Of dollars and scents
The Muskrat Skinner's Wife
“You better explain this,” said the muskrat skinner’s wife to the muskrat skinner himself. “My readers don’t believe you ever were a trapper, let alone one who could skin a muskrat in 60 seconds. They think it’s a joke.”
“Well, now, we’ll see about that,” Bill Gleasner said.
And so it was on a summer night, with our toes cooling in the warm waters of Lake Norman, against a chorus of cicadas, the muskrat skinner told us a tale from his long ago trapping days.
The muskrat skinner’s story:
It was icy cold. So cold my breath created small clouds. The banks of Tonawanda Creek were frozen solid. The radio claimed it was 4 degrees. But out there on the creek it was, I bet, hovering around zero.
What does it take to rouse a 13-year-old boy from his warm bed at 4:15 a.m.? Thirty-four traps awaiting inspection and a need for Christmas gift money did it for me. I would have been even more reluctant to get up had I known that the events of that particular morning would be forever sandblasted on my memory.
Like so many other mornings I set out to stalk the banks of Tonawanda Creek, seeking my fortune at the average rate of $2.50 per skin. My equipment was simple – a flashlight and a bag of chicken heads to bait the traps. I was still too young to legally carry a gun. So, as wiser men before me had advocated, I carried a big stick.
The outside world seemed so tightly frozen as to be on the verge of shattering. The air sparkled. The glaze of ice over dry snow tried to support my weight but couldn’t do it. The cracking ice splintered the stillness. At that time of the morning my territorial claims to the creek near my home in western New York were undisputed.
I found one muskrat in my second trap – and yes, later on, I skinned it in less than 60 seconds.
The third trap held my destiny for the day: a beautiful almost-all-black skunk with a tiny white mark on the head. With so little white, it would bring at least $3.75.
The skunk was trapped firmly by the foot. Now all I had to was to kill him with the stick. But it was under a mass of tangled grape vines which meant my blows would be worthless. The only way was to first extract it from the ground cover.
This skunk didn’t enjoy being pulled by the foot any more than he enjoyed being trapped. I pulled at him twice. The third time, he lowered his head and let me have it. I felt the full force of the odor.
I was encapsulated in the yellow spray of the skunk. I’d answered the call of the wild, paid the penalty and been rewarded with the prize. It would have been a good feeling had I been able to breathe.
I tromped home with my trophy stopping only to sling my jacket and outer clothing on the grape arbor behind the house where they were to remain for the next four months. Our garage was attached to the house so it was relatively warm. I shed my long underwear there.
The tour of my traps had taken longer than usual. I would have to hurry to get ready for school on time.
I remember thinking that there must be easier ways to make a few extra dollars. But I was consoled by other thoughts. I would now have enough money to get my father a really nice Christmas gift.
As I climbed the stairs, I could hear the familiar sound of my father’s electric razor, followed by the unfamiliar sound of violent retching. Dad staggered from the bathroom, eyes afire.
Instantly, I realized what had happened. I made it to the garage in record time. Never again would I toss my skunk-soaked underwear near the intake for the furnace.
Ah, the joys of trapping. I’m here to tell you it was no joke.
Diana and photographer Bill Gleasner have lived in Denver for more than 30 years. In addition to travel journalism, they have written and published two books on the Lake Norman area, “Lake Norman – Our Inland Sea” and “Lake Norman Reflections.”