It was mid-morning outside Wrangell, Alaska on September 16, 1974, and we’d heard there were jewels to be found down the beach a mile, if we were patient and lucky. 1,000 to 10,000 years ago, the forefathers of the Tlingit Indians sent their shaman walking over these same rocks to work their magic carving designs into small boulders for what must have taken weeks or even months. We were following their paths in hopes of creating rubbings of their stone carvings. It was my twenty-fourth birthday, my first trip to Alaska, and the first day of sun in the past 10 days of travel to get here.
We found the petroglyphs. We spent the next several hours laying the paper over the images of faces, whales and spirals, then rubbing the sides of the crayons across the paper to produce the pattern in the rock underneath in relief. In the process, we attempted to understand – to somehow intuitively bridge the gap between the millennia – so we might in a small way comprehend what it must have been like on this spot for those mystics. When we carefully rolled our papers, packed away the gear and headed to the van with the incoming tide, our heads were full of possibilities and we were dizzied from the experience.
We were halfway back, commenting in low voices about what a magical time it had been, when we heard a sound like a rock falling in water – only somehow different, more organic. More alive, and it wasn’t coming from the ocean just a few feet to our right. It was coming from overhead, behind us. We turned to look, and saw two large, black birds flying up the beach, maybe twenty feet above us. One of them made the sound again – and as it did, it pushed its wings down and rose in the air a foot higher than its companion, then folded its wings tight against its body, rolled onto its back and fell. It dropped until it was six or seven feet from the rocky beach, then rolled upright again, spread its wings and flapped up to its mate, who had been leisurely flying along the entire time. We watched, not believing what we had seen when a few seconds later the other raven made the same sound, pushed itself higher, rolled over and repeated the same move! We watched as they flew over us and up the beach the same direction we were traveling, continuing to fall and fly again as they went. Each time, they made the sound before dropping. Never had I seen a bird fly for the sheer enjoyment of it, as if it had discovered that since it could perform such a maneuver, it would. As if to say to any observer, See? Look what you can do.
I listened. I realized what was possible, and I moved to Alaska the next year. Ravens would continue to haunt the fringes of my life there, but as I chose to frequent the water instead of the shore, my life was visited more by seabirds than the black-feathered trickster and deliverer of fire. But raven was there the day I left.
We lived in the Kenai area for 22 years. In late November of 1997 I got a job teaching at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, where I still live today. In Alaska, I divorced, fell in love again, remarried, had two children, became a commercial fisherman, taught middle and high school, learned and taught photography, built a house, built a new boat. I built a life as an Alaskan, as a fisherman, as a husband, as a father. And now we were leaving.
I pulled our van into the shipping warehouse, out the loading dock and onto a trailer packed with our possessions. Afterward, I signed the papers authorizing the shipping company to send that trailer containing everything we owned except our pickup truck parked out front to Anchorage, where it would be loaded on a barge and shipped to Seattle. If everything went right, it would arrive in Olympia a few days after we did. In the truck outside, my wife and two sons waited for me as a full-blown blizzard raged around them. I stepped out the door and into a white-out of silver-dollar flakes swirling in a stiff wind. I wondered if our belongings would even get to Anchorage as I stepped across the porch and down the steps to the parking lot. Halfway down, I heard a croaking behind and above me. I know that voice. I turned around, and there he was, all fluffed out against the cold, hunkered down in the snow on the peak of the roof, looking right at me as if to say, You sure about this? We stared at one another for a long moment. I pursed my lips and said, “No.” I lowered my gaze and shook my head, then looked up one last time. He was still there. “I know,” I said aloud. “I can always come back.” He never said, No you can’t. I found that out on my own.
I did, eventually, return to visit. Of course that wasn’t what I meant in the snowstorm, but I’ve been back to visit several times, and many were to read my poems and writings about Alaska at fisher-poet events. One of the first times, I went to Kodiak in April of 2008. I spent the night on a friend’s boat in dry-dock in the Kodiak boatyard. The yard was deserted and after a late night, I awoke to a thickening spring snowstorm. My friend was already up and gone, so I walked out on deck in my sweats and went to pee over the stern as the snow dropped straight down from low, gray clouds overhead. There was no wind. The flakes hissed as they landed on inches of white coating the decks of the boats, their rigging and the gravel of the yard. Holding my arms close to my chest against the cold, I turned to go back to the warmth of the cabin – and I am not making this up – I heard a sound I hadn’t heard in over 30 years, like a rock, falling in water. I recognized it immediately (I had told the Wrangell beach story dozens of times). I twisted around to look. Across the yard came one, no, two ravens, flying at rooftop level. I had looked too late to see if one of them had rolled over. They were just flying… then I heard it again, and sure enough, one of the large black birds lifted a few feet into the falling snow and rolled, dropping toward the ground like a stone above the ocean. She spread her wings and flipped at the last second, then rose to join her mate, flapping together through the flakes until they disappeared behind a curtain of white.
I haven’t seen a raven in a long while. It’s been over a year since I was last in Alaska. I don’t recall seeing one the last time I was there, though I can’t imagine they weren’t present. I wonder if I’ve stopped looking, or if they’ve given up on me. I don’t much like either of those possibilities. There are charmed places near where I live where ravens live and work their magic. I think I need to find one.