Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Story of My Life, via a Not Scrupulous Record of the Many Wild Animals I've Encountered in their Natural Habitat, Part One

This will be an ongoing series. It will partly be me making for the first time a written record of the more interesting animals I've encountered in the wild in my life, and partly just shameless bragging, as this is the kind of thing a person like myself brags about.

The list will be in chronological order, best as I can do; they will include brief stories of the encounters; and many entries won't have accompanying images (damn), as they just happened in non-camera-carrying moments. Some, I'm happy to say, will entail quite exotic creatures, seen by not a whole lot of people; some are not so exotic animals (the skunk, for example), which I include only because of the stories surrounding those encounters (including getting sprayed by a skunk from very, very close, while trying to beat it to death with a stick).

Crow at the grape vine (late 1960s): When I was probably only six or so, there was for a period of time, maybe only a summer, that a wild crow would eat out of your hand. Maybe it had been domesticated and escaped, I don't know. I remember it scaring the crap out of a couple kids on the way to school, trying to land on a shoulder or head, and that there was for some weeks talk among the adults of this vicious crow, and that maybe something should be done about it. Luckily that something was never done. (At least I think it wasn't.) But best, I remember being at the grape vine in our far back yard on North Maple Drive in Lancaster, outside of Buffalo, New York, the crow sitting on my knee, me feeding it grapes. I felt like Marlin friggin' Perkins. Maybe that's where all this wild animal crap started.

Snakes and skunks (1960s-70s): Catching snakes was a huge part of my childhood. Our one acre backed up on thousands of acres of Western New York wilderness: cool, sweet-smelling forests; thick grassy, clumpy fields that held the wet for days after a rain; creepy, smelly, wonderful swamps. We'd put boards down in various places, and go on a regular rounds: quickly lift a board and dive for the snake or snakes if there were any. Often there were many, in a writhing ball I did not know the meaning of at the time.We mostly caught garter snakes, less often but still plentiful were the larger, more exotic milk snakes, occasionally what we called red-bellied racers (these?), and various other breeds I can't remember right now. But the real reason for this post is the time, probably around 1970, we dug a pit in a garden in the back yard about three feet in diameter and three feet deep, just twenty feet from the house or so. Then we went snaking. We caught a bunch of snakes, and we put them in the pit…then we'd put a little toad or two in. This was serious entertainment for us rural Western New York kids, watching the snakes catch and eat the toads for hours. Over the following days we got to where there were about 40 snakes in the pit—no exaggeration. Then came the day we were having a barbecue with friends and relatives. I remember that Dad's Japanese friend from work, Mr. Kim (Hiroki Kimura, I found out much later), a karate teacher who us kids adored, was there along with his beautiful wife, Junco. At some point the skunks came. Skunks, it turns out, are crazy about snakes. Two of them just came waltzing straight into the yard full of people as the food was still cooking. Mr. Kim and a few of the older kids went up the huge, sprawling willow in the back yard—they were stuck up there for a quite a long time, I remember—the rest of us else ran into the house and watched the madness through the back windows. I can't remember if the skunks ate any of the snakes. They left eventually.

Snapping Turtles (1960s-70s): I remember a few snapping turtle episodes, but none more so than the time Scott, the craziest person in out neighborhood, and the tallest—he topped off at 6' 8"—came down North Maple Drive with a snapping turtle in a wheel barrow. He'd caught it in the swamp somewhere. It filled the wheel barrow. It was enormous. We all marveled at it for a while, tested its beak with pencils and pens and sticks, which it demolished in a snap. The bigger kids could pick him up—a hand on either side of the shell, half way down—but that turtle would scare the crap out of you because they can stick their necks out a lot farther than you'd think. It was a huge, jagged, pointy, crusty, and annoyed old dinosaur—god, we loved it.

Star-nosed moles (1960s-70s): I love that these creatures were part of my kidhood—they truly blow peoples' minds. If you were digging in the yard, there was always a chance you'd come across one of the most bizarre creatures in existence. I wrote a post about them over here. (Pic.)

Skunk (mid-1970s): I was probably only 12 or 13. Some of the older kids in the neighborhood, including and especially the aforementioned Scott, had begun trapping. You could go into the basement of his family's home, as I did many times, and see dozens and dozens of pelts hanging from the beams, stretched on wire racks and drying. Mostly muskrat, some raccoon, some opossum, for some reason, and some fox. The muskrats got you $5 a pelt, the raccoons more, and the fox up to $50, if I remember correctly. I, most definitely, would take part in this glorious exercise just as soon as I was allowed. Or sooner. I got a book out of the library. In that book I learned that 1) skunks like garbage, and 2) skunks build their dens on slopes, to allow for drainage. I knew of an animal den in the woods only a couple hundred yards from our back door…that was in an area where there was garbage strewn about…that was on a slope. And, I thought, and there's no arguing with this, skunks have beautiful fur. I don't remember how long it took, but I remember some sort of pleading, with, especially, my mother. (At 13 Dad would have already allowed me to go into the woods by myself with the .22, and had already taught me how to shoot the double-barrel 12-gauge.) I eventually got a simple foot trap (like this). I carefully dug a small pit about eight feet from the den opening, set the trap, covered it lightly with soil, and staked the chain down. Every morning before school I'd run back into the woods to check my trap. A few weeks passed, then, one day, there it was: a skunk. I had done it. I couldn't believe it. I had predicted a skunk, I had set a trap for a skunk, I had caught that skunk. Uhhhh, now what? It was very alive, and very unhappy. I knew it was wrong to let an animal stay in a trap and suffer. I picked up a stick—a thick, stout stick maybe five feet long—and I began to try to beat that skunk to death. Even when it hissed viciously, and turned its ass to me and sprayed me, still looking back at me with its red eyes and hissing like crazy, I tried to beat that skunk. It sprayed me from head to foot as I tried to kill it. I couldn't kill it. I couldn't go home; I had to kill it. I couldn't kill it. It sprayed and sprayed. My eyes and mouth stung. I don't remember if I finally went back, or if one of my brothers or sisters finally smelled the smell and heard me crying and told my mom and dad, but eventually our neighbor, Mr. Trobert, shot that skunk with his rifle and they got me out of there. Mom gave me the tomato juice bath. I was out of school for days. Maybe more. Me and my big brother Garry tried to skin that skunk—I had to skin it after all that, right? We hit the scent sack and nearly puked. I eventually just got rid of that unlucky skunk. Weeks later, months later, in the back of class, I would sniff my hands, my wrist: it was still there, I was sure of it.

Barracuda, manta rays (1982): I left home in early '82, 18 years old, with pack and guitar, drove one of those cars that needed delivering somewhere to Ft. Meyer's, Florida, with my old best buddy, Ken, met up with my sister Joyce and her family at her friend's house on Big Pine Key. They'd had an inheritance of some sort. The guy, whose name I don't remember, spent most days boating out to reefs, diving for and catching tropical fish, which I believe he sold. Massive seafood feasts, with fish he'd caught, oysters we dug, were a regular event. Beautiful! This heir and fisherman took Ken and I out on his boat one day, eight miles out, the Atlantic side of the key, to a reef. For an 18-year-old just stepping out into the great big world—and who'd only ever seen the ocean once, at a German beach on the North Sea two years earlier—heaven. Unbelievable. We strapped on snorkels and paddled our way over sea urchins and anenomes and octopi and all that assorted reef business. It was mostly shallow, but all of a sudden a cavernous space would open beneath you, taking your stomach with it for a second, and a huge manta ray would fly beneath you. A manta ray—only Jacques Cousteau got to see them! This went on for some hours, in and out of the boat, beer, the fisherman diving and catching fish, coming up with a speared grouper or something now and then, which we'd grab and toss into the cooler. Ken was swimming by himself when he suddenly almost propelled himself into the boat—from forty feet away. He was sputtering like crazy. "Fu-fu-fuckin' barracuda!" he barely said as we helped him over the side. The heir and fisherman dude laughed: "Don't worry," he said, "barracuda're so fast, it's the ones you don't see that'll get you," and back into the sea he dove. From there on out we swam with them. One would all of a sudden be right up alongside you, four feet long, one great eye staring at you, its teeth a cartoonishly dangerous display.

Wild pigs (1982): I'm just remembering that part of that Florida experience was wandering though the palmetto forests—if that's what you call them—off northeast Florida, south of St. Augustine, where my sister lived. There are some serious wild pigs in the bush there, and we encountered them several times.

Salmon, my God, salmon (1983): In 1983 I hitchhiked from Portland, Oregon, to Fairbanks, Alaska. The year before I'd read On the Road in Knoxville, Tennessee, while I was there working at the World's Fair—and I just couldn't find enough road in the Lower 48 after that. I arrived in June, 1983, nearly broke. The employment agency said I could work at a cannery. "What's a cannery?" I said. The next day I was flown to Anchorage, King Salmon, then, in a tiny bush plane, down the Alaskan Peninsula to Chignik. Twice the pilot turned and swooped low over the top of huge, lumbering, honey-colored grizzlies; one reared up and swiped at us like King Kong of the tundra. All that there is of Chignik is a cannery and a few rundown shacks. My job: Slimer. That's the real title. I spent the next two months (it was about a four month season—I got transferred: more later) standing at a table with several other people grabbing freshly decapitated and gut-slit salmon—pinks, chums, sockeyes, silvers, kings—and with a fat-handled spoon cleaning their guts out. One, then another, then another—for sixteen hours a day. Every day. No days off. My god. Most of us camped on a spit, in the bush. I didn't have a tent, so I carried heavy pallets, one at a time, to the spit, built a shack with a floor, three walls and a roof, and covered it with plastic. That was home. I'd drop a couple salmon into my rain pants at the end of my shift, walk back to the house, and cook them up on a fire. People would visit. A woman even—swear to god!—turning that pallet palace into a love nest. A love nest that smelled of—and was littered with pieces of—dead salmon.

Salmon, my God, salmon (1983-86): I went to Alaska to work the canneries every summer from 1983 until 1986. I worked various positions—slimer, header, deep freeze room, egg sorter, egg packer, forklift driver, beach gang (my favorite: we unloaded the tenders of their fish, sometimes by hand into metal mesh brailers, sometimes with huge suction hoses), in Chignik, King Cove, Valdez, and Ketchikan. In 1998 I went back, but this time worked on fishing boats: a gill-netter in Bristol Bay; and a seiner in Southeast, out of Ketchikan. I've personally seen, and held, probably hundreds of thousands of salmon.

Dungeness Crabs (1983-86): We also processed dungeness crabs in the canneries. When I was on the beach gang in Chignik (about half way through the season I was transferred there) I'd have to step into a hold of a boat holding a lot of really cold water and many thousands of pounds of live crab. You had to unload them by hand into a brailer. The second you stepped in the ones on top would go into click-click-claws up and staring at you defense mode. Scared the crap out of me first time. The guy with me could reach his hands in, gloved, of course, and be whipping them crab into the brailer, no problem; I'd be carefully turning then over one by one, trying not to get pinched, which happened all the time, with the boss screaming at me to hurry it up. Getting pinched really hurt. When one got you, you had to hold your hand up—don't try to shake it off, the pincher will fall off the crab and stay there pinched on to your finger—so you had to wait for it to let go and fall off. The worst moment came when probably still on my first day, long before I got the knack of dungeness picking, I was standing in the hold trying to get my nerves and head right when one of those crabs bit through by boot—through by XTRATUFFs!—and got ahold of my big toe. Now that was just unreasonable. It bit my toe, I had freezing cold water on my feet, and it ruined my XTRATUFFS. I took a rather long smoke break after that.

Black porpoises? (1985?): I did a certain amount of a substance the kids took back in the old days while camping out on a trip to Bahia de Concepcion in 1985 or so. If you ever have trouble picking somewhere to go on a vacation, go to this place, half way down the Baja Peninsula, on the Gulf of California. Just go. It will kill all the bad things inside you and walk their ghosts away from you into cactus forests on moonlit nights. It will save you. I promise. Anyway, I did this thing and communed with nature and whatnot for a day, and a night, and when the dawn was approaching I sat on a rock by a rocky beach (they're not all rocky, just this one) waiting for the sun to make its appearance. I waited for about three months, pretty sure. I yelled a lot. When the sun finally made it over the horizon, I cried, shouted, and wept for happiness, and a group of small, black porpoises, or maybe dolphins (I don't remember any white markings, but maybe they were Dall porpoises?), came right up to the shore where I sat. They wriggled and shivered in the water, me on my hands and knees just feet from them, wondering what in the world was happening.


Still to come: Right whales; muskox; wolverine; and a harbor seal pup, which jumped into my bed as I was jumping out if it, in Bandon, Oregon; and many more.