Alaska, Idaho, and Oregon River Adventures

Feature Story

Trickster, tracker, scavenger, thief: Tales of a pesky passenger

By Sarah Walker

On Grand Canyon floats, there might as well be another name added to the passenger list: Raven, because at least one of these pesky aerial scavengers seems to sign up for every trip right from the start. It’s food they’re after. Grand Canyon ravens have learned to associate river floaters with Beings Who Gather to Feast (and there might be scraps). Not to mention those square glass bottles with their name on the label, Cuervo being Spanish for raven. During pack up at the Lee’s Ferry put-in there’ll be a raven making fly-bys, checking out the boats, the food, the passengers and crew. Every day, a raven or two will follow the line of boats down the river. In camp, at mealtime, they’ll perch nearby or even walk across the hot sand to see what’s cooking. Depending on your own state of mind, ravens will either be a complete nuisance or become a creature of unexpected interest during this 18-day float. Ravens are known as intelligent, clever, wary scavengers with big vocabularies. There’s the familiar kraaw, kraaw as they soar past. Then there are the strange knocking sounds, subtle chortles, high-pitched bell tones, and of course the hoarse croaks one would expect from a bird whose second name, corax, means “croak.”

Ravens are also known as tricky thieves. Maybe you’ve experienced this, like passenger Mike Bond has – gone back to your camp after breakfast to find someone has rifled the dry bag you left open and stolen your secret personal java stash. Or turned your back on a freshly made sandwich for just a moment and nearly lost it to a clever, silent winged creature who appears out of nowhere yet seems to know all about your sandwich – like passenger Catherine Thayer did. Or maybe, like boatman Pete Gross, you set out a small first aid kit in a Ziploc on the deck of your dory in preparation for a hike up Havasu Creek, only to have it carried off by a curious raven. (The ravens in Grand Canyon seem to have a thing for Ziplocs.)

If you’re a birdwatcher, soaring ravens might drive you crazy. You’ve got your binoculars up ready to examine every dark shape circling above the canyon walls because you’re determined to spot one of the recently introduced California Condors. There’s one! You study it, reminding yourself what thousands of feet of vertical relief between you (river level) and it (canyon rims and beyond) have done to your perspective. Is that a 10-foot wingspan (condor), or is it just 4 (raven)?

Tricked again by Raven, the shape-shifter who’s ruddered his characteristic wedge-shaped tail into the wide blocky one of the largest raptor in North America. You lower your binoculars and shake your head. Coulda sworn it was a raptor….

Maybe you came on this trip for the famous whitewater that the Colorado River dishes up in the Grand Canyon. Or maybe you came seeking quiet seclusion. Either way, on this trip, you get plenty of excitement, plenty of peace. The rapids, the silence, there’s some every day. But something else, something beyond the images in the brochure, start to seep into the shores of your river consciousness. Is it the way that unpredictable, scruffy, bird is starting to get your attention? You look away from the entrance wave to Crystal Rapid for a second because there’s one perched on an exposed boulder, watching. At happy hour you find yourself telling everyone an animated story about how you imitated a passing raven’s call – and it answered you right back.

RavenEach morning, as the boats pull away from the beach there’s a raven, inspecting the campsite, checking for food scraps. It won’t find any, but ravens are curious and persistent.  The word raven is starting to be heard at some point during each day, like rapids, beer, lunch.

Some Grand Canyon floaters have come to love ravens over the years and have become raven-watchers. They’re the ones who’ll cry “Look!” and point skyward to a couple of ravens performing impossibly agile barrel rolls against the hot, blue sky, plying currents in the air only they can scout. Or there’s the raven watcher who sits long and still in camp, gazing at a pair of ravens preening and nuzzling each other, side by side on a mesquite branch. Catherine Thayer is one of those raven-watchers and chances are she’ll have her sketchbook out.

Eighteen days are a lot longer than most of us get to spend in remote lands anymore. Daily life floats into the rhythm between a day’s river miles ticked off on a waterproof map and an evening’s brand new sandy home. The days melt by. As you float farther and farther downstream, the cares of put-in day, the world of schedules, cars, phones and money, seems farther and farther away, back there someplace. In front of the bows is the world of sand, water, current, sun on skin, the repetitive hissing of waves, the drawn-out silence of flat water. And Raven, the uninvited passenger, the homeboy, has become part of the trip.

Sarah Walker writes from Moscow, Idaho.