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Northern Minnesota snowmobiler survives collision - with owl

Chris Hatfield of Two Harbors, Minn., holds the helmet he was wearing when he hit a barred owl while snowmobiling near Jean Duluth Road. The owl knocked Hatfield out -- and off of his snowmobile. (Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune)

One moment, Chris Hatfield of Two Harbors, Minn., was zipping along the North Shore State Trail on his snowmobile. The next, he was sprawled on the trail unconscious, the victim of a vicious collision.

With an owl.

Hatfield, 35, remembers the seconds leading up to the collision, which occurred about 8 p.m. Saturday night. He had just rounded a corner on the state trail where it neared Jean Duluth Road in Duluth. He estimates he was traveling at 40 to 45 mph.

"Right in front of me, I saw something, and then it went black," Hatfield said. "It knocked me off the sled and knocked me out."

He had hit a barred owl, which he turned in to Bob Kirsch, Department of Natural Resources area wildlife manager at Two Harbors, on Thursday. An adult barred owl is 21 inches high and weighs 1.6 pounds, about as much as a jar of spaghetti sauce.

The owl had hit him right in the face mask of his snowmobile helmet, shattering one layer of the mask.

Hatfield was the last in a group of five friends riding together. One of them turned back to look for him after a few minutes.

"I woke up flat on my back on the trail staring at the stars," Hatfield said. "The sled was about 3 feet away. There was a shape on the seat, and that was the owl."

A couple of other snowmobilers also had stopped to help.

"Everyone kept asking what happened. I kept saying, 'I don't know,' " said Hatfield, who works in maintenance at Sunrise Nursing Home in Two Harbors.

He said he's little banged up from the incident.

"Two shiners, a cracked nose, a little whiplash," he said.

Thursday morning, he still had a headache from the accident, said Hatfield, who goes by the nickname "RC."

Ironically, the helmet he was wearing that night was not his own. It belonged to his fiancée, Sue Heise of Two Harbors. His own has a bad face shield, he said, and he usually wears it with the face mask up, so he borrowed Heise's new helmet that night.

"That was probably the best decision I had that day," Hatfield said.