Saturday, August 24, 2013

Hot Rod Ratpack

As forest roads go, the North Fork Road is now a wide and smooth, gravel highway. But it wasn't always so. Traversing the valley along the western edge of Glacier Park, the road used to be locally renowned for its spine-crushing potholes and brain-rattling washboards. All of us northwoods guys used to drive that road like grandmothers, mostly for fear of loosing various truck parts.

But Rod's driving motivation wasn't fear.

I worked with Rod 28 years ago on his deer research project in the North Fork Valley. There were many days that hot summer when, if we finished work before dark, Rod would head off on a dusty and jarring drive up and down the road in his old, blue, 1980's Chevy Caviller. He was an intelligent, young biologist. But on these evening runs he drove at break-neck speeds like a mad scientist, chortling with malevolent laughter, clinging white-knuckled to the steering wheel, bouncing his groaning car out of one crater and into the next. On purpose.

Packrat (c) John Ashley
A curious, Bushy-tailed Woodrat
Isn't it amazing how one little packrat can drive a grown man crazy?

About the time I met Rod, a Bushy-tailed Woodrat (Neotoma cinerea) moved into the nooks and crannies of his engine compartment, where it started building a collection of flammable sticks, pine cones and grasses, while also stealing shiny car parts and chewing on miscellaneous wires. Rod tried everything anyone could think of to rid himself of his rat, all to no avail. So he decided that his only hope was to bounce the squatter out - and maybe run him over while doing so.

And so it went, a summer-long, one car demolition derby.

Rod would return home from an exhausting day of fieldwork, peer into the Caviller's engine compartment, and quietly curse the resident rat in the measured tones of a resolute lunatic. Then off they'd roar, Rod and his rat, disappearing down the North Fork in a cloud of dust and gravel. I'm not sure, but I think that packrat eventually moved to Indiana with his crazy landlord.

Even after 28 years, I could still see Rod's face this morning as I drove down the dusty hill with my own packrat. This one decided to move in under our deck, much to the delight of our two dogs.

You see, not only do these rodents chew things up and steal shiny objects, but they also coat their collected debris with urine, which crystallizes and helps hold the midden together. It also makes the whole area stink, and our dogs absolutely live to chase smelly rodents. The chipmunks and squirrels that have managed to survive in our yard are all ultra-lean, healthy sprinters.

Packrat (c) John Ashley
Big eyes, big ears and long whiskers of the squirrel-like packrat
Packrats are related to cute pets like mice and gerbils. But even if we called them something like, "Mouse-eared Kleptomaniac Squirrels," people would still hate them because they absolutely reek. So before this guy could start building a smelly midden under our deck, I baited a borrowed Have-A-Heart trap with shiny tinfoil and caught him on the second try.

The packrat and I bounced down our gravel road together, downhill to a secluded area in the forest. Driving back home after the successful release, I was smiling at the memories of Rod's exasperation. But then a few desperate thoughts began to intrude. Oh no. Did I drive away fast enough? Is three miles far enough away from a packrat? I guess our dogs will let us know soon enough.