The mystic scavenger
Ravens can open zippers and slip into backpacks

Dane Gibson
Northern News Services

NNSL (Feb 22/99) - The raven has been immortalized in Norse legend and the Old Testament. The bird lives in First Nation traditional tales and art.

Today, it's thriving across much of the Northern Hemisphere. Here in the High Arctic, where aboriginals have lived with the bird for centuries, any mysticism surrounding the common raven has been dulled by reality.

The reality, according to many, is that they're clever, conniving vultures who will steal the parka off your back if you let them.

"Black Nightmare, that's what they are," Fort Simpson's Bill Lafferty said.

"On the trap-line, they work at the break of dawn so you can't see them. That's when they go down the line and rob you blind. My experiences with ravens is they're thieving little buggers."

Kugluktuk hunter Frank Ipakohak laughs when asked to tell a raven tale. He's seen them easily outwit his smartest dog out of a meal. Even though the black birds are everywhere, he wonders how many people have actually seen a raven's nest. As a boy, he stumbled across one and hasn't seen one since.

"From the stories my mother tells me, this is the time of year they're laying eggs," Ipakohak said.

"I saw a nest once and I still remember. The eggs were small, like robin's eggs, but blue in colour with black spots."

He has built up a hearty respect for the birds that seem unperturbed by the cold, even as hatchlings.

"My mom said she saw a nest where the eggs were cracked from cold but the chicks inside still survived," Ipakohak said.

"I know as a hunter, if I see them hovering or diving, it means there's game in the area."

In National Geographic's January, 1999, edition, the raven tale was told in article form. The vocal range, adaptability and intelligence of the bird is well documented. They've figured out Velcro fasteners and zippers, easily slipping into snowmobile storage containers and backpacks.

But do ravens carry messages between the world of the living and dead? Are they shape shifters? Have you heard a whisper in your ear and turned, only to see a raven watching?

One Northerner tells the story of walking home alone one late afternoon and hearing the unmistakable beating of a raven's wings behind her. But when she turned around, there was nothing there.

And so it is with many -- when a raven comes with a message, we listen -- because we know there's always some truth in legend.