Once I had to discipline a coon.
I was a licensed New York State backcountry guide. A group of us had hiked into the Catskill wilderness and had made a camp near the headwaters of the Beaverkill River. We had a central cooking fire. At night we suspended our group food between two trees to keep it out of reach of animal scavengers. Because there was some hunting and trapping in the area, I didn’t anticipate trouble from the camp-raiding four-leggeds that are so common in parks where they’re protected and therefore used to raiding campsites. Yet I felt that this was an important procedure for new campers to learn so I recommended everyone do the same with their personal food supplies as well.
Most of them put their food in a nylon stuff bag and hung them in trees near their tents which were pitched here and there in the surrounding woods. I did not check to see how each person had hung his or her bag because I didn’t really expect any animal visitors. Well, sometimes you get what you don’t expect. It’s true in the woods and it’s true in life. That first night, not long after everyone had settled down, I was startled out of my first few minutes of dozing by the unmistakable clatter of pots, pans, bowls and sierra cups. I bolted upright, and clicked on my flashlight in the direction of the noise. My flashlight beam was met by the bright shining eyes and black mask of a handsome young raccoon. It was busily exploring the kitchen area, upsetting, overturning, and walking around in all our carefully cleaned pots, stacked dishes and utensils.
I stormed out of the tent and shooed the coon out of the camp, chasing it into the bushes until it disappeared into the darkness. I checked the kitchen area to be sure we really had cleaned up all the food. We had; the cooking area was neat and clean except for the now scattered pots and pans.
The coon did not come back that night, but the next night it was back, as hopeful as ever, rummaging through all the dishes again. I charged out of the tent like I had the night before. And the coon scrambled off into the bushes like it had the night before; but half an hour later it was back. We had been hiking and exploring most of the day and we had stayed up late singing and telling tales around the campfire. It had been a busy day and I was not looking forward to working third shift as the camp coon chaser so I gave up, pulled the covers over my head and tried to ignore the racket.
Soon the coon realized that as good as it smelled, there was indeed no food here. It wandered off into the night and all was quiet–till later on, that is when a new noise–a strident ripping sound–tore me from my peaceful slumber. It was coming from a new direction. So once again I crawled out of my bag to investigate. I followed the sound to one of the nearby tent sites. There was the coon up in the tree tearing into somebody’s improperly hung food bag while the owner snored away. At my approach the coon beat a hasty retreat scampering away with a granola bar in its mouth looking like a large flat cigar.
I untied the tattered bag and took it back to my tent for safekeeping and went back to sleep, only to be awakened shortly thereafter by what was now becoming a familiar wilderness sound– the sound of coon teeth ripping through the nylon of another person’s food bag. To make a long story, medium, I should tell you that I had to rescue three more bags that night. I put them all in my bag which was hung behind my tent.
By the time I returned from my last rescue mission and got the food hung, the first rosy fingers of dawn were brightening the eastern edge of the forest. I was trying once more to get back to sleep when I heard the sound of coon claws on tree bark right behind my tent. I looked out the rear window and there was that ring-tailed rascal climbing up after yet another food bag. This was my food bag. It was hung by a rope and dangled several feet down from a high limb away from the trunk of the tree. I watched that coon attempt to reach down from above, then climb halfway down the trunk and try unsuccessfully to reach out from the trunk to grab the bag and finally stood on its hind legs under the bag trying to reach up, unable to reach my bag.
About that time I realized that I had had about enough coon for one night. It was daylight and that coon would not be able to slip off into the darkness like it had the night before. I was going to give that coon a run for its money (or its granola bars)! This coon needed discipline. I quickly slipped on my sneakers and leapt out of the tent with a heartfelt furious roar.
The coon and I started a mad dash through the woods, over rocks and through underbrush. I was keeping up quite well when the coon shinnied up a tall hemlock tree. It climbed out on a branch about twenty feet above my head and gazed back down at me with nothing but complacent smugness in its beady little black eyes. I shook my fist up at that coon. “This ain’t no old hobbled-up coon dog you’re messing with this time you ring-tailed fuzzball. I’m going to learn you a few things,” I hollered. I cut a hickory switch and started up that tree.
That coon’s eyeballs about popped out of his head when it realized that I was coming up that tree after it. Slowly I climbed, growling ominously, the hickory switch between my teeth. That coon turned tail and moved higher up the tree. I kept right on climbing, growling and showing my teeth at the coon. (Of course it’s hard not to show your teeth when you’re using them to carry a stick.) I wanted to make an impression on that coon, for the good of our food supplies as well as for its own future. I wanted that coon to know humans as we really are.
To that raccoon we had seemed like harmless, noisy, bumbling creatures whose sole purpose on Earth was to bring delicious food into the woods to feed bright, young, opportunistic raccoons. I wanted to teach that coon the truth about humans: that we really are the most dangerous creatures on the face of the Earth, that we really are insatiable and that we destroy a large part of the natural world every day, and that includes coons. And like my forefathers I believed that in certain instances truth and discipline can be most effectively conveyed with the sting of a hickory switch.
Soon the coon was near the top of the tree nervously climbing back and forth in the upper branches. I just kept climbing and growling. The coon knew it was trapped–and I was closing in fast. So it climbed out on the longest branch that it could find, but because we were almost to the top of the tree that limb was only about five feet long. By the time I got there the coon was desperately hanging on to the flexible outer branches at the very end of the limb. Looking out from that tree top into the fear-filled eyes of that pitiful coon as it cowered there frantically clutching the green boughs with its delicately fingered front feet was enough to melt my heart.
All I wanted to do was comfort the little rascal, and stroke its lush, lovely fur. But I knew that the best thing I could do for this beautiful, wild, free-spirited animal was to teach it to associate humans with fear, pain and danger. So I drew forth my hickory cane and switched the dickens out of that critter. The coon turned and took a flying leap. It grabbed a few branches on the way down to slow its descent, then for a 25 foot freefall it fell spread-eagle with its feet and tail stretched out so that it looked like a giant flying squirrel or a miniature bear rug. A few seconds later it hit the ground running, and as far as I know that coon is still running…running wild and running free.
It never came back to our camp that week. I’ve been to that campsite several times since and have never had any more trouble with raccoons. Occasionally I think of that treetop session disciplining that coon. That coon might still be traveling along the creek that runs by that campsite and if it gets a whiff of human scent I hope that it understands the dangerous unpredictability of the human species. Some are harmless campers, but others are hunters and trappers, and yet other rare humans might be like that deranged, snarling beast with the stinging hickory switch.
I hope that memory has kept it out of trouble, running wild and running free.
Hi folks, I hope you enjoyed this story and I hope you also are running wild and free. Your comments are welcome. That story was excerpted from my book, Wildwoods Wisdom, Encounters with the Natural World. The book has more raccoon-ology as well as lots of other interesting natural history, stories, and lore. You might want to check it out. It’s on sale this month.