It is 17 degrees and the sun is rising as Angus and I walk through the park. The morning sparkles; frost outlines every limb, every pine needle, every seed bud waiting for spring.
Three days ago, I saw a barred owl along this wooded path. Big and stripey-brown, it was perched on a branch right above our heads, watching us with its huge dark eyes. I stopped in amazement — my first barred owl! — and then I moved on, so as not to spook it.
Every morning since then Angus and I have headed along this same trail, hoping for a second sighting of that magnificent bird. Well, I'm hoping for a second sighting. Angus just wants to smell things.
Today, the hard-packed snow squeaks under my boots and the winter air chills my face. I slow, scanning the treetops. Angus slows, sniffing the ground. He is content to follow my pace. Take it slow. Or fast. Whatever. He does his thing, I do mine. We are excellent winter walking partners.
In summer, walks are more fraught — there is simply too much going on. Squirrels, joggers, stinging insects, kids on skateboards (the worst), dogs, rabbits (the other worst), picnickers and bicyclists; the park is a busy place when the weather is warm, and the commotion makes Angus anxious.
But early on a January morning, we are mostly alone. The woods are quiet, but for the drilling of a woodpecker. Angus is able to relax and be a dog instead of a watchdog. He sniffs and meanders.
I hear crows screaming, look up, and there it is — the barred owl, its broad wings spread wide as it swoops through a tangle of branches, two crows chasing it. It lands on a branch.
If I had my good camera, and my long lens, and if I didn't have Angus to hang onto, I could get a great photo — one of the crows is now perched about 6 inches from the owl, beak wide open, cawwwwing furiously. The owl actually looks as if it's cringing.
If I didn't have Angus to hang onto. Who am I kidding? Angus is the reason I'm out here at 7:30 on a January morning. Without Angus, I would never have seen the barred owl at all.
All year round, Angus and I walk twice a day, morning and evening. With this mild winter, we go for miles without worrying about frozen noses or frostbitten paws. As long as I want to walk, he is content to trot along with me. He is the perfect winter walking dog.
At sundown, we head out again.
The temperature hasn't moved much all day, and there isn't a soul around. In the distance, we can hear the steady hooting of a pair of great-horned owls. We know these owls; we hear them almost every night.
We take our time, Angus and me. The moon is out, and the stars are bright. We crunch along the path and the hooting grows louder. And then I spot them — two blobs in the dark, side by side at the top of a tall pine tree.
We stop. Angus snuffles at the snow, finding footprints and scat and who-knows-what to sniff, while I stare, rapt, at the courting birds. The male calls. The female replies. The stars shine.
My ears fill up with the mournful sound of the courting owls, my eyes fill up with moonlight and bright snow. My heart fills up with love for this difficult dog, standing at my side calmly and patiently on a cold and starry winter's night.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune's books editor. She is not a dog expert, just a dog lover, chronicling the life of her rescue dog, Angus, since he was three months old. Follow his adventures at startribune.com/puppy. @StribBooks