I was away from home on Christmas Day, in Sitka, Alaska with two co-workers. The town was closed up for the holiday and big, puffy snowflakes were falling. We decided to walk the Totem Pole Trail, a mile-long trail through the woods that follows the shoreline the first half-mile and then curves back to town along the Indian River.
We were halfway along the shoreline when we heard strange sounds from high in the trees: muted bleeps and squawks, like the sound of a computer held underwater.
“I think it’s a raven,” I said in response to my friends’ bewildered glances. I’ve spent a lot of time in Alaska, and I’ve heard the birds’ wide range of vocal possibilities. After I said this, a large bird took flight from the tree.
We walked a bit farther and heard the vocalization again, and another taking of flight. Then again, farther down the trail, as if the bird was coaxing us along. As we neared the turning point of the trail, a cacophony of raven sound rose. The cries were so uproarious that I thought there must be a predator in the area, or something unusual happening, to cause such a disturbance.
Creeping forward through dense saplings, we followed the sound to the river and spied ravens in the trees lining both banks. Probably a dozen. By now the birds were quiet. All faced out at the river.
As we watched, a big bald eagle came swooping up the river corridor. It whooshed down and snatched a small fish from the water. As this happened, the ravens broke out in a maelstrom of sound—caws, acks, sirens, computer squawks, throat clicks, bongos—as if they were the raucous audience at some sort of avian Olympics.
I felt we’d walked into one of The Far Side comics—like the one with the martini-drinking cows who get back on all fours when they see humans approaching. Only the birds hadn’t seen us.
As we exited the forest, a raven (I like to believe it was the one who led us in the woods) shot ahead and landed on top of a totem pole directly in front of us. At the top of the pole was a carved raven head. The real raven turned until its head was in the exact position of the carved head below.
Really, it did this.
Feeling a little dumbstruck, we decided we weren’t ready to return to our hotel. We found the Pioneer Bar open, shot inside, and debriefed on our bizarre experiences over a Christmas beer.