Change was already taking hold of the tundra. Lichens, moss, and grasses were breaking through from underneath a thick white blanket. The new growth forming patches of earthly colour across the stark landscape. New life, fresh and full of hope, unlike his own. Leaving the warmth of the timber research cabin, Osvald Mikhailo began the short trek across the snow towards the stand of dwarf willow. Nothing grows tall on the tundra, not even trees. It’s only a 100-metre walk, but the physical cost of Arctic life is high. The ache of cold air drawn in with every breath reminded Osvald that his body was not what it was when he took up this position thirty years earlier. He’d been full of hope and ambition back then—a young graduate presented with the opportunity of a lifetime. A remote research posting to study the most enigmatic owl in the world, Bubo scandiacus, the snowy owl.
He knew more about the snowy owl and this harsh habitat than any other scientist in the world. Moments of wonder blurred across decades of time and space. A snowy owl attacking a pair of Arctic wolves, a 10-foot polar bear lopping gently by, and countless fledglings barely a month old taking flight for the first time. Yet, a deep dissatisfaction had set in. This would be his last trek across the tundra. It was time to say goodbye.
Reaching the dwarfed forest stand, Osvald crawls into the hide. Through his binoculars he watches the familiar scene. There she sits ethereal and luminous guarding her precious clutch of eggs. She’s pressed firmly into a depression she scraped into the wind- swept rise only weeks earlier. Her mate flies close to the ground, gliding silently until he reaches the nest. Stopping in front of her, the male owl bows and offers his catch. With a slight head bob, she accepts the lifeless brown lemming and takes it in her beak. Care and nourishment, the drivers of all life. Unfolding his broad wings, he lifts gently back into the breeze. Last season the same pair had raised and fledged five chicks. Osvald wouldn’t see this clutch hatch; that privilege would be passed on to his replacement, who was probably, Osvald thought, travelling north on a light plane from Fort Yukon right now.
He wished he could thank the owl and the generations before her for all that they had given him. But new opportunities and a life less remote were all he’d been able to think of these past months. Noting the date and time against her leg band number on his data sheet, Osvald adds a description, male provides lemming for nesting female. Placing the sheet back inside his dry pack, Osvald lifts the binocs to his face. She swivels her head and squints toward the hide. She blinks, momentarily flashing a pair of golden eyes shining across the white space between them. Standing, Osvald turns away from her for the last time and trudges slowly back toward the cabin.