I caught them in the very act. I didn’t realize what was going on at first. I had walked over to my tent, and there was a weird pile of jackets or something nearby. As I brought the lantern closer, I saw that it was a backpack. MY backpack. Oh, and there were two fuzzy little forest denizens, complete with masks and striped prison uniforms. Bushy-tailed, bubble-butt raccoons. They had dragged my pack out from under the rain fly of my tent. It was twelve feet away when I found it. Were they taking it somewhere, or were they just ransacking my rucksack right there? How did they move it? Did they work together, walking on their hind legs, and dragging it with their paws? I laughed and shook my head as I picked it up and zipped it inside my tent.
The first time I was taken on a camping trip, I was two years old. I know it is the nature of wild creatures to spend every waking moment looking for food. I know a single peanut is enough to inspire an animal as tiny as a shrew to nibble through hundreds of dollars of tents, packs, or clothes. Who can blame them? They aren’t exactly going to find primate-style snack food growing on a tree. It’s basic food discipline to consolidate anything edible and lock it carefully away from questing teeth. Especially in bear country. The only things in my backpack that night were: clothespins, a freshly washed stocking cap and gloves, a roll of Tenacious Tape, and the stuff bags for my gear, none of which had ever contained food. Either some food residue had dripped somewhere onto my pack or the scent of the packaged food I had carried had somehow permeated it. Otherwise, it was simply a crime of opportunity, and the raccoons knew an unattended pack was worth a peek.
The second night, my friend looked out the window of her tent and happened to interrupt another crime in progress. “There’s a raccoon scratching at your tent!” She shouted at it and it slunk away. We went back to our board game. When I went to bed, I saw that I had left my door unzipped. Actually I hadn’t. There was an eight-inch tear across and a four-inch tear down, creating a hole big enough to pop my head through. I had exactly enough Tenacious Tape on the roll to tape it shut. This was annoying, but interesting; never before had I ever heard of a raccoon ripping open a tent. This tent was five years old and had paid for itself on our first trip. If the hole couldn’t be repaired, at least it would make a good story.
The third night, the moon was full. I was sound asleep, having added a little sports tape from the first aid kit to the gradually spreading tear and eliminated the mosquito that had made the most of the opportunity. I heard a panting, snuffling sound outside that made me think of a bloodhound. I rolled over and opened my eyes. There was another pair of eyes looking back at me! A raccoon had crept under the rain fly and was peering at me through the mesh door! I shouted at it, waking up my friends and making them think I was having night terrors. Possibly Tourette’s Syndrome. 2:43 AM.
If we’d stayed any longer, I’m sure I would have found it wearing my pajamas and reading my Byron Katie. “I moved your bookmark, hope you don’t mind. Incidentally, do you have any peanuts?”
As I was taking the tent down the next morning, a fire ant crawled up my pants and bit me on the knee. I didn’t realize what had happened at first; I felt a pinch and thought I had strained my knee from hiking. Then I thought something was biting me. I shook something out of my pants that I thought was a spider. The burning pain intensified. My friend explained that those two-toned ants with the reddish-brown heads were indeed fire ants. As in: "F this, kill them with fire!"
If I’d left my pack where I had it stored on the first night, the fire ants would quite likely have spent two days infiltrating it. I wouldn’t have had the faintest idea when I picked it up, as I have done dozens of times before.
When something happens to me, is it really to me? Is it about me at all? Or is it simply a reflection of the nature of another being?
What does this series of incidents tell me about the way the world works? Should I feel like a victim? Should I accept the lesson and move on? Should I enjoy the opportunity to collect a funny story? Or is it possible that I can search for gratitude? Unintentionally, those pesky masked varmints may well have saved me from a nasty experience with real malefactors.
Maybe I should ultimately blame myself for obliviously setting myself up for trouble. I have lived in the region for well over a decade, and I probably should have learned to recognize fire ants by now. It was a relatively gentle introduction; I got a single bite that quit hurting about two hours later. Next time I’ll know what to look for, just as I do with stinging nettle, one of nature's many other ways of being really confusing and probably unfair.
I’ll go backpacking again. I’ll meet more animals as I vacation in their home. I’ll see chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, foxes, lizards, snakes, mountain goats, skunks, turtles, birds, and insects, just as I have before. I’ll learn about the way they live and I’ll do my best to respect their customs. I’ll become more aware and more focused in my behaviors. When I eventually meet a bear, I’ll remember its smaller cousin the raccoon, and I’ll hope I’m as prepared as possible.
I’ll give my pack a good scrubbing first.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.