Monday, 31 March 2008

March 31, 2008 Tales Of The Trail - Spirit Ravens

One of the really nice things about this Iditarod was the people I found myself traveling the trails with.

One musher that I particularly enjoyed spending time with was Kelley Griffin. If you don't know who Kelley is, you should. When she finished Iditarod this year, she became the first woman to have completed the Quest and Iditarod in one year. She did it in way that she seems to approach a lot of things - quietly, professionally and without a lot of fanfare.

Kelley and I shared a "Peace on Earth' pizza (the BEST pizza in Alaska) in Unalakleet before we both prepared to leave for Shaktoolik. I was ready a bit before her, but she hit the trail when I was still in sight of the checkpoint. Overall our teams were pretty closely matched in speed, with Kelley's Quest hardened bunch a bit faster on the hills then mine (who I do consider to be above average hill climbers - Kelley's were just super on hills).
The trail out of Unk runs along the coastline for a bit before making a steep climb, then leveling out a bit as you work your way through a valley in the Blueberry Hills. Once we crested the steep climb, our teams were traveling pretty close when a big raven appeared in the trees that were scattered along the valley.

Ravens are actually common along the Trail. These very clever birds have figured out that dog team equate food scraps and other interesting tidbits and they fly up and down the trail looking for free meals. They will often sit defiantly in the middle of the trail until the leaders almost catch them and then glide safely out of reach - but generally they look down their beaks at dog teams and their measly mushers, rarely interacting with them at all.

 This raven seemed a little odd right from the start. He sat in his tree and made a bunch of chattering and chirping sounds - very guttural and bizarre noises, even for a raven - who are normally very talented vocalists.

He carefully watched Kelley and my teams roll by and then swept over both of us, his head swiveling from side to side as he checked the teams out. He landed in another tall tree and gave a 'review' of the team to anyone that cared to listen.

After we passed by this time, he jumped off his tree and glided over the team again, this time diving low enough as he came along behind Moses, that Mo actually jumped to the side. That seemed to delight the bird and he made a bunch of chattering noises as he flew off to try his new game on Kelley's team.

I stopped to let Kelley's team pass and we both commented on this bizarre bird and his weird games.

For the next 10 miles or so this bird went back and forth between the teams, cackling and swooping as he went. He was obviously delighted with these games and his noises seemed like laughter at times. Neither the dogs nor I were really minding the games, it was amusing and a nice distraction.

We hit the next real climb on that leg and Kelley's team pulled a ways away from mine. The raven had vanished and it looked like the fun and games were over. The trail headed down into the next valley and there waiting for me were not one, but three ravens. All three were making the same strange noises that our first visitor had been making and all three delighted in making low dives over the dogs and I.

This little group stayed with me for about 5 miles or so before abandoning their games.

Dusk and eventually darkness slipped over us as we traveled the final miles across the sea ice to Shaktoolik.

Kelley was just finishing signing in when I pulled in. Once we were in the checkpoint, we both commented on our raven encounters. Apparently, other mushers saw ravens that were making weird noises, but no one else but Kelley and I were participants in 'raven games'. Kelley made the comment that she thought they must have been 'spirit ravens'. If they were (and I honestly don't doubt that they were), I would have loved to have met those spirits in their human forms, because they seemed like some fun loving, charming souls! Like the mushers around me - very enjoyable to travel with!


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