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One Leg Raven

Updated: Feb 11, 2019

~one leg raven

~regarding my churn

~steaming and black mud splattered

~saying nothing that mattered

~we chatted in turn

~not so craven~

After nearly drowning myself, a one-legged raven dropped out of an early-autumn sky to investigate. We interacted, possibly as kindred spirits—having both survived nearly fatal events due to gross miscalculation of situation and personal capabilities. I sensed no judgment from the raven. It probably just wanted a handout, but I enjoyed its calm company.

~ ~ ~

Just before the turn of the century, I was trekking about on extended vacation along the Northwest Coast in search of unusual open-canoeing adventures. One of the finest unfolded and concluded safely at Ozette Lake in Washington after getting off to a pretty scary start. I arrived at dusk and quickly set camp, cooked a fast hot meal of freeze-dried spaghetti followed by freeze-dried strawberries straight out of the package for desert. Finding one last camping space unoccupied at Ozette Campground, I was able to spend the first night at the northern end of the lake and even though the camp was packed, it was one of the most peaceful campgrounds I've ever stayed at. Everyone settled in for the night quiet as mice, keeping to themselves and their evening camping tasks. No barking dogs. No boomboxes. No arguing. No bawling children. No heavy, rhythmic panting preceding stifled shrieks of ecstasy. I've heard them all elsewhere.

Morning was much noisier as everyone's excitement in anticipation of the coming day (or days) of activities in Ozette intensified by the minute and spilled over, their sounds almost musical in quality. I was surprised to see so many kids. They were extraordinarily well behaved during the night. A quiet, obviously athletic young man camped next to me was carrying an intriguing, sleekly sculptured, metallic blue and green open canoe with tall golden prow graced by a golden canard almost as wide as the canoe's beam. There was no seat, just padded knee notches in the floor and a padded, vertical, slightly curved board across the beam to rest butt against in a kneeling position. It was a custom-made work of art he must have built himself because I've never seen anything like it, outside or inside, before or since. Even today, Googling "canoe prow canard" yields no images of a canoe like his.

He said hello with a wave and came over to admire my canoe, a plain white, fiberglass and kevlar Sawyer DY Special. Nothing extraordinary, but a great canoe for solo paddling long distances on flat waters. Not too heavy, and very fast. I asked about his canoe and he described it as a competition surf canoe, saying the canard was experimental for countering pearling. We talked on about the unusually clear weather for the season, various open-canoeing opportunities in the region and watched the rest of the camp preparing for the day. Eager to get out on the water, we both nodded a friendly farewell and went our separate ways.

I carried my canoe to a nearby access point, firmly lashed backpack behind the seat so I could lean against it and pushed off, gliding smoothly away from shore over glassy water full of morning sky. First vessel on the lake that morning. Paddling toward my destination—a trail head on the west-side shoreline about five kilometers straight souththe scenery from the middle of the lake was outstanding. From the trail head, I planned to hike less than two kilometers along South Sand Point Trail through an expanse of old growth fir and hemlock forestland to camp along wild beaches facing the Pacific Ocean. I had no idea what to expect. I had picked up a tide timetable at the park ranger's station and understood where not to be at high tide, but I had never hiked through temperate, lowland rain forest and I could see from the size of trees along the shoreline that I was about to walk among giants. I had only seen beaches in San Francisco from afar. The beaches on the far side of the ancient forest ahead would be remote and undeveloped, no commercialization allowed. My kind of beaches.

Quickly nearing my destination I squinted, trying to spot any sign of trail leading down to its western shore just around a fat peninsula shielding Ericson's Bay. I had a pretty good idea where it was according to maps, but this being my first outing at the lake, I couldn't be certain I was correlating live landscape to map imagery. Finding no definite indication of a trail along the shore from canoe, I proceeded straight across the mouth of the bay and beached on a likely spot, locked the canoe to a tree and hid the paddle not far away under loose, forest floor debris. Taking a moment to photograph the spot and take a few photos of the broad expanse of crystal clear lake in every direction, I hung my trusty Pentax K1000 around my neck, shouldered and cinched on my backpack and started up the trail.

It was the wrong spot. I had overshot by about a kilometer too far south. Instead of the maintained trail I wanted to hike, I found only a minor stream-side game trail which faded away into several more insubstantial branches after a few kilometers and I soon found myself trailblazing through untamed forest strewn with fallen giants too large to straddle or climb over. I veered back northward to search for the correct trail on the other side of the narrow little stream. I had been told it had planks spanning larger dead falls, so I kept an eye out for unnaturally straight, horizontal lines ahead.

The little blue arrow at right is where I should have landed. I landed at the little red arrow.

Reaching the stream, I surveyed it and could see no threat presented by crossing it. It was shallow at the edge and barely over a meter wide. Lush meadow grass grew right up to its edge. It couldn't be very deep. I figured I could cross it with one long step to its center with right foot, another to the far bank with left, and boom, on the other side. Without hesitation, I took that single step with my right foot and was suddenly underwater with more than 20 kilos of backpack firmly strapped on at shoulders and waist, sinking rapidly.

I hit the bottom which was harder than I expected it to be and instantly thrust downward with my legs. Shooting up, I felt something drag hard against my chest. A submerged root or branch snagged the camera strap and the hook loop on the camera snapped. I snatched at it as I rose to the surface but missed. Bye bye Pentax . . . and all the photos on the film loaded in it. Damn. Oh well. Better to survive this situation. I can always get another camera if I live.

Rapidly forgetting about that stuff as I surfaced and gasped a huge breath, I flailed about for the far side of the stream for a few seconds, knowing it was just a couple of feet away at the most and finally found the bank. Unbuckling the waist strap of the pack, I hauled myself up, backpack still on one shoulder, heaving up onto firm ground until half of me was out of the stream. Then I slipped from the pack and rolled the rest of the way out of the stream.

Panting and cursing aloud at myself at the same time, I marveled at my stupidity but decided I chose the best part of the day to make such a mistake. Even though morning chill persisted, the sun was warming and welcome. Having packed everything that shouldn't get wet in waterproof bags, I had no concerns about the contents of the backpack but I pulled everything out of it anyway and checked each bag since I would have to get dry clothes out to wear. No leaks. Sleeping bag dry. Good. The sky was clear, no rain in the forecast, although I knew weather changes can happen rapidly and unexpectedly anywhere, so I stripped out of my wet, muddy clothes and began rinsing them out with clean lake water in a collapsible bucket and draped them over bushes to dry.

As I was doing that, a raven dropped out of the sky, landing less than five meters away. It stood where it had landed without making any sound or movement other than turning and cocking its head this way and that. I stopped rinsing clothes and squatted with the bucket in front of me so I could watch the bird while rinsing off splotches of black mud still clinging to skin. Evaporating moisture rose from my body in thin tendrils of steam through low-angle sunbeams. It was cool, but not uncomfortably so. I was happy to be alive.

The raven uttered a strange cluck and hopped toward me. That's when I saw it had only one leg. It stood on it without having any apparent problem keeping its balance. I wondered how it had lost its leg, if it ever had it in the first place. It hopped again to face directly toward me.

"Did you lose your leg by making a mistake or did you hatch that way?" I asked.

The raven's head continued moving but it stayed where it was. It clucked again.

"Not that it's any of my business, unless you stopped here to try to make a point," I added, and began packing gear bags back into the pack.

It hopped closer, clearly aware I was no threat. It was good at one-legged locomotion, not seeming to realized it was missing the other. It didn't squawk or flap its wings any when hopping along on its only leg. It just did it like it had always been one-legged.

"You must want a handout, right?" It triple clucked at that and hopped a bit closer.

I dug into a snack bag and pulled out a baggie of raisins. I remembered seeing on some wildlife show that they liked raisins and this one did too, plucking each one I tossed its way from the ground, hopping about for those landing out of reach then waiting for another.

"Thought so, you shameless opportunist. But it's okay. If I was alone right now I might start getting depressed over my stupid stunt. Win win, as the fat-cat managers like to say back in fully-incorporated cities. Nice to be here with you instead."

The raven clucked enthusiastically at that and I threw it another raisin.

I soon was dry enough to put on some dry clothes and resume the hike to the ocean side of the forest. While I dressed, the raven squawked and took to the air, circling once then taking a vector north by northeast. Probably going to the campground for more handouts. Heading west, dry, warm and cheered, I began the hike across to the ocean, listening carefully for the first sounds of surf ahead.

The trail did indeed transition from dirt to a lot of stretches of planks nailed on top of dead falls stacked two, three and four high. I estimated at one point I was at least four stories above the forest floor. I had to stop and pee from a high plank at one point and had barely finished and zipped up when a couple came tromping along the plank I had stopped on for a bio break. It was still early in the day when I reached the ocean and it was much more impressive than any seashore I had ever stood on before. But then, I had only stood on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico a few dozen times. No competition.

After checking tide charts three times to avoid misreading them, I started the hike down coast to South Sand Point. Rhythm of ocean waves had a strange effect on my mind. I could feel stress diminishing and imagined it was all being carried out to sea for good. Persistent thoughts of work waiting back at the bank faded. I wanted to stay forever on the beach. I set camp, roamed up and down the beach and into the forest, exploring, keeping an eye out for bear sign and checking out rocks, sea shells and glimpses of quick little animals on land, sea and in the air. I had been told raccoons were more bothersome than bears but saw no tracks of either. No shoe or boot tracks. No people. Perfect.

After watching the sun set, I settled down in the tent pitched far above high tide line for a meal, did some reading and soon fell asleep with the strange, wooden clonking sound of huge logs banging into each other in the surf, or perhaps into rocky shores. I reminded myself not to go wading or swimming in the ocean and thought about that for a few seconds longer so I wouldn't have one of those passing thought dreams about it after falling asleep. I was sure that wouldn't be a fun dream to have.

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