We had a close encounter of the skunk kind the other day. It had wandered into one of our squirrel traps. Long story short, we managed to release it but not without incident. We didn’t get sprayed, directly, but the odour still stuck to our clothes. They went into the washing machine, we went into the shower, and my husband’s old runners went into the garbage.
It brought to mind the summer of 1977 when I was directing excavations on an island not far from the Village of Duck Bay, just off the western shore of Lake Winnipegosis, Manitoba.
The “Summer of the Skunks” began the day a crew member came running back from the outhouse shouting, “I just saw a skunk!”
We didn’t pay her much mind. After all, she was the one who firmly believed that moths have fangs and suck your blood. Seriously!
Her report was confirmed a couple of days later by a more reputable crew member. Soon we discovered there was not one, but an entire family of skunks co-habiting the island – Mom and Dad, four Teenagers, and the runt whom we named – wait for it – The Squirt! (Da-dum-dump!)
What to do? So far, we hadn’t been bothered. We decided to let well enough alone and see what happened.
We learned that the skunks were as wary of us as we were of them. The first time we met on one of our paths, both turned tail (hmmm, maybe not the best phrase given we are talking about skunks) and ran for the hills, not that there were any hills on the island but you get my drift.
Next, we discovered that, if we clapped our hands really loudly, the skunks would scurry off into the bush. The skunks quickly learned that the sound of clapping hands meant nothing at all so they stood their ground.
So did we.
Eventually, we could pass each other, very cautiously, without incident.
And so life continued. We dug the site. The skunks dug worms and grubs.
Skunks are very interesting creatures. They can’t see well and often blunder into things. We discovered that the morning I opened up the “office tent” to find two of the Teenagers inside. They scrambled back and forth along one wall, coming within inches of the open door, only to turn around and scramble back the way they’d just come. Only by chance, so it seemed, did they stumble into the doorway and run off.
They may not see well but they can smell! The Squirt came wandering through our cook tent one evening as we were eating supper and headed straight for the tub that held our yet-to-be-washed pots and pans. He did a good job of washing, not so good with the drying.
They’re definitely built for digging. Long claws on their forelimbs can rip open almost anything. They’re wedge-shaped – pointy at the nose and widening toward the rear.
When you’re stuck on an island, you learn to devise your own entertainment. One night, that entertainment took the form of Feeding the Family. We had cooked stew for supper and traces were left in the pot. We put the pot out on the ground and, in keeping with our sophisticated reputation, placed a wine bottle (empty, of course; no archaeologist worth his/her salt would waste booze) wrapped in a towel beside the bowl.
The Teenagers were the first to arrive. They encircled the pot and began to lick it clean. Along came The Squirt who tried to nose his way into the tight circle. The Teenagers were having none of it. The fight for a bite of tasty stew intensified. The tails began to rise. The Squirt never did manage to get his share of the stew.
But we were well entertained. And not sprayed.
The only incident happened the day some kids came over from Duck Bay with their dog and ran up into the bush before we could warn them about the skunks. Two seconds later, we heard a bark and then a yelp and the dog came ky-ying back with the kids not far behind. “Lady, there’s skunks on the island!” they yelled.
Oh, there was one other incident. The Teenagers broke into our food tent one night. We heard the ruckus but no one was about to go and break it up. In the morning we surveyed the damage. Amongst the shambles, we saw well-munched packages of Baker’s Chocolate and completely untouched packages of egg noodles.
Those egg noodles remained untouched until the day we backfilled the excavated units. We dumped every package into one of the units.
When we returned the following summer, that unit had the tallest, lushest growth of weeds on the entire island!
And the skunks were gone.
(P.S. Three days later, there still remains a faint but distinctive Eau du Pepe Le Peu in our garden.)
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