Davis Stories and Tips

Varmints

My sometimes too cozy tent Photo, Davis, West Virginia


Summer’s here and so are the groundhogs. A friend has "dibs" on any rotten tomatoes in my garden. He’s got a severe groundhog infestation on his property and it seems that the only thing that will lure the canny critters into a humane trap is the stench of a putrid tomato (his wife has vetoed the ‘shotgun solution,’ much to his chagrin).

Now, I’m not all the fond of groundhogs, but I’ll say one thing for them: at least they don’t keep me awake at night. Like any good camper, I have my share of stories to tell about the animals I’ve encountered in the woods or around the campsite. In Vermont, on my first solo camping trip, I set my tent up in a wooden sleeping shelter, safely off the forest floor, only to be kept awake for hours by some rodent persistently gnawing under the floorboards.

Then there was the time in Rhode Island we heard what sounded like a large animal stomping around just outside our tent. Aiming a flashlight through the tent flap, we immediately saw our noisy intruder: a skunk. Needless to say, we stayed right where we were and turned off the light. The skunk, meanwhile, happily rummaged through the campsite before settling down to demolish a sturdy, zipped fabric-covered cooler, tearing into the packet of Chips Ahoy inside. (Stupid of us to have left out the cooler, I know, but this campground was so far from anything resembling bear country that we’d been lax.)

The following morning, surveying the scattered remnants of Mr. Skunk's all-night cookie binge, I vowed not to leave a thing out that would interest him the following night. Trouble was, when he showed up again, the absence of Chips Ahoy seemed to piss him off. He stomped persistently around making irritated, threatening sounds that no doubt meant "Where the hell have you hidden the cookies?"

Living in the country, I’ve developed a live-and-let-live philosophy to undomesticated animals. Note that I don’t say "wild," but "undomesticated." To my mind, truly wild animals stay as far away from humans as possible. Mountain lions, wolves, and eagles are what I’d call wild, whereas coyotes, squirrels, Canadian geese, and other species that can stand being anywhere near us are not. Truly wild animals go into decline as soon as mankind enters the equation. The ‘undomesticated’ ones, on the other hand, sometimes thrive. Deer are a case in point.

I once tried to tame a feral cat by leaving out food for it. To my chagrin, all I ended up ‘taming’ was a cantankerous old possum. Each night he’d visit the food bowl on the stoop, making such a racket that I’d come out to drive him away. "Shoo," I’d say. "Go away." He’d look up with myopic indifference. I didn’t want to get too close as possums can deliver a nasty bite, so I’d grab a shovel and prod him with it. "Go on," I’d admonish, "back to the woods with you." No dice. He was too intent on scrounging Meow Mix. It took a fairly decent shove to send him on his way. It made me feel like nothing more than a lowdown, dirty possum abuser.

One animal that’s carved out a nice little man-tolerant niche for itself is the raccoon. Of course, you rarely see a raccoon during the day (and if you do, watch out, because it may be rabid), but at night they’re all over the place. When it comes to brazenness, raccoons take the cake.

Last year I was camping at Coopers Rock State Park not far from Morgantown, a lovely place that’s popular with hikers. I was on my own, my son at Scout camp and my husband at a conference. I’ve never worried about camping on my own in West Virginia, even at some of the remoter parks, and it seemed like popular Coopers Rock was a safe bet. Little did I know.

I’ve got this cheapie one-man tent that I’m strangely fond of. I think it cost all of twenty bucks but has the virtue of being so easy to erect that I never spend more than ten minutes setting up camp. Thing is, though, it’s tiny. I sleep with my head in one corner of the tent and my feet in the other. I think it may actually be a child’s tent.

No sooner had I set up camp at Coopers Rock than in chugged a big old Ford F-10 pulling the granddaddy of all pop-up campers. Of course, they set up right next to me, which isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, as neighbors can be pleasant while camping. But not these folks. No, they firmly belonged to the "you can take it with you" school of camping.

Out came the grill, the portable stereo, the enormous camp stove, the deck chairs, the lanterns, the big coolers… every conceivable type of outdoor (as well as a lot of indoor) equipment.

The pièce de résistance, however, was the electric bug zapper they set up. Now, this I had trouble comprehending. In the vastness wilderness of West Virginia, these people expected to make a dent in the bug population or something? What a bug zapper does, actually, is draw every moth or June bug in the vicinity. The nonstop crackle of insect electrocution drowns out the very sound of the crickets.

Did I mention that these people had children? Two little girls who, true to form, had brought all their toys, not to mention "The Little Mermaid" to watch. That’s right, they had a TV. After dinner, while the parents were sitting in deck chairs beneath the bug zapper, the girls watched the entire nauseating movie. Lord, how I hate Disney. Truly, madly, deeply.

After the Disney torment ended, I managed to nod off to the sound of the bbbZZZZtt! bbbZZZZtt! of the bug zapper. Relative quiet descended on Coopers Rock campsite.

From a deep sleep, I was jolted awake by a metallic crash. It took but a millisecond to identify the sound, a lid banging against the side of a metal trashcan. Repeatedly. I unzipped the tent and there, visible in the purplish light of the bug zapper, were three raccoons raiding the ‘critter-proof’ trashcan the park had provided.

Now, normally, these trashcans are indeed pest-proof, as they’re suspended off the ground in a swinging metal hoop. A single raccoon would be foiled, but several raccoons working in tandem are more than a match for this ranger-devised stratagem. One raccoon tilts the can sideways in the hoop, while a second knocks off the lid and climbs in. The loose lid then clatters against the can it’s chained to as the second raccoon flings trash out to the third felon.

I had to emerge fully from the tent and brandish my trusty flashlight menacingly before the raccoons abandoned their smorgasbord. They loped off with that peculiarly soundless hunched gait, temporarily vanquished. No sooner was I back in my sleeping bag than I heard a distant crash as they plundered someone else’s trash. Then came a perfectly ghastly sound, like some hellish spawn of H.P. Lovecraft’s imagining, inhuman and fierce: a raccoon fight.

Apparently, there was more than one troop of raccoons working the camp, and the rival groups weren’t on friendly terms. This quiet corner of West Virginia was plagued by gang warfare. All up and down the camp the raccoon gangs ranged, pillaging trash, knocking over equipment, waking campers with their snarling and gibbering. Campers would chase them off, but they’d come right back. After they visited my trash a second time, I used a bungee cord to secure the lid of the trashcan.

From inside my tent, in the eerie light cast by the bug zapper, I watched the hunched shadows the raccoons cast onto the tent as they padded soundlessly nearby. They’d stop at my trashcan, rear onto their hind legs and scrabble ineffectually as they tilted the trashcan this way and that. It seemed to baffle then infuriate them that they could no longer plunder it.

Gloating over my small victory, I fell asleep once again only to be awaken almost immediately by a pitched raccoon battle taking place inches away just out the tent. As the raccoons fought, they buffeted and careened into the side of the tiny tent. It was like being caught in the middle of a dogfight, only much worse with the otherworldly, insane noises the raccoons made. Terrified, I sat up (I couldn’t actually stand in the tiny tent) and grabbed my flashlight, using it to wallop at the raccoon shadows, mostly missing the raccoons themselves.

I got in a couple of good whacks before they finally dispersed, but they didn’t go far. No, then they discovered all the stuff my bug-zappin’ neighbors had left out. The cooler. The toys. The pots. The pans. The dishes. The leftovers.

With a weary sigh, I laid back down. "Go for it, raccoons."

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