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True Winter Tales: Today's pick

Skating With Owls by Chris McMahen

In the winter of 1974, snowy owls arrived in Victoria.  These brilliant white birds perched on the edges of the emerald green fairways of the Victoria Golf Club.  Snowy owls in a place that rarely got snow.

If snow actually fell, as kids, we would frantically slide, build snowmen and make snow angels until we were soaked to the skin, knowing we had only a day or two before the glorified slush would be gone.  Youthful imagination compensated for the city's lack of a traditional Canadian winter.  Playing road hockey, our tennis ball that hopped across the cracks in the neighbour's driveway became a rubber puck that slid gracefully across a sheet of perfect ice.

When I moved from Victoria, I headed inland - beyond Hope - with dreams of living a real Canadian winter.  I wanted to experience it all: snowshoeing, skiing, shovelling, and plugging in my car.  Most of all, I wanted to become Walter Gretzky and turn my backyard into a glistening sheet of perfect ice.  

It turned out to be harder than it sounded: countless hours flooding the backyard with a garden hose and shuttling buckets of hot water from the kitchen.  Finally, the ice was ready.  My young son and I laced up our skates and stood on the back step under the peaceful glow of the backdoor light with hockey sticks in hand, admiring the sheet of glistening ice that stretched away into the distant darkness of the yard. 

Stepping onto the ice gingerly, we took a few tentative strides as our skate blades rumbled across the rink.  "Maybe a bit rough," I said, "but not half bad."  I threw out a puck, watching it defy the laws of friction and magically slide across the ice.  We began passing the puck back and forth as we skated around and around, firing rink-length tape to tape passes.

I was basking in the euphoria of living a real Canadian winter as my son disappeared into the dark end of the rink and fired another rink-length pass.  As the puck slid toward my awaiting stick, I glanced up to see a large silhouette descending silently out of the night sky.  It was coming right at me.  

I'd never been told about this part of the Canadian winter experience.  I'd never heard of wildlife encounters during outdoor hockey games. Predatory great horned owls had not figured into my mythological notion of outdoor hockey Canadian-style.  

I raised my stick, no longer an instrument of beauty, but now a weapon of self-defence.  As the owl drew near, it swooped down, coming within an inch of the puck before veering off, and disappearing into the darkness.

I'd never realized how different the real Canadian winter I sought would be from those West Coast winters of my youth.  The snowy owls never went after golf balls.

Chris McMahen  is from Armstrong, BC

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