It is easy to laugh at the antics of ravens. They are quirky, curious and yes, funny. A well-known title they carry among First Nations people is that of Trickster, known for their pranks and intelligence.
They also carry darker histories, in literature and folklore: wise, feared, revered, portents of death. wreathed in mystery. I have a healthy respect for them.
I have had many close-up raven encounters while paddling in the Yukon.
I’m called a Queen of the Klondike by paddling friends for a reason: I mastered balancing an 18-foot canoe on my head a few years ago.
I’m not very big or particularly strong, but I feel pretty indomitable climbing up the van and releasing the ratchet straps to slide the canoe down onto my shoulders. By the time help is offered I’ve flipped the boat, maneuvered it into the rushing water and am partway to pushing off onto another solo adventure.
Paddling the Klondike River is not like paddling lakes or the warm, lazy rivers in the south. The water is always glacier cold and there are sweepers, rocks, and giant “evil” salmon lurking beneath you. (Okay, the giant evil salmon may be my personal, but they are still out there.)
There is something beautiful and frightening to hear a faint noise, and suddenly be locking eyes with a proud golden-eyed eagle only a few feet away. They tilt their bald heads and watch as you pass, ignoring the “kraacks” and “quuarrrrks” of the ravens that hide in the trees around them. The ravens lie in wait to scavenge the carrion of the fish that the eagles eventually pull out of the river.
I live in a tent on an island on the Klondike River all summer. I’ve always loved this spot because when the wind is up, the ravens play. They like to fly with the wind, straight at the cliffs, and then shoot straight up on the thermals.
Endlessly they dive, and I have even seen them lock claws high, high up, then fall in tandem together, only to flare break apart almost at the water.
If I were a raven, I would play those games, too. Instead, I spend a few nights a week sleeping under the stars beside the river I love, watching the ravens play.
In the morning I roll into my canoe and paddle to work. Those are the days that my muscles ache a little and I’m slightly chilled most of the morning, but my smile is dazzling and my happiness infectious.
Although I prefer to paddle alone, people ask me all the time to take them onto the water.
One evening a friend and I paddled the Klondike way too late in the day; it was early evening – not an ideal time to head down the river. A storm came – I saw it mounting over the peaks of the Midnight Dome, which stands majestically above Dawson City.
Around 8 p.m., the sky darkened like an impending apocalypse: foreboding and intense.
We pulled onto my island and wrapped up into my sleeping bag just as the rain started. Thunder smashed suddenly and violently, as we sipped whisky and counted the seconds between crashes. With a headlamp, we read a cat version of a choose-your-own-adventure story, and my friend doodled flowers on the edges of the pages. Eventually the thunder faded.
We escaped the tent to pee. In the strange calm after the storm, we noticed hundreds of ravens sitting in the birch trees on the cliffs above us.
For birds that seem to talk endlessly, the silence was eerie and unnerving. Every single corvid in the Klondike region must have been gathered there; we could not even see the leaves of the trees.
Then, in a beautiful – seemingly orchestrated – dance, they took off. Waves and circular patterns of living animals taking to the skies. We watched, awestruck at the rippling exodus of innumerable birds. It was truly magical.
“Have you ever seen anything like that?” she asked me later, as we curled up against each other. I shivered and wrapped myself closer.
We have witnessed something incredible.