Welcome back to Magnetic North, where the sweet smell of wildflowers mingles with those of grilled burgers, campfires, and sunscreen, as well as some not-so-sweet smells such as of wet dogs, fish guts and, worst of all, skunks.
Up on the shore and woods beyond, skunks are as common as groundhogs, but while the latter will simply steal your lettuces, the winsome skunk will take your very breath away should you as much as hint at the possibility of doing him dirt.
It has been a week since a trapped skunk was dispatched at the farm. But believe you me, in this warm and muggy month of June, her memory lingers on. And on and on and on.
Over the years Paul and I matched wits with about half a dozen skunks. Some vacated the property without making a stink. Or, sad to say, paying the ultimate penalty for doing so. Most, however, did neither.
Our first skunk appeared one early summer evening just as we were heading out for dinner at a neighbor’s home.
“Criminently, will you look at that!” cried Paul, gesturing to a spot between the barn and our back door. A big and rather chubby skunk scuttled purposefully toward our house. Not running, mind you, but clearly on a mission…one that boded ill for the coming summer.
“What’s that in its mouth?” I asked, squinting at something little and wriggling at the end of the skunk’s black nose.
As if in answer, Paul growled, “Oh no you don’t!” in the skunk's direction and set off to fetch his .22.
The cause of his alarm was clear as the black and white bustling furball came near enough for me to see that the big skunk carried a tiny baby skunk, grasped by the back of its neck like a cat would carry a kitten.
“Oh gosh, she’s bring her young somewhere over here,” I hollered over my shoulder. “And I’ll bet this one isn’t an only skunk!”
By the time Paul had his rifle loaded, it was too late to stop the immigration. We found a freshly dug foot-wide hole leading to a nice, cool and secure home under the cement slab of our garage. And judging by the number of trips we witnessed, mama skunk had at least half a dozen babies just a few yards from the busiest traffic path around our house, woodshed, garage, chicken coop and dog run, way too many opportunities for a close encounter of the four-letter-word kind.
“I think the best thing to do now is, not to shoot, but to outmaneuver her,” Paul said.
“Aw, how sweet is that?” I cooed giving him a hug for being such a big mush.
“Not a bit,” he huffed, zipping the .22 back into its canvas case. “If I shot her now it wouldn’t just be her smell we would have to bear, but that of her orphaned kits.”
He decided to leave the skunks alone until they were big enough to follow mom out at night to forage. Then we would board up their den while they were out to dinner. Simple. But hardly easy to do. For weeks, we had to walk wide around the skunk hole doing our chores and keep the two yellow Labs, Ollie and Jubilee, leashed until well into the woods or in their kennel. A nuisance for all.
Around about the third week of den watching, mama and babies set out to forage shortly after dark. Never mind how we happened to pinpoint the hour, but being married to a former Boy Scout and being generous with my expensive cake flour was involved.
“Got ‘em! Paul announced one early July evening after putting the dogs in their bunkhouse and scoping out the skunk hole.
“They’re on the prowl so quick bring the big flashlight while I get the tools and board.”
Never a more nerve-wracking half hour have I spent than that night, kneeling in a cloud of mosquitoes and no see-ums and training a flashlight beam on a skunk hole while Paul fitted a newly cut cedar 2 x 4, with a strand of barbed wire nailed to the bottom, across the opening. And that was the end of that. Aside for what looked like a skunk square dance in the flour spread on the grass outside the hole, we saw no sign of the skunk family again.
Since then, we had only one more infestation. Again, the barn was the birth center of choice, Only this time, the mother stayed put, raising her small brood of three under the stable flooring and using an entrance that Paul simply could not locate.
We tried chemical deterrents touted by locals - first pouring bleach around the barn’s foundation. No luck. Then we sent away for fox urine spray. Quite odorous in and of itself, but totally ineffective on the skunks, although we did attract a female fox or two and later had to deal with a den of foxes under the barn.
It wasn’t until later that summer that Paul spied the three, now full-grown, skunks pawing through our compost pile by the barn door. He was just coming in from the woods and happened to have his trusted rifle on the tractor. What luck, huh?
The trio was an easy shot for a lifelong duck hunter, aiming from just a dozen yards away. Little did he know that I was right inside the barn door at the time. And I was struggling with one of our four goats, trying to give him his annual tetanus booster. “BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!” came the rifle’s report. Memory fails, but I am pretty certain that I got the booster, not the goat. But all three skunks siblings got a quick trip to critter heaven.
You would think that after all that I’d recognize the sign of skunk digging when two gaping holes appeared on the east and west sides of my garage early this month.
But no. “Groundhogs, again,” I thought.
So I blithely set out the big Havahart trap and baited it with a nice piece of salmon and a big, overly ripe strawberry. Next morning, both dogs on leashes - thank heavens - I spied the telltale white and black shape in the trap. Did I mention it was right next to my front door? It was.
Having been told - no, PROMISED - that a skunk won’t spray if it can’t see you, I approached the trap holding a 6-foot-square plastic tarp in front of me. “Nice kitty, kitty, kitty,” I cooed slowly, gently, ever so sweetly easing the tarp over the oblong wire cage.
Fortunately, it took only two hot showers to rid me of the smell and I never like those old overalls anyhow....so, no big deal.
As I said at the beginning, it’s been a week since the poor skunk met her end via a good neighbor’s rifle. Warm, wet weather hasn’t helped dissipate the aroma she left. But her abandoned babes under the garage are doubtless to blame for much of that.
Times like these, I miss Paul and his .22, which he left to his grandson, Sam. I miss the laughter as we would plot together how to best rid ourselves of the uninvited guests. And the shared thrill of victory and agony of defeat as we waged our little Critter Olympic struggles on this blessed piece of ground.
Those are truly sweet, sweet memories…even if they do center on the not-so-sweet and ever-so-stinky skunk.
(Photo by fieldsbh on Flickr)