What do you suppose is the most formidable land animal in all of North America?
Is it the Moose? The Grizzly Bear? The Polar Bear? The Mountain Lion?
I have a healthy respect for each of those noble hooved or clawed or fanged wild things.
The wild world is well-stocked with scaled and furred threats. Some people would argue — with credible logic — that human beings — with their propensity toward cruelty and psychosis and indiscriminate genocide — are the most dangerous of all creatures.
But, no, the one land animal that dominates the anxieties of the common camper is the North American raccoon, Procyon lotor.
If you’ve ever camped, you know what I’m talking about.
Raccoons look cute, with their roly-poly carriage, their little black mitts, and their black bandit masks, but no other living creature so brazenly stalks the borders of malevolent mischief.
Point Reyes National Seashore, just north of San Francisco, is famous for its raccoon problem. They have warning signs all over the place. Beware this, beware that. The animals here will crunch you like a baby carrot. Dear God, look out!
Doesn’t mean you’ll see them coming.
On a backpacking trip there, I’d come limping into my campsite well after dark. I was so exhausted I skipped the tent set-up, and simply plopped my bag down and crawled into it. I was the only human inhabitant in the entire campground.
I’d been lying there maybe 15 minutes, just settling into those first few foggy minutes of sleep, when something growled five feet from the top of my head. I sprang into a half-sitting position, the hackles on my neck standing straight. I fumbled clumsily for the flashlight I had stashed in my boots. A raccoon, teeth exposed in a not-so-friendly grin and eyes blazing like red-hot gold nuggets, crouched in the beam of light. I caught movement at the corner of my eye and swept the flashlight right, then left. Another one, and another, and another. The raccoons had me surrounded.
“Yah!” I yelled jumping to my feet in my underwear and socks, “Yah! Yah!” and the animals scattered like hairy tumbleweeds in a sudden dust devil. Pulling on my pants and boots, I scooped up my bag and pack and scurried over to the site’s picnic table. Extending from it was a four-foot metal bar with two prongs at the top. I hung my backpack on it, spread my bag atop the picnic table and crawled back in. Couldn’t say I slept much. The gang of raccoons had regrouped. They circled the picnic table all night long, sometimes chittering or sputtering or growling. Every once in a while I’d hit them with the flashlight beam just to make sure they weren’t getting any ideas, but none of them put so much as a dainty paw on the picnic table.
They were gone by the time dawn arrived. Called back to the of Halls of Hell, I supposed. I shed my bag, greatly relieved and had breakfast.
After another 10 miles with a pack I coasted into my next campsite. This time I pitched the tent. As sunset approached, I summited the picnic table to hang my pack, and catching movement in my peripheral vision, spied the first of that night’s raccoons. He was shooting past on my left, like a furry bowling ball, straight for the garbage can 40 feet south of the tent.
He swung himself up onto the covered can with his nimble little black digits, then popped in through the swinging lid — disappearing inside. When I retired to my tent he was still in there, banging around like a basketball in a dryer. I spent the night shooing other raccoons away from the tent, often making contact with them with my hand through the nylon fabric. Whack!
The first thing I did the next morning was peek inside the garbage can. I fully expected to see a snarling mammal at its bottom, but the raccoon was gone. How he passed back out through the “one way” swinging lid, is still, in my experience, one of the greatest mysteries of the wide, wild universe.
Exactly 20 years later, I returned to Pt. Reyes, this time with my youngest son. Same campsite.
No sooner had we peeled the bags from our shoulders at site No. 2 in Coast Camp when a pair of raccoons rustled the brush. My son, Emerson, was impressed at how tame the animals appeared to be, as they stared at us from the periphery of the chest-high vegetation, maybe 10 feet from where we stood. The two raccoons popped out of one bush, then — rustle, rustle — 15 feet to the left. In a mere 30 seconds they’d circled to the opposite side, reconnoiter completed.
“Hold tight to your meat stick,” I sneered, instructing Emerson to immediately stash anything that was remotely edible — cheese, gorp, beef jerky, sweat-stained clothing, fingernail clippers — in the bullet-fire-bomb-and-raccoon-proof metal strong boxes provided by the park service. When all was secured, we could finally relax and take in our surroundings.
The campground had no trees. We were ensconced in what appeared to be a sea of scrubby bushes in an open basin that sloped up to rounded ridges on three sides, with the pristine Pacific seashore about 200 yards behind us to the west and blocked by a row of low bluffs.
We couldn’t see the other campers across the trail in site number one, but we could tell they we’re there because we could hear them.
“Oh! Look! A Raccoon! Aren’t you cute!” said a woman’s voice.
For supper Em and I opted for mac and cheese and tuna. Nice and smelly. Raccoons love that. Again, the couple at the site across the way;
“Well, hello again!...You stay away from there now…”
Em and I exchanged glances while stirring the noodles. Plump and al dente, we drained them into the fire ring and added the odoriferous canned fish.
“There’s another one! Shoo!” came the same woman’s voice at site number one. “Look! There’s a raccoon on the picnic table! It’s got the buns! Get off of there!”
We enjoyed a leisurely supper over at site number two, sipped some hot cocoa, and washed up the dishes beneath the low-hanging sky. There wasn’t a raccoon to be seen, or heard. Until we’d settled into our tent and caught the strains of the woman’s voice, now shrill and murderous.
“Hey! That frolicking raccoon just tore a hole in the tent!”
Only she didn’t say “frolicking.”
The outdoors is a wild and dangerous place, populated with crafty, grease-slicked, ring-tailed miscreants. It’s not for the meek or the timid or the unsuspecting. Be well advised, my friends, of the inherent hazards of Nature.
Frolic at your own risk.
Betchkal is a freelance writer from Eau Claire.