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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Little Stinkers?

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.

Skunks Do It, TooNow 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?

Skunk Scat, Up Close and Personal

Remembrance of Things Passed

As I’ve already noted, skunks aren’t lazy, and they’re happy to dig up a meal before digging in. The next picture shows two excavations in compacted gravel, with an 18-inch culvert providing scale. (The image on the right has been processed to highlight the holes. Each is about five inches across.) The quarry? Turtle eggs. If you see similar earthworks near your campsite, don’t be surprised if you’re visited by a skunk later in the night. You’ve been warned!


This is a good time to add a line to Farwell’s Rules: Keep your food to yourself. Like bears, skunks are happy to eat what we eat. (Oatcakes excepted—maybe.) So whatever you’re planning to have for dinner in camp, whether it’s vegetarian pasta, flame-broiled hot dogs, or leftover shore lunch, it’ll be more than acceptable to any skunk who’s passing by. And because skunks have excellent senses of smell and hearing, they’re not likely to miss out on the invitation to dinner, whether or not it’s intended.

Don’t get me wrong. Skunks have good manners. (Rabies can change this, however.) They won’t snatch food from your mouth, and they won’t look on a human as just another menu item. But they’re more than happy to police your camp for you after you’ve eaten, and they’re not adverse to exploring the contents of your food pack, either. So if you’d rather not entertain uninvited midnight guests, you’ll want to take the following precautions:

  • Choose Your Campsite Wisely  Give informal garbage dumps and other middens a wide berth. In popular fishing areas, make sure no offal is scattered around the shoreline or in the fire pit.

  • Keep a Clean Camp  Clean up all food scraps (including pet food), burn any grease off your grill, and wipe surfaces that might have been soiled.

  • Don’t Eat in Bed  And never store food in your tent. (Farwell didn’t repeat this mistake!)

  • Hang ’Em High  Your food bags, that is. Or use a “bear-proof” food safe. (This is now required in some places, and it makes sense in many others—beach campsites, for instance.)

  • Keep Your Dog Under Control  Many dogs are slow learners. They’ll always come out losers in any set-to with a skunk, however, and you’ll have to live with the result. So consider leaving Fido at home when you head out into the backcountry. If that’s not possible, keep him on a short lead.

But what do you do if, despite your best efforts, you find yourself face to face with a little stinker? You back off, that’s what. Skunks aren’t shy. They’ll let you know exactly where you stand. And they won’t run from a fight. So if you meet a skunk, and if he then stamps his feet and lifts his tail, heed the sage advice of Lady Macbeth: “Stand not upon the order of your going. But go at once.” Of course, Lady Macbeth wasn’t talking about skunks. Her advice still applies, though. Don’t run. Walk. But go. At once.

It’s too late? You’ve already been hosed down? Too bad! You’ll carry a souvenir of the encounter with you for quite a while. First aid is limited to rinsing your eyes with clean water and washing. Don’t expect this to kill the stink, though. Only time will do that, at least in my experience. Others place their faith in a variety of nostrums, from tomato juice to vinegar. Some remedies even have the blessing of science. See, for example, William F. Wood’s short article on the subject. His other skunk pages are well worth reading, too.

The moral of my story? Skunks, like all wild creatures, need their space, and we paddlers ignore this need at our peril. But we can coexist. The watchword? Respect.

Sooner or later a skunk will cross your path. They can be little stinkers, to be sure, but they don’t go looking for a fight. A few simple precautions will save you from too-close encounters of the wrong kind. And there’s another side to these much-maligned creatures. I’ve always been impressed by the industry of skunks, and I invariably enjoy watching them go about their business—from a safe distance, of course!

Copyright 2008 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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