Lessons from the Trail: Chipmunks Need a Bed Time

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There is enough bear scat on the Wonderland Trail to make you think bears are lurking around every corner. Scat, by the way, is just a jazzier name for poo. I hear it more often attributed to bears than other animals. Maybe this politer euphemism is used to aggrandize their droppings more frequently because of Baloo the Bear in the Jungle Book, which conjures even more hilarious images of bears bopping down the trail. They apparently utilize the trails in their lazy, bear-necessity way, because it’s all the way along. I could very well assume that they lumber down the trail in syncopated rhythm because despite the frequent signs and reports of their crossings, it seems everyone but me got to see them.

I had my eyes wide open at every turn, especially when we started seeing those piles appear at our feet, or when it would become eerily quiet. Though dangerous bear encounters seem to be rare enough on this trail for me to not have heard a single story about a compromising situation, large predators are not something to be cavalier about. However, it’s important to shed light upon the real trail threat — to your food and your sleep — chipmunks.

Oh yeah. You thought those little doe-eyed cuties were your buddies, like circus performers; you wouldn’t mind losing a couple of peanuts to them to see them leap about or maybe eat out of your hand (which of course, we don’t do, but if it happened we might coo a bit anyway about how cute they are). If a circus acrobat swooped down and grabbed your hat as a joke, you probably wouldn’t care. After all, you have just become part of the performance. You might be frustrated if they didn’t return it, but when that stolen belonging is a sunflower seed, no biggy, right? We like to watch chipmunks scamper from tree to tree, as though they were two-year-olds playing hide and seek, and we, like knowing, playful parents, pretend we don’t know they’re there. “Oh, isn’t that cute?” we say, and smile at one another, then peer around the tree-trunk to catch another glimpse.

We have the same reaction when passing through high alpine meadows and see marmots loping from bush to bush, foraging. Their heads pop up from their sunning position on rocks, and we all stop to have a brief staring contest. Yes, they’re watching to see if we’re a threat, but for the most part, they are pretty content to just observe us odd creatures walking by, and go on munching or relaxing. That’s why we love them. They’re a curious combination of gopher head and cat body. I might go so far as to say even in personality, they are a cross between the best of dogs and cats – docile enough to be almost tame, independent enough to continue along with their own agenda. Marmots can stay.

Between marmots and chipmunks, the cute, fuzzy, and entertaining factors are just about where their similarities end. Because if I compared Marmots with, say, Oliver Twist, chipmunks could be renamed “The Artful Dodger.” In the day, these sneaky pickpockets may steal your heart (and maybe some peanuts), but at night, they’re little terrors. They just freaking need to go to sleep and be satisfied with their fill from the sunny hours.

On our second night, we stayed in the White River campground. We had our meal, put all of our “smelly stuff” in our stuff sack, locked it in the food storage bins, and went to sleep. A few hours later, comfy and cozy in my tent, my ears pricked up to the quick Scrrtscrrtscrrt of little feet on the other side of the tent wall, mere inches from my head.

“Oh crap.”

Tami Asars’s comments from her book Hiking the Wonderland Trail ran through my head about the real dangers of trail creatures – the unassuming nibbly thiefs. I had heard stories, from her book and elsewhere, about deer snatching people’s salt-soaked boots for chew toys and rodents munching through tents like massive candy wrappers hiding goodies. I ran through my sleepy-head checklist of anything they could possibly want in my pack, and finding none, I attempted to go back to sleep.

I heard it again, scurrying alongside me towards my pack that was covered underneath the vestibule. I swatted the side of the tent out of impulse, dreading I would smack a little soft, warm body that might retaliate and bite me through the tent, and yet hoping I might dissuade it from its mission. “Get out you little jerk!” I thought (of course trying not to wake Bryan up). I lay still, listening for munching sounds. Nothing.

Though I heard the rustling a few more times, I told my worried subconscious, everything is fine, just go back to sleep, and for the most part I did.

In the morning, I surveyed my belongings. No chew marks anywhere on my pack or boots; so far, so good. I checked the front pocket of my belt, remembering I had a small, mostly empty sandwich bag with literally just a few nuts and raisins inside. Thankfully, the pocket zipper had been mostly open, because the bag was definitely chewed to bits. I was glad there had been an adequate opening for it to get through without ruining my gear. “Aha! I found you out!” I thought, amused. Oh well, no harm, no foul, except for a few moments of sleep.

That day, we had a fairly short hike to Summerland. We chose a camp site, dropped our packs and pulled out our lunch of two large bags of trail mix and beef jerky. We were immediately joined by the boldest chipmunk I’ve ever seen, and soon afterwards, his partner in crime, a red squirrel. It was a dastardly Chip and Dale duo. They skitted around us, skirting closer and closer with each attempt.

“Hey-whatcha got?-that looks good-can I have some?-just a little bit-you’ve got plenty there, right?-just a couple seeds?”

It was adorable–until our backs were turned and he almost jumped in.

Alright! Yeah, let’s just hang up EVERYTHING right now instead of when we go to bed.

We ate our dinner from freeze-dried pouches (nothing to drop) with fellow campers in the group shelter away from our campsite. By bedtime, our rascally guests had decided this site was a loss for food, and were nowhere in site, so we slept in peace.

Two nights later found us in lower altitude again, as at White River, at the Maple Creek campground. I may be wrong, but I just tended to notice more rodents out and about at lower levels, so maybe I was already jumpy. On this night, we made dinner in our titanium pot — vegetable soup from dehydrated veggies, a couple of smelly bouillon cubes, some tasty herbs and spices, with a packet of chicken (like the tuna packets). We washed it out, but the remaining residue was super smelly. Throughout our trip, I had charge of carrying the pot, fuel, and stove in my pack. We put up our other “smelly stuff” on the bear pole. I had been using a trash bag as an inner lining to put all of my belongings in for when it rained. We put my pack and the pot inside the trash bag in case it rained, and left it outside underneath the vestibule (generally a completely fine place to put it, especially because there’s just not a lot of room in the tent).

All is well, until 11:26pm. Scrrtscrrtscrrt. Right by my head again.

Crumplecrumple.

“They’re getting into the trash bag!” I bolted upright, swatting the side of the tent, which is a bad idea when you’re half-awake and jumpy, as the whole structure wobbles in the darkness, and your mind, playing tricks, envisions the swaying pockets and poles to be little creatures leaping around up top. “They’re inside!”

No, no. You’re crazy and tired and everything’s fine.

I grabbed my phone, and turned on the flashlight, peering outside the mesh tent door with fuzzy eyesight. I fumbled around for my glasses and tried to discern if there were any fluffy moving bodies.

“What is going on?” Bryan moaned.

“I think they’re trying to get into my bag,” I whispered. After further review, determining there were no creatures nearby, I laid down.

Scrrt. Scrrtscrrtscrrt. Scrrt.

My tired brain couldn’t quite cope with the confidence that everything would be fine. “They’re going to eat my pack! They’re going to ruin my shoes! They’re going to eat through the tent, and feel cornered, or revolt at the lack of food, bite us and we’re going to get rabies! I’m going to have to fumble through the rest of our trip in chewed-up boots, and spend a bunch of money to replace everything!”

I snatched the phone and illumined the outside of the tent again.

“Just bring it inside,” Bryan mumbled in annoyance, muffled by his pillow.

I gingerly brought my pack inside, giving it a good shake for anything hanging on. Despite the fact that I could see the trash bag knot was still tight, I listened for any rustling in the bag in case it got in and I was now bringing the little monster inside the tent to begin a reign of panicked terror. But no sign. I laid back down and tried to rest, but I was tense as a tightrope and subconsciously alert.

I heard it shuffling around outside by the bushes above our heads. By its movements, it seemed confused, as if wondering where the smelly object went and plotting how it could get to it. Noises sound much closer than they really are when you are tired and your eyes are closed.

While I drifted off into a disturbed rest, mostly asleep, but awake enough to hear it rustling around, I dreamt that I got out of the tent to shoo it away. The one chipmunk I am trying to scare away becomes twenty that run out of their hiding places. My initial assumption is that they are being scared up like grouse in a field, scattering to avoid danger, but instead they form a swarm and run all over me. I jolt upright, realizing I’m a crazy person, everything is fine, nothing is going to be ruined, and I just need to get some rest.

The next morning, as I’m examining my shoes, Bryan gives me a sideways glance, “Last night, oh my goodness! What was going on?”

“Well, I thought they were eating my stuff,” I say timidly.

Teasing, he asks, “What makes you so nervous about them?”

“I think to myself, everything is going to be fine, but in my half-awake, dream-like state, I just can’t shake the fear that they’re going to ruin something.”

“I just resign myself that if anything happens, it will be fine, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Just try and let it go.”

I try to take his words to heart and we decide the next night, we’re just going to clean the pot really well, leave it outside, and bring my pack inside.

In the next few campsites we went to, I was very aware of the little holes I saw in the embankments of roots and turf alongside the clearings made for tents.

“I see where you’re hiding in wait for dark of night!”

We left the pot out the night after Maple Creek. A few times during the night, Bryan woke to the sound of them trying to open the top with an amusing Tink. Tinktinktiink. Tinktinktinktink. Tinktink.

On our evening at Golden Lakes, I stole away for a few moments to sit by the lake behind the patrol cabin to write in my journal. Except for an occasional pleasant twill of a bird in a tree on the other side, the lake was silent and serene. Peaceful, still, the only movement that disturbed its clear, deep water was from a little skipper on the surface. Ah. So beautiful.

Skrrt. Skrrtskrrtskrrt.

I whisked around to see a chipmunk darting back and forth between the bushes.

“You!”

As he jumped out to stare me full in the face, pausing in hope for a crumb, I had to laugh because his cheeks were absolutely jammed with leaves, poking out in every direction.

He looked a me with his big brown eyes as if to say, “chan I haf fomfing thoo eath?”

I had to laugh. Despite all of the terror they inflicted on my tired mind throughout the trip, I still had an affinity for them. They are like the pesky neighborhood kids who do have the potential to  harm — like setting off ill-placed cherry bombs in the middle of the night and destroying private property  — but you still love them anyway and later have a nostalgic appreciation for them and can even laugh heartily at their antics (mostly because you have amnesia about how frustrated you were in the moment).

The moral of the story – make sure you store your food, relax, and realize your sleep is more important than your stuff. They don’t want the lip gloss you forgot to put away enough to find your tent liner worth chewing.

But they still need a bedtime.


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