I have said many times that I felt destined to spend the rest of my life trying to re-create the experience we had living at the lake house. Living close to the wildlife, following the patterns of light and dark, the cycles of the moon, the seasons and the weather and getting to know our wild neighbors, their patterns, territories, and watching them raise their young — it was as if the only reality was life at the lake. But of course we had a business to run, bills to pay, clients to satisfy and a really large property and cabin to care for and keep up.
Somehow it all blended together, we made it work, we fit in as best we could, and consciously determined to observe and appreciate rather than encroach and threaten. The lake mellowed us, and it was easy at times to take it all for granted– that it would all be there, forever, and we would be there as well.
And sometimes things just happened that demanded attention, reminding us that there may be a price to pay for the serenity of this place, and what we viewed as a bucolic existence.
On the plus side, we got to know the locals pretty well. We could tell the section of the lake where our closest Southern Bald Eagle pair claimed their fishing rights, and we would watch for hours as they battled Ospreys in mid-air out over the fishing grounds. We knew where the invisible dividing line was between the territory of the big ‘gator that lived south of our dock, and the much smaller ‘gator that hung out on the north side of our dock. We kept track of momma otter after she had three kits, and tried to sneak up close enough for a really good photo, but she’d always shoo them off before we could get close enough.
Sometimes a big, ugly leathery Alligator snapping turtle would haul herself up on the lawn on a warm Spring morning, dig a nest in the sandy soil and deposit her eggs. We’d sip our coffee and watch, and even take a photo or capture some video. Including the morning that the raccoon came out of the woods, glanced at the turtle who was making her way back down to the lake, then promptly raided the nest. The eggs hadn’t been in the ground five minutes before they were being gobbled up.
“So much for the theory that ‘coons are nocturnal,” Anni wryly observed.
Then there was one summer afternoon, late in the day with rain threatening, the wind picking up and starting to blow palm fronds and Spanish moss from the trees. From down at the lake came a penetrating scream that had Anni and I flying out the back porch, the screen door slamming behind us as we snatched up broom sticks and ran down the lawn toward the sound.
We had no idea what was being attacked. Hansel and Gretel were up front near the barn, so they were OK. Maybe it was Sneaker the cat, or perhaps a wild critter. We were reacting to a soul-wrenching cry — you’d run too, if you heard it.
The screams got louder as we came to the concrete goose pond that Anni had built, and the little creek that flowed behind it through swampland at the edge of the lake. Peering through the wire fence of the property line, we tried to locate the source of the sounds. Past the fence the swamp took over, and as we stared at the greenery thrashing about, we both spotted the attack at the same time.
A large male raccoon had a small, young raccoon pinned down on a log and was viciously biting and tearing at the baby, who was screaming and writhing about, trying to get away. But the adult raccoon was easily two to three times the size of the baby, and it was no contest.
We both started screaming at the raccoon, and as Anni cast about for something to throw at the ‘coon, it just looked at us as it held the baby pinned beneath a heavy paw. The baby’s upper half was just out of the water and as it struggled I could see that it was losing what little purchase it had on the log.
We kept yelling and finally threw our broomsticks at the ‘coon, but it was too far away. We stood helpless as we watched the adult raccoon tear at the baby and finally the baby slipped off the side of the log and we lost sight of it.
The big ‘coon looked back over its shoulder at us briefly and then loped off into the woods. We stood, helpless– dumbstruck and saddened.
We agreed there was nothing we could do– the water was too deep, there was no way we’d get over that fence without getting seriously injured or cut by the rusty razor wire. We’d have to enter the lake, wade through heaven-knows-what dangers in wind-whipped shallows, and there was no guarantee we’d find the baby, even if we could figure out how to get back into that swampy area from the lake.
About that time the thunder and a slashing rain signaled we needed to get indoors.
Every time we experienced one of these events, we’d talk about it, try to learn from it, try to figure out if there was any way we had caused a situation or what we could do in the future to avoid it– but the fact was, these things happened. The tree fell in the forest and we were there to hear it so yes, it really did happen.
Another time we were unpacking groceries from the car after a long day at work. It was just about dusk, and as we came into the cabin and started putting groceries away, we heard what sounded like a pack of dogs fighting in the back yard, down near the lake.
Once again we were on the run, dropping groceries, snatching up broom sticks, flying out the rear screen door with a “Bang!” and racing down the lawn.
We could see two or three dogs fighting furiously at the base of an old tree. The violence of their movements made it difficult to tell what was going on, but right away I could see that one of the dogs was our neighbor Jack’s “Lucky”, a most placid pet. What the hell would get her so riled up? My brain went right to…
“Rabies!” Anni yelled, as she came to an abrupt halt some 40 feet from the fracas. “They may be fighting a rabid animal! Run back and get the shotgun–and get a flashlight! NOW!”
I didn’t hesitate, I hauled ass back to the cabin, figuring Anni had enough sense to keep her distance. Somehow I grabbed the shotgun, a handful of buckshot shells, a flashlight, and raced back outside and down the lawn.
By now it was dark enough that I couldn’t make out who was who. Anni grabbed the flashlight from me, yelled “Is it loaded?” and as I chambered a round, she edged closer to the tumbling, snarling mix of bodies.
“I’m pretty sure the dogs have cornered a ‘coon at the base of that old tree!” Anni explained.
I couldn’t see any raccoon. “Where is the ‘coon?” I yelled above the din.
Then things got real slow, or real fast, I was never sure. Somehow Jack was there, yelling at his dog and telling me “Don’t shoot until I have Lucky out of the way!” while Anni was yelling “Get closer and get ready to shoot the ‘coon, its back is broken.”
“Don’t hit any of the dogs!” Jack yelled as he struggled to use Lucky’s collar to pull her back from the fray.
One of the remaining two dogs screamed, jumped back and ran off into the woods. The other one ran when Anni whacked it with her broomstick. Then, in the flashlight beam I could clearly see the open, bloody jaws and mangled face of a large raccoon. The thing was breathing hard and fast, snarling and growling and crying, and I stood there, unsure what to do next.
Anni said, in a surprisingly calm tone, “It’s done for, Lynn. They broke its back. You need to shoot it.”
“What do you mean?” I remember Anni sounding impatient, which somehow kicked me out of my confusion.
I explained that I couldn’t see where it had a broken back, and both Anni and Jack assured me the ‘coon was a torn up mess. They’d seen it as it had dragged itself into the hole among the roots of the tree, using its front paws and dragging its rear legs.
Jack offered to shoot the ‘coon if one of us would hold Lucky, and I took him up on the offer. No sooner than I had Lucky in a firm grip, I heard “Bang!” followed a few seconds later with another “Bang!”
“Well, that sure did it,” Jack said, sadly. He handed me back the weapon and I turned Lucky over to him.
The next day or maybe that night, I really don’t recall, Jack and Anni buried the ‘coon right where it ended up. They covered it with a lot of lime and soil and then stacked big limestone rocks to keep animals (“Those damn dogs!” as Jack said) from digging up the remains.
It was a sad, traumatic event. Dogs will be dogs and ‘coons will be ‘coons and when they mix, neither walk away unharmed.
I guess Jack and Anni and I talked about that event quite a bit, and the conclusion was that folks with dogs need to keep them fenced in and on their property: which was an absurd notion, considering we were living out in the Forest, where everyone kept dogs, and where bears and coyotes and ‘gators and ‘coons and all manner of critters lived, and unless people were just going to go away and never live on the shores of a big lake in the Forest, we weren’t going to solve the issue between the three of us.
We did agree that it was a good thing to keep firearms, ammo, flashlights and broom sticks handy and to learn to act quickly and decisively.