The following is an excerpt of a longer essay.
A few weeks ago, I encountered a skunk during an evening walk near my parents’ house. I was visiting them in rural Illinois to pick up a few things from their basement before moving here, back to Alaska, a place I’ve lived on and off for eight years. When visiting my parents, I enjoy reacquainting myself with the land by walking a tree-lined road and a two-track bordering fields and a creek. Compared to Alaska, I don’t think of the Midwest as a wild place, but the reality is, there are little pockets here and there. I was fortunate enough to grow up with one of those pockets.
A fence separated the yard from my families’ cornfields, or soybeans depending upon the year. In those fields, in ravines and hills too steep to plant, about a quarter of three hundred acres, there were forests and creeks. Those forests and creeks extended to neighboring farms creating miles of childhood exploration and enjoyment. Coyotes yipped and howled during the night. Deer pawed through the snow for corn scraps. When I think of my early years, I see myself growing-up on the edge, one foot in the field and the other in the forest. As I’ve grown, I’ve seen the fields enlarge and the wild places diminish.
I had nearly returned to my parents’ house when I saw the skunk. At first, I wasn’t even sure the animal was the odoriferous kind. I expected a raccoon. Earlier, down in a valley near a stream, three raccoons crossed the road in front of me. They were only a few steps away and didn’t know I was there. When I heard wrestling in the weeds ahead, I stood motionless. One by one, they crossed. Their spines arched in their frightened-cat gate. To my surprise, their ears perked, not in directions to hear passing motorists, but at the weeds and the forest on the other side of the road.
I thought the road itself, with infrequent automobiles and tractors, would be the danger the raccoons would be most attentive to; however, they did not look for hazards or even scurry. Perhaps the automobile has not engrained itself into their flight or fight instincts yet, like the menacing members of the canine family. Perhaps that is the same reason my own car tires have squashed so many. Perhaps that is the same reason it took so long to identify the raccoon skeleton that had been trampled and pressed into the oiled-gravel road atop one of the hills. Raccoons don’t notice cars until they are upon them.
Evening closed. The light was low when the skunk appeared. Only the area nearest the horizon showed the colors of sunset. A combination of overhanging branches from oak and maple and the underbrush walled a shadowy road corridor. The road itself was an inky shade of blue.
I heard the skunk brush weeds before appearing on the road. Once on the road, it did not cross. It waddled toward me, a dark shape moving upon a nearly as dark roadway. Then it turned, and the silhouette revealed a squat body with brushy tail, characteristics that identify skunks compared to other liked-sized fauna of the area: cottontails, raccoons, and opossums. It was some distance away, but it was close enough I feared a vulgar scent was in my future. It waddled closer.
I’ve had many up-close encounters with wildlife in Alaska: moose, wolves, lynx, and caribou. Perhaps the thing that draws me to Alaska is the diversity, the wilderness and the wildlife that roams in it. My summer job allows me to show tourists one of the largest national parks in the country. Days-off allows me to explore, whether it be by backpack or carrying a fishing rod. Anyone in Alaska who spends time outdoors will encounter one of those possibly dangerous wild animals Alaska is known for. Following simple rules prevents disasters.
Take grizzly bears for example: to avoid encountering one, it is important to be noisy. Most likely you will never see it if it is around. If a grizzly takes notice, it is important to become a noisier human. Talk really loud. Say, “Hey bear. Hey Bear.” Wave your arms above your head. Most likely it will leave you alone. If it, for some reason, perceives you as a threat, then it may charge. Ninety-seven percent of the time, when a bear charges, it is a bluff, meaning at some point it will veer off or stop. When a grizzly bear charges, it is important to stand your ground, talk in a calm voice, and no longer wave your arms. Essentially, you don’t want to do anything that makes yourself appear threatening to a bear that perceives you as a threat. It, quite simply, wants to show you it is the boss of you, so you want to let it. After a bluff or two, it will likely leave you alone. It is only when an attack is immanent that you want to show the bear you are no threat at all, when you fall to the ground, curl up in a ball, and play dead. After the bear bosses you around a little bit, it will leave. This stuff might sound crazy to the outsider, but this stuff works. I learned these techniques, these behavioral tendencies of both man and bear soon after arriving in Alaska. Except for playing-dead situations, I know this stuff works from personal experience.
During no point in my life have I ever been taught how to behave when encountering a skunk on foot. If a skunk holes up in a garage, play loud-rock music and it will leave. When sitting in a tree-stand awaiting deer, if a family of skunks decides to stop below you and the kits begin wrestling and playing, then sit quietly and patiently. Eventually, they will leave. But if a skunk climbs out of the weeds and onto the road in front of you, you should do what?
As you can imagine many things go through your mind when you find yourself in this situation. Here’s what went through mine: Why is it walking towards me? Does it see me? Do I want it to see me? What if it thinks I’m a tree? Should I move to show it that I’m not a tree? It can’t think I’m a tree. I don’t smell like a tree. I should shout at it. Will shouting at it make it go back to the weeds? What if I shout and wave my arms above my head to show it I’m not a tree. Maybe I should shout and then run. How fast can they run? If I run will it spray me? Can it spray this far? Would it want to spray this far? Can it run and spray? Why did I wear sandals? My boots were right there by the door. I should have worn boots. I should run. I can’t run in these sandals. I’m not a tree. Quit walking towards me. It must have rabies. Should I kick it if it has rabies? Sharp teeth. A stinky badger. I’ll just kick it. Boots were right by the door. I should shout.
“Hey Skunk!” I shouted while waving my arms above my head. My emotional state had been under more control during bear encounters. I projected that first vocal response to the skunk with great vigor. Perhaps, more enthusiasm than the landscape could absorb since that burst echoed from the surrounding tree-lined hillside.
The echo, the repeated noise caused much distress for the skunk. It was either unable to determine where the initial sound came from and panicked, or it determined exactly where the sound came from and decided to speed up its pace. It charged.
It closed the distance between us.
There was no light from a moon. A dark shape scurried along an inky-blue roadway.
It arrived at a point that I can only describe as squirmy. It’s that feeling you get when you are minding your own business and you stumble upon a squirrel that also has been minding its own business. You react to one another, but the agility and haste of the squirrel, even though it fled, leaves a feeling in your muscles as if it crawled up your leg.
An attack was eminent.
I clapped my hands. “Hey skunk!” I shouted.
It turned, off the road. Splitting the weeds from its path.
I moved on. Fortunately, even from close proximity and initiating a fight or flight response, I wasn’t engulfed in a potent scent.