Mike Stevenson dropped to his knees in the dark. He searched beneath the deepening, drifting snow for the trough of snowshoe tracks marking his passage from camp earlier that day.
He detected nary a trace.
The storm blocked every glint of starlight. The night was blacker than a raven’s eye.
Stevenson had moved cautiously in the direction he believed would take him back to his winter camp. He held his arms straight out in front to avoid being struck in the face or eyes by tree limbs.
He felt a penetrating chill. Growing fatigue began to signal hypothermia’s seductive pull. Fear started to rise. He was lost.
For the second winter in a row, Stevenson had stayed behind alone in the Bob Marshall Wilderness after fellow members of the outfitter’s crew had readied mules and horses and set out for home before the big snows stranded them in the backcountry.
Stevenson, a Montana native and son of a Forest Service ranger, was 20 years old that December.
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From his base camp, he traveled to set traps for pine marten, beaver and other furbearing animals. He established three spike camps about a snowshoe’s day apart to provide refuge when checking traps.
The wilderness solitude suited him.
“I loved being there. I wasn’t afraid of the silence. That was what I was looking for,” said Stevenson, now 64 and varying time between Missoula and Kalispell.
After graduating in 1975 from Hellgate High School, Stevenson felt no attraction to higher education.
“I always had a passion to get into the woods,” he said. “I wanted to get into the wildest country I could.”
And so he did.
Earlier that fall, while the outfitter clients hunted elk, bear and deer in the Bob, Stevenson and other packers had made camp in the Big Salmon Creek drainage about 20 miles from the trailhead.
The pay was low and the work demanding. But Stevenson was precisely where he wanted to be, doing exactly what he wanted to do.
The fall camp included a wall tent set up to shelter hay and grain for the horses and mules. The hay tent’s ridge pole was attached to a tall snag. The hay and grain attracted mice.
“This owl showed up at camp,” Stevenson said. “The owl decided to set up camp right at our camp because the mice hunting was good.
“The owl would sit up there at the top of that snag and watch for a mouse. The owl was pretty vocal. It would hoot all night.”
At the time, Stevenson could not identify the owl’s species. He later determined it was a barred owl by identifying its hoot: “Who-who who whoowaaa.”
When the packers, guides and stock departed in November, so did the feed and the owl. The outfitter agreed to leave behind for Stevenson’s use the wall tent that had stored the feed.
The day the snowstorm hit Stevenson had snowshoed three or four miles down to Big Salmon Lake to check some beaver traps. He discovered that he’d trapped two beaver, one large and one smaller.
One beaver had wrapped the trap wire around a submerged log. Stevenson realized the dead animal’s retrieval would require a wintry skinny dip.
“I built a big bonfire before I went in,” he said. “It was no big deal just to build a fire and jump in the lake.”
Stevenson decided to keep the beaver carcasses as well as the pelts to use the animals’ meat to bait other traps. He put the smaller beaver in his pack and dragged the larger animal behind him with a rope.
“It was a lot of weight going back,” he said. “It got to be late in the day when I was headed back to camp. The storm had dropped over a foot of fresh snow. About a half mile to a quarter mile from camp it got too dark to see.”
The snow started blowing.
“I still wasn’t worried. I knew I was close to camp. I dug down in my pack for my flashlight but it wasn’t working. It was only my second winter back there and I was still a rookie. I didn’t have an extra bulb with me.
“I kept going and going and I could not find that camp. I got completely mixed up. Completely lost. And it was so discouraging because I knew the camp was so close.
“I was getting so cold. I thought, ‘Ok, I’ll just build a fire.’”
Stevenson decided a fire could take him into the dawn, when the morning light would reveal the way to his camp. From his backpack he removed the damp carcass of the smaller beaver. He reached down for the fire starting materials he’d used earlier that day to build a bonfire.
They were wet, soaked by lake water coming off the beaver carcass.
“I wandered around a little more. I knew I had to keep moving to keep my body temperature up. I found a little sapling. I thought, ‘I’m just going to go around and around this trunk as long as I can.’ But I wasn’t moving fast enough to keep my body temperature up. I sat down in the snow and almost went to sleep.
“But I’d get back up and go around the tree some more. I thought I was going to die. I was getting scared. I was shaking and I wanted to go to sleep.
“I wasn’t religious and didn’t know how to pray but figured this might be a good time to give it a try. I prayed, ‘God, please, if you’re real, please help me!’
“Just before I was going to sleep I heard an owl hoot. It sounded like the same owl that had been hanging around our hunting camp. I had not heard or seen it for weeks.”
Stevenson thought there might be some small chance the owl was hooting from the site of the former hunting camp, now his winter camp.
Out of desperation, he decided to follow the sound as best he could. He said the owl hooted about every 10 minutes.
“It was my only hope. I knew it was a big risk because my strength was almost gone. But I was out of options.”
He continued to snowshoe with his arms outstretched in the dark.
“I would stumble and fall because I was weak.”
Stevenson sensed that the owl was perched above him. And then it quit hooting altogether.
“When it did start up again, it was from a completely different direction.”
Stevenson’s heart sank. Maybe the owl was simply flying around in the woods hunting. Barred owls, like many owls, are active at night.
He faced another decision. Should he continue following the sound of the hooting owl even though it had changed course? Again, he decided to risk it even though doing so seemed more rooted in desperation than reason.
Stevenson plodded through the trees, his arms outstretched, following the intermittent hoots.
“I don’t know how long it took. All of a sudden my hands hit the woodpile next to my tent. I could hardly believe it. I got a fire going. I thought, ‘I’m going to make it.’”
The next day, Stevenson decided to retrace his steps to discover how he’d gotten lost.
He discovered that the owl’s abrupt change of direction had saved him from plunging in the dark down a dangerous drop near Big Salmon Creek.
“The owl took me around it,” Stevenson said.
Today, more than 40 years later, awe and wonder resonate in Stevenson’s voice when he describes the events of that night.
“At the time in my life when it happened, I knew something had happened that I couldn’t explain. Something mysterious.”
Stevenson has family ties to the Blackfeet Nation. They include cousins who live in Browning. In recent years he has been invited to Blackfeet ceremonies.
“A few years back I was transferred the right to keep a Blackfeet pipe. Through the pipe, through ceremony and talking with elders, I’m learning a little about the unseen in the natural world around us. I’ve learned that Creator will sometimes send us help in unusual ways.
“That night it came in the form of a medicine owl.”