Generally speaking, the proximity of a skunk--any skunk--invokes uneasiness in people because they know only of the unpleasant weapons of these white and black mammals. As a youth, I was fortunate enough to learn that skunks are basically peaceful and seemingly self-assured. Nevertheless, such knowledge did not come without a few strained situations on my part, including a few experiments with the limits of a skunk's endurance for harassment. I've also justly suffered skunkly consequences for these experiments--to the point of being quarantined for several days due to an "obnoxious odor." The skunks, however, took everything in their stride. It was a little spotted skunk that finally succeeded in pointing out to me that they use their weapons only when under imminent duress.
I meet skunk-teacher when I was 17 under circumstances quite strange. It was late July, and I had been fishing for salmon three or four miles out in the Pacific Ocean from the Indian village of La Push, on the western edge of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. The ocean's surface was as flat and smooth as a piece of glass, and I had a strong urge to try walking on it, so solid did it seem. It was about three or four o'clock in the afternoon, and having caught my limit of two salmon, I started for the shore, and it was a good thing too.
I had no more than put my fishing tackle away, when a strong wind came out of nowhere, the sky darkened with thick clouds, and the sea became really dangerous. The once-flat surface now had swells high enough to hide a small boat like the one I had been in, and the gathering wind was blowing spray off the whitecaps.
I had been anticipating sleeping on the beach, but that was now out of the question. So I hurriedly returned the boat to its owner, clean and put the fish in my ice chest, and took refuge under a huge pile of driftwood high on the beach. In getting ready to spend the night, I made a shelter out of flat pieces of driftwood and placed my sleeping bag--the mummy type--next to a small, sandy rise with a neat, round hole in it. Other than noticing the hole and idly wondering who lived there, I ignored it.
Twilight waned, and the rainy wind blew. I added wood to my small fire, which burned cheerily as I got into bed. I had just gotten comfortable when a small head with bright, black eyes separated by a white spot appeared in the entrance of the hole, no more than a foot and a half from my head. The skunk and I regarded each other. I froze!
For the next hour, as the little spotted skunk alternately walked over, sat on, and sniffed me, I was confined to my zipped-up mummy bag! The skunk also rummaged in my food, helping itself to whatever struck its fancy. Since I made no offensive move, neither did the skunk. Having established an "understanding," I was free to unzip my sleeping bag and watch the skunk, provided I did not interfere with the its comings and goings or with its meal. Toward the end of an hour, the skunk wandered off into the night, whereupon I moved the sleeping bag to allow the skunk unimpeded access to its burrow, which it entered shortly before dawn.
© chris maser 2003 (From "Mammals of the Pacific Northwest.")