Guest editorial: When owls attack

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“Flow” can be defined as the mental state where a person is fully immersed in the balance of challenge and skill required to perform an activity. Complete absorption and deep enjoyment take over, often transforming one’s sense of time.

I'm fortunate to experience flow on my morning running route, as the trail meanders through miles of forest, hills and streams. I’ve seen bears, coyotes, deer, woodpeckers, a bobcat and … owls.

Sometimes I see the owl first and that's nice. Other times the owl sees me first and decides to attack the back of my head, shocking me out of my “flow” state in a flash. It’s like getting hit in the back of the head with a bat made out of knuckles and wood nails. My toque, what Canadians call the warm, stretchy winter hat, flies off my head, and I narrowly avoid face-planting as I pull up in a painful daze. Instantly ashamed of the shriek that shook the peace of the forest a moment ago, I pick up my toque off the trail and lift my eyes up to the branches overhead. Sure enough, there sits the winged demon, with unblinking eyes locked on his target.

My mind flicks back to my first run-in with a militant owl. After the initial blow I took up a defensive position behind a tree on the side of the trail. An owl attacked my head? Really? Does it have rabies? Are those bloody goose eggs growing on the back of my skull? All I knew was that my head hurt, and I was still locked in the death stare of a great horned owl 15 yards up the trail who looked like he was just getting warmed up. I needed protection quick! My eyes darted away from the owl to scan my surroundings and immediately spotted a 3-foot stick laying at my feet, as if it had been placed there for this very reason. Like King Arthur, I retrieved the sword and in the nick of time, too, for the owl was instantly upon me in a flurry of wings and talons. I kept him at bay for half a dozen wing beats with a series of vigorous jabs and parries before he passed by and alighted on another branch to regroup. I firmly believe that had it not been for that blessed stick, I would have left half my face in the palm of an owl and would be growing a beard for next year's Christmas card to hide the carnage.

But the owl wasn’t finished with me yet. After spending the next 10 minutes engaging and disengaging in similar fashion, I finally realized that this particular owl was in it to win it, and death was a small price to pay. I needed to cede the ground and live to fight another day. The problem with this, of course, was the idea of giving my back to a relentless owl who had so recently bloodied my head was not an attractive one. So, I waited for the most recent swoop to take the owl behind me on the trail, then facing the owl with sword at the ready I began my retreat with a brisk, backward shuffle. The picture in my mind was that of an Olympic fencer on the defense, but with even more yelling. If I was wearing a GoPro that day, I would be a star on YouTube for sure.

Being a seasoned owl-attack veteran, I know a few things I didn’t in my rookie season. If you are running through the woods in the Pacific Northwest in the winter, especially at dawn or dusk and you feel like someone hits you in the back of the head with a bat, it’s probably an owl protecting its nest. Pick up your toque or hat and get out of there. If you’re trapped in a multi-swoop situation, a stick is crucial. When it’s all over you can congratulate yourself for surviving the biggest emotional swing on planet earth without having a heart attack. Going from the peaceful serenity of “flow” to the befuddled shock of “OWL ATTACK!?!” in a wingbeat is not for the faint of heart.

Joshua Penner is a chiropractor in Magnolia.