by David Collins
One morning in late winter, I set out to track a particular raccoon who lived high in an ancient beech tree. A deep rut worn by generations of raccoons cut across the hill. From there, his usual route went up the hill to his favorite garbage cans, or down to the creek via a drain pipe that ran under the road. On this day however, he decided to hit the subdivision, and I picked up his trail again where it crossed the road.
Along the stream his tracks meandered in and out of the water, as he fished for crawdads and dug up the banks looking for freshwater clams. With a sudden change of direction, his tracks scrambled up the bank into an area of sandy mounds where ashleaf maple and spicebush grew in abundance. Something caught his interest and he had come to investigate. Cresting the mound, he apparently came almost face to face with a pair of red foxes digging for moles. I don't know how the foxes reacted, but that raccoon left in a real hurry. I had seen tracks of a loping raccoon before, but this fellow left at a full tilt gallop.
A safe distance away he resumed his search for food and crossed over the creek on a old sewer pipe suspended above the water. Once across, the raccoon's trail went straight up the hill to a tall sycamore. At the base of the tree was a large deposit of runny scat filled with bologna casings and candy wrappers. It alarmed me to find this since I had found raccoons before who had died from eating garbage. The smooth bark of the sycamore showed fresh claw marks going up the massive trunk, and as my eyes searched ever higher into the tree, a dark, furry mass showed against the clear blue sky. Walking uphill to get a closer look, I saw not one but two raccoons sprawled in the branches. A terrible feeling washed over me as I thought of the people who despised these little fellows and might want to poison them. For several minutes I watched them carefully for any sign of movement but nothing happened. I began to yell at them. Neither stirred. I had to be sure they were dead, so I began throwing rocks high into the tree, eventually hitting one of them. Still, there was no movement. I had no doubts now, and as I walked home in the late winter sun my thoughts wandered from the happy-go-lucky raccoons to the unfeeling homeowner who had poisoned them. I was as furious as I was sad.
Back home again, I told my family of the macabre sight and everyone wanted to go see them. Down the trail we went until we reached a vantage point uphill to see into the treetop. "Where are they, dad?" asked my son. They were gone! The wind was blowing pretty good now and I thought perhaps the wind had blown the bodies down. I raced down the hill, knowing that at the base of the tree I would find the crumpled bodies of my raccoon brothers. "Where are they?" I asked myself. They weren't at the bottom of the tree either. Scanning the tree trunk, the answer came in a flash. I was elated! Here were the claw marks of two raccoons climbing back down the tree. The coons were fine and I, increasingly, began to feel like an idiot. How foolish I was! I had thought the worst of some people because of my ignorance. I hadn't yet learned that a warm sun in late winter is very tempting for animals to bask in after a long, cold season.
While they were no doubt snoring away, I was running around the base of the tree like a fool, screaming at the top of my lungs and throwing rocks. What a sight I must have been! I'm sure somewhere out there that day were two raccoons laughing hysterically and thinking what a grand time they had playing possum.
David Collins is the illustrator and editor of Virginia Tracking Association Quarterly Journal and the author of Locomotion and Tracks of Reptiles and Amphibians.
From In the Tracks of the Tracker
magazine, Winter-Spring 1994
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