The nature of survival

This may sound at first like a ghost story, but in fact, it concerns survival. I was out running in early December of last year. It was just past 5 a.m. and I was alone—or thought I was—following an Oceanside path in Oak Bay, a scenic part of Greater Victoria. I was nearing the stately former mansion of murdered architect Sir Francis Rattenbury. The house is now a private school, and spooky in the dark. I was glancing at the sailboats tossed askew from winter storms when my knit hat was swiped from my head and fell to the ground. Assuming it had snagged on a tree branch, I scooped it up, and continued.

A moment later, I felt long, bony fingers clamping onto my scalp. I whirled around. No one was there. I bent to pick up my tuque again. As I did, I sensed the expanse of a wingspan—seemingly as immense as a refrigerator door—overhead. I snatched my hat and did a Usain Bolt down that dark road, screaming as if my Lycra was on fire.

I knew my foe was an owl, even before I saw it. When I passed the tree again two days later, it was perched on a branch, staring. I tried waving my hands overhead to prove I was human, not prey. This ridiculous display seemed to only irritate the barred owl, since it swooped right at me.


I realized that I was regarding the owl as a problem—rather than a wild creature to be appreciated. I read up about barred owls, and discovered that they have specially developed wings that make no noise as they fly, and they usually attack from behind. I came to admire the owl’s ferocity and beauty. It was merely surviving. But I had no desire to start wearing an eye patch, so I changed my route.

Acclaimed freelance writer J.B. MacKinnon, who wrote our “Island Survivor” feature for this issue, knows something about owls and about surviving. MacKinnon was rock climbing when he came to a ledge with four owlets. In that instant, he remembered reading an article about an owl researcher who always wore a hardhat, safety goggles, and body armour when approaching nests. “The momma owl was on a tree branch nearby, and for whatever reason decided to let me live,” MacKinnon told me. “But I expect her burning eyes will be the last thing I see before I die. . .”

Well, the Mother Owl spared MacKinnon, which freed up his schedule for additional near-death experiences, such as the unique adventure Editor Anita Willis concocted for him. Her plan was to send MacKinnon to a deserted island somewhere in British Columbia with no shelter and only wild foods for sustenance. The private island we chose, currently for sale for $1.8 million (see, was largely a mystery. We knew it had no shelter. We didn’t know the listing price included, as MacKinnon later put it, “hot and cold running bears.”


Over the five days and nights MacKinnon spent on the island, he realized that the experience was not one to be endured, but experienced fully. Instead of shutting nature out, he embraced it. He learned to appreciate the taste of fresh nodding onions and huckleberries, of having a squirrel as an alarm clock, and the satisfaction of self-reliance. He discovered the difference between need and want—a distinction that can get lost in a technology-mad society that prizes comfort.

You can read all about MacKinnon’s escapades and insights in “Island Survivor.” For tamer adventures, discover the charms of the Shuswap Lake town of Sorrento, learn about B.C.’s hundreds of volcanoes, and smile at the colourful tales of carnival king Bingo Hauser.

With this issue, we say goodbye to Editor Anita Willis, who gave the magazine her all for 15 years. Her contributions to the magazine were as vast as the Pacific. We thank her for her passion, her creativity, and her humour. The “Island Survivor” feature was her brainchild, and one of her all-time favourites.

“As I embark on a new adventure of my own,” Anita tells us, “I know our readers will enjoy this exceptional story, and many more to come.”

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