BUTTE, MT (AP) – Mike Stevenson has fallen to his knees in the dark. He searched under the melting, blowing snow for the hollows of the snowshoe trails that marked his passage from camp earlier in the day.
He did not detect any traces.
The storm blocked all reflections of starlight. The night was blacker than a crow’s eye.
Stevenson had moved cautiously in the direction he thought would bring him back to his winter camp. He stretched out his arms in front of him to avoid being hit in the face or eyes by tree branches.
He felt a penetrating shiver. Increasing fatigue began to signal the alluring attraction of hypothermia. The fear began to mount. He was lost.
For the second winter in a row, Stevenson was left alone in the Bob Marshall Wilderness after members of the outfitting team packed mules and horses and returned home before heavy snow trapped them in the back. -country.
Stevenson, a native of Montana and the son of a Forest Service ranger, was 20 in December.
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From his base camp, he traveled to set traps for pine marten, beaver and other furbearing animals. He set up three crampon camps about a snowshoe day apart to provide refuge when checking out the traps.
The loneliness of the desert suited him.
âI loved being there. I was not afraid of silence. That’s what I was looking for, âsaid Stevenson, now 64 and varying between Missoula and Kalispell.
After graduating from Hellgate High School in 1975, Stevenson felt no attraction to higher education.
âI have always had the passion to go to the woods,â he said. “I wanted to enter the wildest country possible.”
Earlier that fall, while outfitter patrons hunted elk, bear and deer in the Bob, Stevenson and other packers had set up camp in the Big Salmon Creek watershed, about 20 miles from the trailhead.
The pay was low and the work demanding. But Stevenson was exactly where he wanted to be, doing exactly what he wanted to do.
The fall camp included a wall tent set up to house hay and grain for the horses and mules. The ridge pole of the hay tent was attached to a large snag. Hay and grain attracted mice.
âThis owl showed up at camp,â Stevenson told Montana Standard. âThe owl decided to set up camp right next to our camp because the mouse hunt was good.
âThe owl would sit up there on top of that snag and watch for a mouse. The owl was quite vocal. He would scream all night.
At the time, Stevenson could not identify the species of the owl. He later determined it was a barred owl by identifying its hoot: “Who-who who whoowaaa.”
When the packers, guides and cattle left in November, so did the food and the owl. The outfitter agreed to leave the wall tent that had stored the food to Stevenson.
The day the snowstorm hit Stevenson, he had snowshoeed three or four miles to Big Salmon Lake to check for beaver traps. He discovered he had trapped two beavers, one large and one smaller.
A beaver had wound the wire of the trap around a submerged log. Stevenson realized that retrieving the dead animal would require a lean winter dip.
âI made a big bonfire before I entered,â he said. “It was okay to just build a fire and jump in the lake.”
Stevenson decided to keep the beaver carcasses as well as the skins to use the meat of the animals to bait other traps. He put the smaller beaver in his bag and dragged the larger animal behind him with a rope.
âIt was a lot of weight back,â he said. âIt must have been late in the day when I returned to camp. The storm had fallen on a foot of fresh snow. About a half to a quarter mile from the camp it was too dark to see.
The snow has started to blow.
âI still wasn’t worried. I knew I was near the camp. I rummaged in my bag for my flashlight but it didn’t work. It was only my second winter there and I was still a rookie. I didn’t have an extra bulb with me.
âI continued and I couldn’t find this camp. I completely mixed up. Completely lost. And it was so disheartening because I knew the camp was so close.
âI was so cold. I thought, ‘Okay, I’m just going to make a fire.’ “
Stevenson decided that a fire could take him into the dawn, when the morning light would reveal the way to his camp. From his backpack he pulled the wet carcass of the little beaver. He reached out for the fire-starting materials he had used earlier in the day to make a bonfire.
They were wet, soaked by the water of the lake which escaped from the carcass of the beaver.
âI wandered a bit more. I knew I had to keep moving to keep my body temperature high. I found a small shrub. I thought, ‘I’m just going to walk around this chest for as long as I can.’ But I wasn’t moving fast enough to maintain my body temperature. I sat in the snow and almost fell asleep.
“But I would get up and walk around the tree again.” I thought I was going to die. I was scared. I was shaking and wanted to fall asleep.
âI was not religious and didn’t know how to pray, but I thought maybe it was a good time to give it a try. I prayed, ‘God, please, if you are real, please help me!’
âJust before going to sleep I heard an owl hoot. It looked like the same owl that was hanging out in our hunting camp. I hadn’t heard or seen him for weeks.
Stevenson thought there was a slight chance the owl would hoot from the location of the old hunting camp, now its winter camp.
In desperation, he decided to follow the sound as best he could. He said the owl hooted about every 10 minutes.
âIt was my only hope. I knew it was a big risk because my strength was almost exhausted. But I was running out of options.
He continued to snowshoe with his arms outstretched in the dark.
“I would stumble and fall because I was weak.”
Stevenson felt the owl perched above him. And then he completely stopped booing.
“When he restarted it was in a completely different direction.”
Stevenson’s heart sank. Maybe the owl was just flying in the woods hunting. Barred owls, like many owls, are active at night.
He faced another decision. Should he continue to follow the sound of the hooting owl even though he had changed course? Once again, he decided to take the risk even though it seemed more rooted in despair than reason.
Stevenson trudged through the trees, arms outstretched, following the intermittent hooting.
âI don’t know how long it took. Suddenly my hands hit the pile of wood next to my tent. I have great difficulty believing it. I lit a fire. I thought, ‘I’ll get there.’ “
The next day, Stevenson decided to retrace his steps to find out how he got lost.
He found that the owl’s sudden change in direction had prevented him from plunging into the dark in a dangerous fall near Big Salmon Creek.
âThe owl took me around,â Stevenson said.
Today, over 40 years later, awe and wonder echo in Stevenson’s voice as he describes the events of that night.
âAt the time in my life that this happened, I knew something had happened that I couldn’t explain. Something mysterious.
Stevenson has family ties to the Blackfeet Nation. They include cousins ââwho live in Browning. In recent years he has been invited to Blackfeet ceremonies.
âA few years ago I was transferred the right to keep a Blackfeet pipe. Through the pipe, the ceremony and talking with the elders, I learn a little about the invisible in the natural world around us. I have learned that the Creator will sometimes send help in unusual ways.
“That night he came in the form of a medicine owl.”