The Industry of Skunks
By Tamia Nelson
September 16, 2008
Whenever we go paddling, chance sightings of “charismatic megafauna” are treats to be savored. A glimpse of a grizzly, an eyeballed eagle, an encounter with a wayward whale or wolf, a momentary exchange of glances with a meditative moose—these are the stuff of travelers’ tales. (Provided, of course, that the meeting ends with all parties keeping their distance. Grizzlies and moose have uncertain temperaments, and maritime authorities do not look kindly on boaters who get too near to whales and other sea mammals.) Most of the time, however, our close encounters in the backcountry involve more mundane creatures, animals rarely showcased on glossy posters or coffee mugs.
Here’s a for-instance: On one of my earliest solo overnights, I was tucking into a steaming plate of stew while seated on the sill of an Adirondack lean-to. Suddenly, I heard an explosion of noise from the dense woods behind me. I was sure it was a black bear, and I immediately regretted not having hung my food bag out of reach. (If I returned to that lean-to today, I’d have to store my food in a “bear-proof” container. It’s the law. It’s also a very good idea.) Nothing daunted, I put down my plate of stew, picked up a cobble from the fire ring, and walked round the corner of the lean-to, determined to defend my grubstake at any cost. (I don’t need to tell you that this was daft, do I? Well, it was. I was young. And I had a lot to learn.) But there was no bear to be seen in the woods that day, only a solitary chipmunk. With cheeks stretched taut, he popped up out of a deep drift of autumn leaves like a jet-assisted jack-in-the-box, shot me a stern look, lifted his tail high in the air, and scurried noisily away to the safety of his subterranean home.
OK. I admit that this story isn’t likely to get me so much as a line in the local paper. Chipmunks are cute, to be sure, and they’ve been known to rob paddlers’ stores—that’s another argument for “bear-proof” containers!—but backcountry encounters with chipmunks aren’t really newsworthy. Too little dramatic tension. The same thing can’t be said for skunks, however. They may not have quite the same gravitas as grizzlies, but there’s no doubt that…
Skunks Can Get Up You Nose
Just ask Farwell.
It was a hot, humid early summer night in a campsite on the upper Delaware. And Farwell was tired. Dead tired. Though the river presented few technical challenges, Farwell had gotten up well before sunrise. He’d had a long day, and he was ready for bed. In fact, he was so beat that he didn’t bother to remove the remains of his lunch from the canvas satchel at the foot of his sleeping bag. That was his first mistake. He left his tent door open, too, even pulling back the no-see-um-proof netting on account of the sultry night. That was Mistake Number Two.
Not that Farwell realized this. Almost as soon as he closed his eyes, he was fast asleep. A while later, though, he felt something jostling his feet. It wasn’t a hard poke, just a gentle nudge. Farwell came half awake, stirred, forced his bleary eyes open, saw nothing, fell back to sleep. Another gentle nudge followed. Now Farwell was fully awake, and like me back on that long-ago day in the Adirondack lean-to, he also had visions of a hungry bruin. When he looked in the direction of the open tent door, however, he didn’t see a bear. But his relief was short-lived. He did see another uninvited guest. He saw a skunk.
Not knowing what else to do, Farwell looked at the skunk, and the skunk returned the courtesy, fixing Farwell with a resolute stare and twitching his tail by way of greeting. Then he got back to the job of opening the canvas satchel, a task which he accomplished with enviable dexterity. (Farwell found the brass buckles on the straps a bit of a nuisance at the best of times, but the skunk loosened them in a jiffy.) Once the satchel was open, the skunk carefully picked through the contents. The peanuts and M&M’s® met with his approval, but he left the raisins and oatcakes. Farwell now watched in silence as the uninvited guest settled down to a midnight feast. The skunk ate unhurriedly, and he seemed to enjoy his food. When he was done, he closed the flap on the satchel—he didn’t do up the buckles, however—and sauntered off. After a few minutes, Farwell went back to sleep. In the morning, he inspected the canvas satchel. Everything was as he had left it—except, of course, that the peanuts and M&M’s were gone.
Things could have been much worse, of course, because if a skunk happens to take offense at something you do, he can be…
A Little Stinker
Moreover, you’re likely to meet up with one sooner or later. Skunks aren’t exactly rare. Several species call North America home, and all of them—striped, spotted, hog-nosed, and hooded—have a highly evolved chemical warfare capability. The odor of their spray is distinctive, and unforgettable. Sadly, many of us first encounter skunks dead on the highway. The lingering stink of their last, futile defense is their only memorial. Evolution hasn’t had time to take cars into account, apparently. If you happen to cross paths with a skunk on more equal terms, however, and if you chance to get up his nose, you’ll be left in no doubt as to the power of his defensive arsenal. With the ability to direct a stinging jet of spray up to 15 feet with pinpoint accuracy, a skunk can even stop a grizzly in its tracks. And skunks aren’t limited to a single discharge. Many are six-shooters, though once they’ve emptied all the chambers it may take them 10 days to reload. Still, six shots is more than enough for most predators. Only the largest owls can take on skunks and hope to come off anything but second best. (Why? Simple. Owls apparently have a poorly developed sense of smell. But they can still be blinded by the acrid spray. There really is no such thing as a free lunch, is there?)
Clearly, it’s best to stay on good terms with any skunk you meet in the backcountry. And that’s a lot easier if you…
Get Inside a Skunk’s Skin
Well, not literally. After all, skunks are attached to their skins. But understanding the world of the skunk makes it easier to avoid annoying them. And a happy skunk is a Very Good Thing.
Where to begin? How about bedtime? As Farwell discovered, skunks are night people. By day they curl up in a sheltered spot—underground den, hollow log, or building crawl space—and sleep till dusk, then hit the trail in search of a good meal. Skunks aren’t slouches. They can travel as much as a couple of miles a night. The upshot? Don’t go sticking your hands into sheltered spots during the day, and watch where you’re going when you wander about in the dark. Like most of the rest of us, skunks don’t like to be disturbed while they’re sleeping, and as the melancholy evidence of the highways attests, they’re not used to relinquishing the right-of-way to anyone—or anything. A skunk stands his ground. It’s up to you to retreat.
Now let’s get back to that “good meal” I just mentioned. What exactly do skunks eat? That’s easy—just about anything. With their sharp teeth, strong claws, and pointy snouts, skunks are adept at robbing birds’ nests, grubbing up turtle eggs, and stealing honey from hives. Indeed, there’s little that they won’t eat. They’re not fussy, in short, even if one member of the tribe once turned up his nose at the oatcakes and raisins provided by a careless paddler.
Not satisfied with generalities? Then you can always take the scientific approach. As most of us have noticed, what we eat is reflected in what we…well…excrete. Skunks are no exception. So if you’ve got a well-developed bump of curiosity, keep your eyes peeled for skunk scat the next time you walk down a portage trail. (It will help take your mind off that knot of pain between your shoulder blades.) A hand lens will tell you all you need to know. (Don’t touch the scat, though. You know where it’s been.) Not sure what to look for? No problem. You’ll find a sample in the picture at right, with my thumb providing the scale, plus a close-up view below. It looks like sunflower seeds, beetles, and ants were on the menu, doesn’t it?