Coastal Post Online

July 2001

Letter From Alaska:

Children Of The Raven

By Jim Scanlon

No one will ever know why the man shot the ravens. He looked out of his kitchen window, saw three ravens, got his gun and shot them. It was a senseless crime, the kind that make Alaskans stop talking, wrinkle their eyes, grimace and shake their head in speechless disgust.

Arctic ravens are wondrous birds. Huge, like giant crows, black as the blackest night of the four month Arctic night and blacker still against the bright white of the snow that blankets the tundra and the frozen sea for three quarters of the year. There cleverness is legendary and they seem to speak to each another in deep throaty croaks. There are stories of ravens leading wolves to moose so as to share what is left over.

The black bird is among the most important animals of the Arctic and sub Arctic and certainly the most important and respected bird. In the creation myths of the Arctic peoples of the Alaska and Canada it is old raven that creates man and a little later woman, just as the Semitic God is said to have done in the Book of Genesis. The Raven is honored among the Inuit, the peoples of the extreme north, but not to the extent that this bird is honored among the native peoples of northwestern Canada and the coasts of southern Alaska, British Columbia and Washington.

There are innumerable stories of the raven: the raven and the old woman, the raven crossing the river, the raven and the moon. Where the native peoples carve wood, the raven is depicted and often is first on stately totem poles, beautifully carved.

Ravens do not seem to represent death and decay or the priesthood among the native people of the north, the way they do in western European and American culture. One thinks of Halloween, Edgar Allen Poe's bird upon the bust of Pallas, and the swarms of black birds in the wheat fields of Provence in poor, mad Vincent van Gogh's last paintings.

It is bad luck to kill a raven. Wind storms and blizzards have been known to follow such foolish acts and many a traveler has been lost in the white clouds of snow, the "white outs" that cover all tracks and all familiar signs of direction. Natives are always getting lost and if they have been drinking they rarely survive.

No one can say for sure that the murder of the three birds in Anchorage did not bring on the snow and ice storms that hit Alaska this spring after a warm winter. Welk-a relatively warm winter! It was very cold this spring in Barrow, a small, isolated North Slope town on the frozen Arctic Ocean, when I walked into a brightly lit, spacious, warm machine shop. Mounted on a work stand was a small robotic aircraft, the "Aerosonde." It's compact body holds compact scientific payloads and it is driven by a pusher propeller. It is about three feet long with twin booms extending to a horizontal tail. The narrow wings are seven feet in extent. Another robot is half mounted on a stand and three more are encased in long narrow, cocoon like wooden crates.

This plane was designed by Australians engineers to gather weather data. It is designed to fly for extended periods, as long as 24 hours, flying back and forth hundreds of miles in transects from just above the ice to 15,000 feet altitude-and then return safely to base. The technicians work intently, silently together, seemingly not seeing me, or anyone, or anything else. There is something eerie, sci-fi, about this scene. They remind me of Eagle Scouts building radio controlled models-except these models cost $45,000 each and are part of a five million dollar contract to support US scientists studying the rising Arctic Ocean, the shrinking polar ice, new ice, old ice, open water, temperature, humidity, wind direction and even maybe locate fish, whales and lost Eskimos.

The Australians are there to test and improve their small robots which will have to operate under extreme conditions. They were designed to fly into cyclones-tornadoes-in outback Australia and fly out in one piece. It's hard to believe but they have done so. It is difficult to imagine how such a frail looking little thing would not be snapped up, chewed, and spit out by strong gale let alone a tornado! Small can be strong as well as beautiful.

All the support equipment is compact and does not require complex tools, facilities or any special transportation. The onboard computer is programmed in "C" , an ordinary object oriented computer programming language. It is launched from a roadway from a luggage rack kind of roof mount on any automobile that can reach 35 mph-small, simple, and very safe, cheap and effective compared to piloted aircraft, which can be lost and balloons which are always lost. They cold launch it from a snow machine.

One of the scientists in charge, a Professor of Engineering at Colorado State University, told the Coastal Post as he drank his coffee, "My heart was in my throat. I didn't realize they were going to take a vote. I thought 'what if they vote no'! " He was describing his appearance before the Whaleboat Captains Council. For thousands of years, the captains of the seal skin boats that command crews and hunt forty foot bowhead whales have been the leaders of the Inupiat. They have only a few weeks of liquid water to get the meat and fat vital to the community.

"I knew they liked our program, but it frightened me to think that they might actually turn us down. I'm still a little shaken by it". (Such are the dangers of democracy and involving the public).

He needn't have worried for he got their approval. We talked about changing the name of "Aerosonde," which seemed cold and technical. The Coastal Post suggested finding out the name of a sea eagle-there had to be a fish eagle living along the nearby Bering Sea-the most productive fishery in the world. "Find out what the Inupiat call the bird and use it for the Aerosonde." It seemed like a good idea at the time.

A few hundred miles away and week later a terrible blizzard was blowing from Siberia across the Bering Strait on to Kotzebue Sound. One could hardly see, and one had to lean forward at an angle to walk into the wind. Huge snow drifts were piling up where the ice ended and the low land began. No one was walking except a few people driving to the only grocery store and restaurant in town.

Flying in that storm were three huge ravens. It was amazing! The local airport had been closed since yesterday. The birds not only flew into the wind, but they were playing! Up the icy shore they flew together, then, as if by some signal, they turned into the wind and soared like kites, then gently, they peeled off and slid gracefully down the shore they had just flow up. Every now and then one would squawk out a hoarse word or two and to peck the other with its thick beak, and they would drop like stones dodging one another. And then they would recover and soar, or hover, and suddenly zoom down the shore disappearing behind the grocery store. After a few minutes they would come back and repeat the run, like skiers down a slope.

It went on and on, over and over, until hunger overtook the reporter who knew by then what the new name for the Aerosonde would have to be and why the black bird was so important to people who for thousands of years had to survive in snowy, icy storms and freezing conditions. A bird that not only is out and about in freezing blizzards, but plays-and actually enjoys the life! Unlike the Semitic God, old raven inspires his children.!

Learning the Inupiat name for raven was a comedy. Everyone seemed to have a different pronunciation, and transcribing what came out of an Eskimo's mouth was not easy and had to be faked several times. A man in a store said something that sounded like "ting-mee-yar--óck" another said "tuluk-kaklu." Barrow, I was told was North Slope and Kotzebue was Kobuk River dialect. This was not going to be simple.

But an official looking dictionary in the Nome City Library settled it-for me at least-Tulugak for Corvus Corux, an exotic name to humanize a robot from Australia that will fly over the frozen land and ice and maybe even enjoy its electromechanical self. Why not? We can imagine Tulugak coming home tired and weary, like a pet falcon to its master's arm, after flying 1,500 miles on a gallon of gas. (that's right!)

Only it should be painted the deepest, most beautiful black possible to make it stand out in that cold white world. Old raven would certainly approve.


Coastal Post Home Page