Off the Beaten Path: A raven story

The other day, near the tree line on Thunder Mountain, I heard what sounded like an owl. I zigzagged up the slope a few yards, trying to get a better vantage. Perched in the snowy branches near the top of a hemlock tree was a raven quietly hooting and making an odd sound — somehow like a sizzling exhale. The bird glanced down with a look I likely wrongly interpreted to mean ‘what are you staring at, weirdo?’

I think a lot about narrative and how the stories we tell define the way we think of life. I probably won’t ever really be able to understand the narrative the raven was telling, but I recognize that it was just as valid as my own.

More than a decade ago a raven’s narrative and my own became intertwined. I was walking home along a busy road when I saw a raven flopping, crippled and lying in small pool of blood on the pavement. A few cars swerved as I took off my jacket and wrapped the struggling animal in it. It was a walk of a few miles; snuggled against my stomach, with its head and beak sticking out, the raven soon calmed. It glanced from me to the traffic. Its sticky blood slowly smeared my jacket, forearms and hands.

Not long before the raven—perhaps the previous winter—an eagle’s narrative and my own became intertwined. It was January, in the early morning before daybreak, and I was walking through the woods near Nugget Creek to hike Mount Bullard. Nearby in the darkness, a party of ravens and eagles shrieked and cried. A large animal flopped and struggled to flee, but it was rooted by steel to a spruce tree. For a second I thought it was a wolf, but the sound of giant wings pounded the earth.

I knelt next to an eagle; it lay on its back panting, a trap intended for a wolf clinching one of its feet. I knew the man trapping the valley. We’d bumped into each other at dusk a few times before when I was coming out of the mountains and he was finishing checking his line. On both occasions we hiked back to the road talking about the woods and enjoying each others’ company.

I tried throwing my jacket on the eagle, but it beat wildly with its wings. So, instead, I spoke softly for a while, telling it a story about a man who wanted to take a trap off an eagle’s foot. I wiggled my pointer finger in front of its bottomless eyes—a hypnotism trick I’d used on chickens when I was a child. Gradually, it relaxed and, then, went limp.

I braced the bottom of the trap against my thigh, pried its levers open and removed the bloodied, but not broken, foot. I sat for some time before rousing the entranced eagle. With a look of shock and indignation, the bird hopped away into the darkness and I began hiking up a steep slope.

I thought of the eagle as I lay the raven atop my jacket in a cardboard box. I stroked its wing as it looked up at me with a mixture of resignation and trust. Its spine was crushed, its innards exposed.

Knowing full well there was no hope, I called the raptor centers in Juneau and Sitka anyway. Both calls went to voicemail. I carried the bird to my car, placed it in the passenger seat and drove to a veterinary clinic. The two of us sat in the parking lot staring out the window. Maybe it was selfish, but I did not want a room with fluorescent lights, a person in a lab coat and a needle to be the end of the raven’s narrative.

I carried the bird, cradled in my arms, back into the woods. I lay it on its back in the moss so it could stare up through the maze of tree branches to the gray sky. As gently as I could, I told it a story about a raven that died in the rainforest and a man who was sorry.

• Bjorn Dihle is a writer based out of Juneau. He’s working on his first book, “Haunted Inside Passage,” and can be reached at bjorndihle@yahoo.com.

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