Skunk’s “beautiful pelt” best admired from afar
April 20, 2019
By Finn J.D. John
One of the most appealing things about life in rural Western Oregon, around the middle of the last century, was the wildlife. Loggers and mill workers in places like Valsetz and Wendling might not have gotten paid particularly well, but they worked and lived in a real “sportsman’s paradise”; the fishing, hunting, boating, and wilderness trekking opportunities were like a second paycheck. Sometimes, as in the case of loggers who ran trap lines on the side, it was a literal second paycheck.
Sometimes, though, folks would get a little too much of a good thing, and all that wildlife would get just a little too wild for comfort.
Dr. E.R. Huckleberry, writing his memoirs at the end of a half-decade in family practice in Garibaldi, tells several par-ticularly juicy anecdotes about this. Huckleberry was, from the 1920s through the 1960s, the M.D. who was called when accidents happened on nearby Tillamook County logging shows. So he got to be quite familiar with logging operations and loggers, and he was the physician many loggers and millworkers looked to when they needed medical attention.
Sometime in the 1930s — probably before the Tillamook Burn, but Dr. Huckleberry does not say — a logger he identifies only as Clarence came to see him one day with a somewhat unusual medical request. Actually, his problem wasn’t very medical at all, but the logger was desperate and thought maybe the good doctor would know something he didn’t about how to address it. He was, as Huckleberry puts it, “redolent of eau de skunk.”
This logger, it seems, had been working at the White Star logging camp for several months deep in the woods of Tillamook County, and noticed there was an abundance of fur-bearing animals around. So he’d started running a trapline as a side hustle; getting up every morning before daylight, he’d run around and check his traps, collect any animals caught in them, set new ones, and be back in time for breakfast.
Pretty soon, Clarence was doing very well. By the time he came to see Dr. Huckleberry, he’d gotten to where he was making almost as much money running that trapline as he was cutting timber.
But on that particular day, as he was coming back to camp following a narrow game trail — with dense brush on both sides, like a tunnel barely wide enough to admit him — he saw, by the early pre-dawn light, strolling leisurely toward him on that trail, a great fluffy skunk.
“No person or animal will dispute the right-of-way with a skunk, so Clarence pushed off the trail into the bushes far enough to let Mr. Skunk get by,” Dr. Huckleberry writes. “It was a beautiful pelt, one of the finest he had ever seen, and to have it walk past, touching his feet, was more than he could stand. It suddenly occurred to him that if he grabbed that animal by the tail, held it at arm’s length ahead of him, and ran so fast the skunk could not get turned around to train its artillery on him, when he came to a more open place he could give a big swing and bang its head against a tree.”
Without thinking his plan through much more than that, Clarence reached down and implemented Phase One on the spot.
As you will no doubt have gathered, things did not go strictly according to Clarence’s plan. The main thing he didn’t take into account was where he was, in that dense tunnel of underbrush. It was so far to any open space that long before he got anywhere near a tree big enough to safely bounce a skunk off of, he was stumbling and gasping for breath. The skunk, at that point still fresh as a daisy and presumably somewhat put out by all the rough handling, then managed to get itself turned around, and, as Dr. Huckleberry puts it, “gave him both barrels at close range.”
“By the time Clarence could get his eyes open and begin to breathe again, of course the skunk was gone,” he continues. “But there remained conclusive evidence that it had been there.”
Clarence stripped off his clothes, dug a hole with his hunt-ing knife, and buried them. Then he snuck into the bathhouse to take a shower. This, of course, did not help much.
When he tried to get into the bunkhouse to get more clothes, the other loggers chased him out; then one of them, taking pity on the poor stinky wretch, got a set of clothes from his bedroll and threw it to him from as far upwind as possible.
When he tried to go into the mess shack for breakfast, the cook chased him out, telling him to wait fifteen minutes and then he’d find his breakfast on a stump at the edge of camp.
When he tried to go to work, the boys wouldn’t let him on the mulligan, and his logging partner told him not to bother walking up to the job, as he wouldn’t work with him again until he smelled better.
Clarence decided to take the hint, and caught the next lokey (logging locomotive) back to civilization; to get on board, he had to promise to get on the very last train car and stay there the whole way.
In desperation, he walked to Dr. Huckleberry’s office to inquire if medical science had yet doped out a deodorization technology potent enough to meet this challenge.
If Clarence had thought things through, he probably would have sought out a veterinarian instead. Very few humans are dumb enough to tangle with a skunk, but plenty of dogs are; a good country vet would have had several pretty solid deodorization strategies to recommend.
Dr. Huckleberry, though, didn’t have much experience deodorizing loggers, and told the poor stinky fellow as much. He suggested, though, that Clarence might try a series of Clorox baths. The young logger had a sister who lived in town, and she agreed to let him use her bathtub to do them, provided he entered and exited by the window, left the window open after he left, and never opened the bathroom door. Her family trooped across the street to the neighbor’s house for bathroom business for a week or so while Clarence tried this.
It didn’t help much, if at all. But, of course, time passed and the smell faded, and a few days later Clarence was able to go back to work.
“He said running that trap line was no fun anymore,” Dr. Huckleberry added. “However, he felt he had to keep on with it to make up for the time and the clothes that skunk had cost him.”
Another local who had some trouble with wildlife, according to Dr. Huckleberry’s recollections, was local dairy farmer and midnight bootlegger Alec Swenson. Alec’s bootlegging operations — tucked away in the hilly and heavily overgrown “back 40” of his dairy farm — were far more lucrative than his farm ever had been.
Most bootleggers caught by Prohibition agents in Tillamook County were busted after someone smelled the distinctive aroma of fermentation, or spotted a smoke trail seen rising from the same remote spot day after day. Dairy farms, of course, have a powerful smell associated with them, and part of that smell is silage — which is fermented feedstock. So, Alec had the smell part covered. Anyone who caught a whiff of his mash tun drifting on the wind would just think it was silage.
To avoid the smoke, though, he powered his still with a kerosene stove. This worked great, but it required him to sneak up to the still in the middle of the night with cans of kerosene to fuel it.
One fine summer day, he was doing this, when he rounded a clump of blackberry bushes and found himself in the middle of a family of bears. One of the cubs was right in the trail, and Alec almost stepped on him.
Alec immediately made things even worse by dropping the can of kerosene on the cub’s paw. The little critter bawled like a baby, his mother roared with wrath — and the chase was on.
“The nearest tree was a little alder, but it looked better than nothing, and that bear was gaining on me,” Alec told Dr. Huckleberry. “So up I went, as high as I could get. But that wasn’t very high. Mama Bear was on her hind legs, clawing and slashing at my boots, and missing them by inches only. This went on for some time, and she showed no signs of getting tired of the game … At last I thought of my snoose can. It was nearly full.”
Snoose, as you probably know, is a tobacco product that was very popular with Scandinavians and loggers. It’s similar to moist snuff like Copenhagen, but mixed with salt and other flavoring agents. It has an extremely potent flavor, and, to the uninitiated, not a particularly pleasant one.
The desperate Alec Swenson now pulled his snoose can out of his back pocket, got the lid off, and, when the moment was ripe and those gnashing fangs were out and reaching for him, dumped its entire contents down that slavering hatch.
“She looked surprised, dropped on all fours, started coughing and clawing at her face, then headed for the creek, making noises that sounded like ‘Ulp! Ulp! Ulp!’” Alec told Dr. Huckleberry. “She didn’t even wait to call the cubs, but they followed. I climbed down, retrieved my can of oil, and tended to my still.”
If that last line makes you a bit suspicious of this story, it should. It’s pretty hard to imagine anyone coming off an encounter like this not turning around and running for the house. Who could have known how long Mother Bear would be at the creek washing her mouth out? Or how long her memory would be afterward?
So, most likely this story should be filed as folklore, rather than documented history. It, or something like it, probably did happen; but chances are pretty good that it’s been added to just a little bit ….
(Sources: The Adventures of Dr. Huckleberry, a book by E.R. Huckleberry published by Oregon Historical Society Press in 1970)
Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. For details, see http://finnjohn.com. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.
Top image: Tom Friedel/www.birdphotos.com A pair of skunks in the wild.
Second image: A postcard photo of a tableau of a moonshine still surrounded by happy dwarves, on display at Rock City Gardens in Lookout Mountain, Georgia.
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