Prince of Darkness

The sun had set hours ago and there was still light on the horizon.  Evenings in the north country are a long affair.  At our position in the Hudson Bay Watershed of Quebec dusk can linger until well past 11 PM in early July.  We were waiting for the last walleye bite of the evening.  Walleyes are curious fish.  They like two things: dark and being unpredictable.  One unpredictable trait is that walleye feeding may happen in waves.  My two sons and I were hoping to catch one last wave of hungry walleye before setting for our camp across the lake about eight miles away.  The three of us had fished for at least 12 hours that day.  Our luck had not been steady but we were game nonetheless.  A few minutes of great walleye fishing can fill your creel and change the outcome of the whole day.

The three of us were quiet as we waited.  We were all tired, but not too tired to take in the marvel of a sunset and twilight in northern Quebec.  When the sun dipped below the horizon the sky was bright: splashed with yellow and orange.  Over the next hour or so these magnificent colors gradually changed to pink waves that seemed to wash over the billowy clouds.  Eventually the western sky went into a dark orange and red phase that contrasted heavily against the black night time void in the northern and southern skies.

Nothing is quite as beautiful as a sunset in a remote boreal forest on a crystal clear lake.  The sheer beauty is nearly beyond description.  There is little that can be said to describe this marvel, so the three of us just sat there and took it all in.

A few ravens flew overhead.  They fussed with each other for some unknown reason.  Ravens are very expressive, at least vocally.  They cry out to other ravens during disputes.  They seem to voice their concerns over the state of their territory.  They shout warnings to intruders.  And sometimes they seem to be conveying a message to those that would listen.  I listened and wondered if the ravens had some message that they wanted to bring to me.

There are a few animals that truly symbolize the north woods.  Certainly loons come to mind as the magical creature of northern lakes.  Moose willingly take their place of importance in these boreal forests as well.  Wearing their large antlers like a crown it is easy to imagine them as king of the north woods.  Bald eagles, which are as common as seagulls on these isolated  northern lakes, may also be a good candidate. They are seen by many as one of the premier creatures of these parts.  With their six foot wingspans and fearless dives that penetrate deep into waters in search of fish it is hard to imagine a more daring bird.

There is little doubt that wolves would be the first symbol of northern climates on some people’s lists.  These wonderful canines are nearly perfect carnivores and seem to have some of man’s best traits: family, loyalty, and love.  To hear them howl sends chills down my spine.  It is a melody that surpasses any sound that human beings have ever created.  For others, the stealth and survival skills of the lynx might be the best symbol of the boreal forest.  These small, powerful cats are masters at surviving the harshest of conditions.  Their ability to catch prey is legendary and pound for pound I doubt if there is a tougher animal in this wilderness.

Strangely I think of the raven as one of the best symbols of the taiga.  They are large, powerful birds that can have wingspans that reach out to four feet from wing tip to wing tip, and stand over two feet tall from head to foot.  They can live more than 30 years in the wild and are known for their fierce intelligence and problem solving skills.  The raven is oddly beautiful.  Its plumage is an iridescent black that can cast a rainbow of colors in bright sunlight.  It has an enormous beak that is darker than a winter night at the Arctic Circle.   That dark beak is enormously thick and curved.  The raven has ruffled feathers on its chest that flutter in the wind. Its prominent wedge shaped tail separates it from other members of the Corvus genus. Interestingly, the raven has the ability to imitate almost any sound from small birds, to actual phrases of the human voice, to the motors of chainsaws.  They vary their natural voices to alarm other ravens, comfort the members of their social order, and to incite excitement amongst peers. These wonders of creation are socially oriented, like their cousin the crow, and seem to have a distinct social order.  They stay in the north woods year round.  They are active in temperatures as low as fifty below zero and even more active when the temperatures reach 90 degrees on those long hot Canadian summer days.  Ravens are keenly observant, seem to be aware of all that is around them, and capable of avoiding trouble whenever and wherever it may occur.  Ravens are elusive when they want to be shy and right in the middle of your view when they want to be the center of attention.

Ravens play a powerful role in North American Native American myth.  They are frequently seen as both deity and mischief maker in ancient lore.  In one story the great creator stored all of the world’s features in boxes.  Mountains, water, open fields, forests, and light were amongst the items that the creator gifted to the animals that existed before humans.  Light was given to the seagull and he coveted this great mystery.  Raven saw that the world was to be in darkness forever unless the box was opened.  Seagull did not want to share this great gift.  Raven gathered a thorn and flew over to the seagull and stuck the thorn into his foot until he cried out and dropped the box that held light.  As the box fell all of the stars, the moon, and the sun spilled out bringing the first day to the earth.  Raven rejoiced, and chose to stay black for eternity to remind all the planet’s creatures that there was once a time of complete darkness.  Some believe that the raven is the prince of darkness; one who holds the darkness of the past in his soul so the rest of us can enjoy light.

While sitting in the boat and waiting for a walleye to make my fishing line go taught I thought back to an incident earlier in the day.  We were back at the camp to get lunch, one of our few reprieves from fishing.  The camp is located on a long sandy beach that holds sections of coarse pebbles, some of them brightly colored with specks of iron pyrite, otherwise known as fool’s gold.  I watched a raven stand over these pebbles and pick a few up and drop them.  The raven looked as though he were mining for jewels and finally chose one particular stone and flew off with it.  From that distance I couldn’t tell if he had chosen a flashy stone, but I know from my reading that ravens (and crows) are attracted to shiny objects.  They collect them and hide them as treasures.  It’s nice to know that ravens seem to have a deep appreciation for beauty.  Perhaps that is a bit anthropomorphic, but I like to think that they enjoy the beautiful things in life just as we humans do.

As the night sky closed the final curtain on the last light in the west, ravens, still noisy and loud, disappeared over a dark ridge on the edge of the lake where they will likely settle in for the night.  I wondered if they would still be as spirited in the morning.

As absolute darkness approached my two sons and I pulled anchor and started the long night time journey across the lake to our camp.  That evening there would be no late walleye bite but there was the memory of a lovely sunset, the twilight of the north woods, and a few ravens to keep us company.  As we headed south in our small water craft toward the comfort of our camp I could hear the ravens call in the distance one last time.  The call seemed to shout out to the last bit of the dwindling day.

Their secret revealed, those princes of darkness would rest until the first light of next morning.  And then the celebration of the next long day would begin all over again.

Written for in July of 2010.

  • Ratty

    You have told this story of ravens in such an excellent way that I want almost desperately to go and find out even more about them. I’ve written a little about crows before, and my research touched on ravens a bit, but I never knew some of these fascinating things.

  • Sandy

    We noticed more ravens than we had ever seen last month as we traveled route 201 headed for Jackman. Even in town, they were everywhere. I saw one group of at least 50 on an old roadbed. It would have been interesting to get out and watch them, but we needed to get on our way south before twilight. We had one close call with a moose on the road at night, and didn’t want to do that again.

    I don’t have much experience with ravens, but am quite familiar with our local crows. We watch the sunrise together lots of mornings.

    Was that a recent fishing trip? Who did all the cooking? Dad, I’ll bet.

  • bill

    Hi Sandy

    Yes, my two sons and I went fishing at Lac Wetetnagami in early July. Their first trip to those parts, and they loved the wilderness. Surprisingly, Liam, my youngest son developed quite a knack for cooking walleye, and so, held his own in that department.

    To Ratty and Sandy: Ravens are wonderful birds. They are beyond smart, and do the most amazing things. They are fascinating to study and learn about. Just when you think you’ve seen everything they can do they come up with some new activity or antic that is way outside of your expectations. They are just amazing.


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