserved for summer sightseers, into gust sharpening by the second. It’s bone-chilling cold when we get to the beach. We pan right, towards the igneous cliffs that flank the lighthouse, then left, at the Sound. No white except the gulls, which caw at us mockingly.
The climb back up is hard on both the legs and ego. Involuntary snot, brought about by the frigidness, running down my face signals my defeat. We find refuge in the gift shop and a mug of cocoa.
“No snowy?” A worker tops me off.
“Not our day.”
“Got a long drive home?”
“It’ll feel like a week.”
“Sorry. Before you go, may as well check the Seal Haul out Trail. Worth a shot.”
The cocoa goes unfinished. We’re a few hundreds yards north of the restaurant now. Nestled in the vegetation lies a skinny trail that leads down to the water.
Down, down, down. It’s steep, but we manage. We’re motivated. At the foot, a clearing with wide views of the beach, which is somehow calmer here, and actually does sport some seals. The fact that there are a lot of birds around isn’t a good sign. Snowys are apex predators; they’re at the top of the food chain. If one’s around, chances are most other nature is steering clear.
We split up. I stop when I get around a small bend and scan the gulls. Ring-billed, herring, greater black-backed. Nothing rare. An ipswich sparrow catches my eye when I turn from the water, plopping up and down in the dry reeds behind me. The phone rings.
I sprint through my own footprints towards the trailhead and keep going. Ricky is still, gazing through binoculars. He doesn’t even seem to be shivering anymore.
That’s all he has to say. Just look out there and you’ll see him. Plumage impeccably pure, like virgin snow. There’s not a spot on him. A single snowcap amid a landscape of miniscule sand mountains.
The snowy owl is the ultimate puppet master.
After halving the distance we decide to get low. Hunched over, we tiptoe through the sand in a large loop. Every now and then his head swivels nonchalantly in our direction.
I drop to my knees crawl towards a small bunker flanking the bird. Ricky stays behind. My eyes are constantly peeled on the owl, expecting him to take off. But he never budges. In fact, he doesn’t even seem bugged.
It takes twenty minutes to reach the bunker. Sweaty (even in the cold) and sandy, I peer over the ridge. He stares back through black slits the width of credit cards from so close I can reach over and shake his wing.
Eventually I crawl around to the inside of the bunker, lean against it and exhale. I’m completely visible now, and he couldn’t care less. I’m not one of those scary two-legged eyepiece-clenchers anymore, not to him. To the snowy I am a creature of the sand, at home amongst the dunes, just like he. I feel connected with my new white friend, thinking almost if he does fly away maybe he’ll take me with him, somewhere over the dunes and the gift shop and the lighthouse, to where the lemmings are easy to catch.