When I was in graduate school, I occasionally volunteered as an assistant leader for Wilderness Inquiry.  Wilderness Inquiry is an organization that specializes in inclusive wilderness trips. People with and without disabilities canoe and raft together. Most trips are water-based, because many of the participants are in wheelchairs and not able to hike rough terrain. Water is the equalizer. 

On these trips, people with severe physical disabilities are required to bring caretakers. Leaders have too many logistical concerns to constantly help with the basic needs of every individual (eating, going to the bathroom, etc…), so another person must come along on the trips to handle those duties. In my limited experience, caretakers tend to fall into two groups.  They either are caring people with hearts as big as the Grand Canyon or less caring people who need a job. On one canoe trip to Ontario, we had two caretakers who fell into this second category. Both were well intentioned, but sometimes needed as much supervision as the people they’d been hired to assist.

These two guys had decided that a wilderness trip would be a good time to stop smoking, so they left their cigarettes behind. By the third day, their nicotine withdrawals made them hard to be around. Our main leader carried a pouch of tobacco with him. He did not smoke himself, but followed a First Nations tradition of leaving a small amount of tobacco at a campsite to thank the spirits for use of the area. He threw his tobacco pouch at one of the caretakers and said, “Smoke it.” 

In order to smoke the loose tobacco, one of the two men carved a small wooden bowl. I gave him a hollow two-foot pole from my tent fly to use as a stem, and he augered out a small hole in the side to insert the pole and make a makeshift pipe. Over the next two days, other participants on the trip gave him things they’d found to decorate the pipe. One of the objects was a black feather, and the pipe was dubbed “the Crow.” One evening around the campfire, our leader asked the caretakers to pull out the Crow. They stuffed it with tobacco, lit it, and we passed it around as everyone took a quick puff. The idea stuck and became a nightly ritual. 

Driving back to Minnesota, our van stopped at a train crossing in the border town of Pigeon River. As we waited for the train to pass, I turned to one of the caretakers and asked, “Where’s the Crow?”

He replied, “It’s in my pack.”

“What are gonna do with it?”

“I don’t know.  Throw it away, I guess.”

Just as the words left the caretaker’s mouth, a boxcar passed by in front of us. On its side, someone had graffitied in large letters, “Save the Crow.” 

My skin tingled, and the caretaker definitely took notice. “Damn,” he said, “I’ll take that as a sign.”