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I enjoy camping, but one must always be aware of the surroundings and potential dangers of nature. In the Northwoods, it's imperative to be bear smart; appropriate storage of food and trash is a must.
We were camping in the San Juan mountains in Colorado. One evening I was preparing chicken hindquarters at the picnic table to roast over the wood fire. In this situation, I would typically expect to be shooing pesky flies that come around, and I had the fly swatter nearby if I needed it. But this day was different; were no flies at all – just bees.
I know bees are attracted to a pitcher of lemonade or other sugary foods, but I've never known them to come around for chicken.
It was difficult to trim chicken fat with a kitchen knife without losing a finger and counting bees simultaneously. I tallied about a dozen swarming around me, and they kept trying to land on the fresh meat. I'm no dummy; I know better than to swat at a bee. So instead, I'd just move my hand gracefully toward them, and the bees would fly off, then come right back from a different direction. A few of the bees even landed on my arm, overlooking the feast, choosing the drumstick they wanted. But, again, I didn't strike at them; I just let them ride on my arm. As long as they weren't stinging me, I saw no sense in poking the proverbial hornet's nest.
Eventually, I created a small pile of chicken fat on the other side of the table; the bees gathered there and left me alone. It was a good lesson on cohabitating peacefully with nature; no bees were harmed, and no humans were stung.
The day before, we had met a new friend at the campground and invited her to join us for dinner. We ate well, then enjoyed wine and conversation around the campfire. Everyone agreed the chicken was delicious – even the bees. The following morning Melissa and I packed up and headed to our next destination.
Black Canyon Campground is in the Sangre de Cristo mountains in New Mexico. At 8,500 feet above sea level, walking and breathing at the same time can be a challenge for a flat-lander from Minnesota.
I had chicken breasts marinating for dinner while we went hiking mountain trails and exploring Historic Old Town Santa Fe. It was dusk when we pulled back into our campsite. I quickly fetched an armload of wood from the van and got a fire started; we would need a good bed of hot coals to grill the chicken.
Once the fire was going, I brought the rest of the wood over. There was one piece from a branch about three inches round and thirty inches long. Melissa poured two glasses of wine and brought the camp chairs to the fire area, and became the self-appointed supervisor. Honestly, I had everything under control.
I watched the meat on the fire while also frying potatoes in the cast iron skillet on the camp stove. With onion, green pepper, mushrooms, and my special seasoning, these potatoes are the bomb. I was pretty proud of the meal I was fixing.
It was now dark out, so the supervisor kept a close eye on things; mostly her wine and everything I was doing, "You better turn the chicken; the potatoes need to be stirred; you should put another log on the fire, and watch out for that raccoon."
I stood up from the fire and looked around, "What raccoon?"
"The raccoon by the firewood pile…oh honey, be careful. That's not a raccoon; it's a big skunk!"
"WHAT? You mistook a skunk for a raccoon?" I can understand her error; I mean, raccoons wear a black mask, where a skunk has a wide bright white stripe down its back – anyone could easily confuse the two. This, my friends, is a fine example of why supervisors should not drink wine while on duty. (Although I will admit, it was a good, local cabernet.)
Standing before me was the biggest skunk I'd ever seen, and he looked to be on a mission. But, should the skunk and I engage in battle, I wasn't sure I could take him with just the metal spatula I was holding to turn potatoes and chicken.
He waddled a few steps my way; I was the only thing standing between him and my chicken. "What do skunks eat," I asked my wife.
"Mostly bugs and small rodents, I think," said the super.
I kept my headlamp shining on the skunk, "Do they eat people food?"
"I think they'll eat garbage if they're hungry. But, honey, don't shine your light on him; you're blinding him."
"Well, I'm not taking my eyes off him, for Pete's sake!" I had to defend my turf – and my chicken. I quickly reached down and grabbed the short branch log. "Back off Pepe Le Pew," I ordered, "this ain't garbage, and you ain't getting it!"
With a kitchen utensil purchased at Dollar General in one hand and a stick in the other, I immediately doubted that I was equipped well enough for the impending confrontation. Nevertheless, I held my position and warned the intruder, "You take one more step, and we're going to play golf – and you're the ball!" I shook my stick at him, and he took a couple more steps my way.
"Honey, leave him alone; don't hurt him," said the spectator from her chair. I wasn't sure if she was talking to the skunk or me. I'd never been this close to a live skunk – other than one time at a petting zoo, and frankly, I don't know that much about them.
I don't know much about skunks, but I knew this couldn't be good when he turned around and raised his tail. "Look, buddy, nobody raises their tail and points their butt at me and gets away with it – well, except for my cat Edgar, and I don't like it when he does it either." I presented my stick, "You wanna play golf?"
"Honey be careful," Again, I didn't know which of us she was warning. "I think they can spray up to twelve feet or so." I assumed her warning was for me since I didn't have a Super-Soaker squirt gun or a can of skunk repellant.
There were about six feet between my opponent and me, meaning the skunk, not my wife. (Come to think of it, there was also about six feet between my wife and me, and frankly, I wasn't sure if she was rooting for the beast or me!) I looked at the thirty-inch stick in my hand, "Twelve feet? Dang, I'm going to need a longer golf club."
The skunk arched his rear end higher in the air and puffed his tail; it looked as bushy as a foxtail. Then he started stomping his front feet on the ground. For a moment, I was dumbfounded. "I didn't know skunks could flair their tails like that, and what's he doing stomping his feet?"
"Tom, he's doing the skunk stomp! Back off; he's getting ready to spray!" I probably should have taken heed of her advice; I even thought about running and taking cover behind the supervisor's chair, but I still wasn't sure who's side she was on.
There I was, looking directly into the business end of an agitated skunk, who had his gun loaded, cocked, and ready to fire. I already mentioned this was the biggest skunk I'd ever seen. From my current point of view, he looked to be twelve feet tall and bulletproof. Still, I bravely (or foolishly) held my position. Waving my spatula that had a couple of half-cooked potato slices stuck to the flat surface, I stomped my foot to intimidate him, "Get outta here, ya bum!"
The skunk's chest inflated as he took a deep breath while looking over his shoulder with me in his crosshairs. "It's never happened to me before, but here it comes," I prayed, "Dear Lord, save me!" Just then, much to my surprise, the skunk lowered his tail and scurried in retreat to the far side of our concrete picnic table area. Had he been bluffing? Was his stinker all out of stink?
At the edge of the woods, the polecat turned around, staring me right square in the eye. He raised his tail, stomped his feet again as if to say, "I know where you live, Betty Crocker!" Then, just like Arnold Schwarzenegger, he warned, "I'll be back."
Almost with glee, my wife declared, "Oh honey, I think he's got your number."
Feeling tougher than John Wayne, I victoriously puffed up my chest. First, I tossed the seven-foot-long timber I was wielding one-handed back to the woodpile. Then, spinning my spatula like a six-shooter, I blew the smoke from the tip and pretended to sling it back into a holster – a potato slice dislodged and fell on my foot. "Oh yeah? Well, you better bring your little sister to help you!"
Fortunately, during the commotion, June was inside the Scamp. I can only imagine how this would have turned for the worse with a dog in the mix. Our cat Edgar Allan was also in the Scamp, looking out the window; he also watched the skunk closely.
I went back to tend to my meal cooking over the fire, "Darn it!" I burned the chicken. "Stupid skunk."
I felt like a real hero for saving our camp. Meanwhile, the supervisor poured another glass of wine. I reached my hand out to accept her token of appreciation. She pulled the glass toward her, took a drink, then returned to her chair. "Honey, during all the mayhem, I couldn't help but wonder what you would have done if that skunk had sprayed you?" Her concern was overwhelming, "I mean, with no showers or even running water in this campground, there's no way I was going to let you take the van into town, and you sure as heck weren't getting into the Scamp smelling that way." She took another sip of my wine, "I just don't know what you would have done, but it sure would have made for a good story if he sprayed you." She was laughing so hard; she shot a little wine out her nose, which bothered me because a good local cabernet shouldn't be wasted like that.
I'm not sure who won the contest, me or the skunk. Every time I thought I heard a noise in the woods, I snapped my head to look. If the wind wrestled the leaves, I jumped from my chair, reaching for the stick. In the Scamp, with the lights off, I peeked through the curtains, keeping a vigilant watch for my nemesis. Just then, Edgar brushed against my bare leg in the dark, "Sweet Jesus have mercy!" I jumped, hitting my head on the overhead cabinet, and I think I peed a little. It was a restless night, to say the least.
The next day while we were driving, Melissa asked, "Honey, do you remember last night when you were in the stand-off with that skunk."
Even though I had nightmares about that critter, I acted as if I had forgotten all about it, as if it was not a big deal. I rubbed my chin, trying hard to recall the incident, "Oh yes, I vaguely remember. The skunk I chased away when it wandered into our campsite. What about it?"
"Would you be upset if I told you I was secretly hoping the skunk would have sprayed you? That would have been pretty funny."
I enjoy getting out to camp in the wild, but one must be prepared; there are a lot of potential dangers in the woods: bears, bees, skunks, wives…