Posted by: Rae | October 3, 2007

Animal kingdom

We share our neighborhoods with a variety of critters here in northern Michigan. Deer are of particular interest. Most of our workforce finds itself “sick and unable to work” or “attending the funeral of a close friend” on opening day of hunting season. Nearly all of the guys and a few of the women head off to “hunting camp,” which is what we call those grimy, primitive cabins where the gun-toting, hard-drinking carousers gather to do … well, something. Shoot guns and bows, among other things.

That’s not the whole story on deer, however. We live in perpetual dread of running into deer, or being run into by a deer, when we drive at night. We stare into the dark until our eyeballs feel like they’re going to pop out, exhorting our passengers to “shut up and help me watch for deer.” I hear that the deer come out at dusk and at night, and of course we know this must be true because almost every day, until hunting season begins in November, there are dead deer along the highway in the morning. When I moved here someone told me to watch for the glint of eyes as the deer were caught in the headlights, but I’ve seen many, and my experience to date has been that deer aren’t looking at us — they’re looking at the deer in front of them, or at the grass. So what you see, if you see anything, is the silouette of a deer as it crosses the road in front of you. You aren’t really sure whether you’ve seen anything (“was that a shadow?”) because there aren’t any lights on the road, of course, other than your headlights and the light from the stars, and if you’re really lucky, the moon. If you live in the city, you may not realize that some roads have no overhead lights, and you can actually see the stars if you look up. Anyway, at some point your deer detector kicks in, and you realize that the shadow was a deer, and there are likely to be more following, since they seem to queue up very well. So you slow down or stop to watch the graceful creatures bound across and breathe a sigh of relief.

My uncle Joe has lived his entire life in northern Michigan and had never hit a deer, but figured he was due, so he invested in a deer whistle, a gizmo that you mount on the front of your car to warn deer that you’re coming. The theory is that deer, being shy creatures, will hear the whistles and head in the opposite direction. Within a week he hit his first deer, which broke the whistle off the front of his car. Lousy luck! He had the car fixed and replaced the whistle because evidently there were more deer, and aggressive deer, about. A week later he hit another, breaking off his second whistle. This time he repaired the car, forgot about the whistle, and he hasn’t hit one since.

We have more than deer here, of course. Last week my mother, who lives an hour and a half north of here, was walking to the post office (yeah, she has to do that to get her mail) one morning. She was watching the ground for “interesting tracks,” and heard a noise, so she looked up. Twenty feet in front of her was a young bull moose. She stopped, he stopped, and they looked at each other for awhile. Then he continued on across the road.

We also have wild turkeys, and they cause quite a bit of trouble. They amble aimlessly in large groups, and can’t seem to make up their minds where they want to go. Across the road, no, back, no let’s stop here in the middle and look around for awhile. I understand why the Pilgrims had turkey at the first Thanksgiving — easy pickings. A slingshot would do it. Anyway, there’s no hurrying them. Honking your horn seems to confuse them more. So you sit and watch them until they all get off the road and you continue.

Last year must have been a great nut year, because we are overrun with black squirrels. Last month one of my cooks came in and told us that while he was outside smoking, a squirrel had jumped into the channel and swum across. But on the other side there was a wall, so he swam back, and kept swimming in circles looking for a way out. He went back out to check on him, and found the squirrel on the bottom step of a ladder, unable to get any higher, shivering and exhausted. So we mounted a rescue operation — we gathered pieces of cardboard and brooms and headed for the channel. Meanwhile Mr. Squirrel had apparently found another good Samaritan, because he was out. A couple of days later, my cousin told me a story about another squirrel she had observed jumping into the channel — different day, so not the same incident. According to our local newspaper, the Courier, squirrels were jumping into the channel in search of new territory and to impress potential mates. Not sure how anyone could know this, but it’s local color.

We love our animals here in Charlevoix. And we love it when people bring their dogs to the restaurant. We have doggie water dishes, and always stop to chat with them. Of course they have to sit outside.

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