illing uskrats By Kayt Zundel
Killing Muskrats Copyright 2012 by Kayt Zundel
he second daughter of three children, I usually got my sister’s hand-me-down clothes, toys and even hair ribbons. So in 1974, when I turned six I was ecstatic to receive something of my own. For my birthday mom handed me the smooth white end of kite string and told me to follow it to find my surprise. The string wound through the two bedrooms and one main room or our trailer house, down crooked wooden steps, around the juniper bush and to a blue Schwinn bike. I noticed right away that it wasn’t brand new. Small dents and dings pocked its paint where rust had crept in, changing the blue painted metal to a flaky orangish red in spots. But I didn’t mind much. I was just thrilled to have a bike of my own to ride. My dad explained how to balance and use the breaks. He led me to the gravel road that was the only way out of our culdesac. Holding my bike for me, Dad directed me toclimb on. Placing my feet on the pedals, I sat down on the seat. Dad pushed the back of the bike forward, the pedals turning quickly with the movement of the wheels, until the bike was going faster than he could run. “Just keep pedaling,” he hollered as he let go. Then I was riding the bike, headed down the road, feet pedaling fervently. Wind cooled my cheeks ruffling my short brown hair, as I soared down the quarter mile long road that led from our small white trailer to a black top road, where big brick houses stood in neat even rows.
I recognized some of my friends in the distance. They were playing near a tall oak tree whose branches spread wide, towering above and shading both the gravel andblack top roads. My dad was an arborist, and every time we passed trees he would make comments like: “Looks like beetles got that Lodge Pole Pine” or “I am surprised that Japanese Elm is so healthy.” Or in the case of oak tree he’d say, “That oak has too much dead wood, someone needs to remove it before a storm blows the branches down on someone”. As I approached my friends eager for their approval, I lifted one hand from the handle bar, waved and suddenly lost my balance. The bike veered wildly to the left. I couldn’t remember how to brake. I managed to straighten the bike and gain control just in time to crash face first into a tin mailbox, nailed to a wood post, that hung over the edge of the dirt packed road. Knocked from my bike, I landed on my back scraping my arms. Laying in the road, dizzy from hitting my head, Greg and Billy ran toward me laughing. Rolling to my knees I leapt to my feet and leaving my bike where it had landed in the gutter, I ran home.
ntering the yard, I limped up the crooked wooden steps leading to the front door of the trailer. Instead of going inside I sat quietly on the steps, head down, softly crying. Within a few minutes I heard the door open behind me, heard the stairs creak and saw Dad’s brown work boots appear next to me. Without a word, Dad sat next to me. Picking up my arms and turning them over Dad made great show of examining my scrapes. Then reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a tissue and wiped my nose where blood dripped down. “Looks like you had quite an accident,” Dad said, tossing the bloody tissue on the ground. “I crashed into a mailbox and my friends laughed at me,” I explained. “That happens sometimes,” he said softly. I sniffed loudly and stared at the watermelon vine curling along the ground to the right of the steps, growing from seeds Dad and I had spit there the summer before. “Well, sometimes kids can be mean. But, I’ll always be your friend,” He spoke in low, gentle tone. “In fact we’ll be special friends. If anyone makes fun of you or is unkind, just come talk to me.”
Nodding my head yes in answer, Dad patted my hand and said, “Let’s go get your bike.” True to his word, whenever I wanted to talk or needed help in some way, all I had to do was find Dad. He didn’t give me everything I wanted. But he would listen to me, joke around, talk with me and I’d usually feel better afterward. In 1981, when I was thirteen, our relationship began to change. By then, we had moved to a large six bedroom house in St. Anthony, Idaho. The family had grown and there were seven children, ages ranging from 15 to newborn. Because of all the kids, I was expected to take on more housework and seemingly endless baby sitting. Forced into my Mom’s world, I wanted desperately to escape. At thirteen things about Dad began to bother me. Like Dad’s rough, calloused hands and fingernails black with grime. Like the fact that he wore jeans that were too short revealing mismatched wool work socks and plaid shirts that were stained. He smelled of sweat and pine and rancid animal flesh. His jackets were often crusty from salmon eggs or animal guts. He always cleared his throat loudly and spit phlegm whether in a field or in a restaurant.
began to feel ashamed of Dad’s appearance, the way he smelled, of the noises he made, the jokes he told and especially of the dead animals in the back yard. I felt embarrassed when my friends said it was creepy to think that frozen, dead carcasses littered my backyard. I was humiliated when our neighbors, the Abbeglens, started calling on a weekly basis to complain about the dead carcasses. Yet, despite the embarrassment and shame I felt, I still missed Dad’s warped sense of humor, easy going conversation, and teasing. I missed his company. It seemed our times together were few. Dad was a hard worker and he would often leave for work before sunrise and return long after the sun was sleeping. There were many days during each week when I didn’t see him at all. When Dad wasn’t out working on tree jobs, he was either hunting for rabbit or sage hen, gone fishing for trout, trapping beaver and muskrat, or sequestered in a small, roughly hewn shed at the far corner of our property, skinning and stretching the furs of animals he trapped and killed. Trapping was one of my father’s favorite escapes. During one Thanksgiving break I was determined to go with Dad, to reconnect. My brother Robert, who was twelve, had been going trapping with Dad for the past two years. Every time I mentioned wanting to go Dad greeted me with a, “Oh you wouldn’t have any fun. Trapping is just cold and wet.”
ruthfully, I really didn’t like being cold or wet. Still, I detested the realm I had been moved into as a teenager, which consisted of endless housework and childcare, even more. Feeling I was more like my dad than my mom I wanted to spend time with Dad doing something that sounded exciting and more easy than domestic assignments. I believed that I could handle whatever my younger brother Robert could and probably do it better. Walking to my Dad’s skinning shed one evening, I shoved open the door and poked my head in. Blocking the opening of the door lay several dead, chocolate furred beaver, needing to be skinned. Hanging from the rafters above were hundreds of muskrat skins, turned inside out and stretched on metal frames to dry. Dad stood to the left, carefully scraping excess flesh off a beaver skin, nailed to a 4’4x4’ slab of plywood. “You going trapping tonight?” I asked, as the pungent odor of rancid flesh filled my nostrils. “I’ll probably check a few muskrat traps,” Dad shrugged as he flipped a piece of flesh from the blade of his knife onto a pile of animal guts threatening to spill over the side of a greasy looking cardboard box. “Come inside and shut the door. You’re letting the cold air in,” Dad ordered as he wiped the bloodied blade of a knife on his jeans.
I stepped inside carefully avoiding the fox skin, stretched inside out over a metal frame, the shape of a surfboard, which leaned against a barrel to the left of the door. Fox furs were often infested with fleas which had the tendency to hang around looking for anything warm blooded to glom on to after their host had been slain. Flea bites were worse than mosquito bites so avoiding infestation was my top priority. Pulling the shed door closed I began my pitch. “Dad, I want to go trapping with you tonight.” Dad continued fleshing the beaver skin, as if I hadn’t said a thing. “Dad, I said I want to go trapping tonight.” “Oh no you don’t, you’ll have no fun. You’ll just get cold and wet and be miserable.” “Maybe so, but don’t you think I deserve a chance to decide on my own? Is it because I am a girl that you won’t take me? Cause if it is, I would like to point out that I worked all last week skinning and stretching muskrat skins while Robert was gone to Uncle Brent’s.” I stepped toward Dad. “Yeah, and you ruined half a dozen good pelts by cutting holes in them while you were fleshing them,” Dad complained as he picked up a dead beaver by a front and back leg and swung it out of the way, making a path for me to come closer.
didn’t reply nor did I move closer, knowing what Dad said about my skinning was true. I didn’t like to skin and stretch animal skins, but I felt compelled by the need to keep up with my brother. It wasn’t an easy task to peel the fur from muskrats, which smelled putrid, turn the skin inside out, stretch it on a frame and then carefully cut away the extra flesh and fat that hadn’t pulled away with the carcass. It was a messy, rather disgusting job that I was paid no more than a quarter a skin, and nothing if I cut a hole in the fur. The shed was hot due to the make-shift fireplace in an old metal barrel. The building reeked of decaying flesh and the pungent musky smell of muskrats. Despite the stench, I caught a whiff of the scent Dad used to catch beaver. It was a concoction of beaver castors and mentholadum that Dad ground into a paste and applied to the beaver traps. It was then I noticed Mom’s Oster blender, standing on the floor of the shed next to the door full of a greenish brown sludge. “Does Mom know her blender is out here?” I asked suspiciously. “Nope, not yet,” he said with a shrug and sheepish smile. “I guess she won’t be too happy about that.” We both smiled, knowing that was an understatement. When Mom found out Dad had taken another one of her kitchen appliances to use in the shed, she would come unglued. Dad glanced at me with a flash of raised eye brows.
I shrugged, letting Dad know I wouldn’t say anything unless specifically asked. “Take me trapping tonight,” I repeated. “You really want to go that bad huh?” he asked with a half smile. I nodded as I could sense he was softening. “Go get some warm clothes on and meet me in the old blue Ford in fifteen minutes. If you’re there I will take you. If not I’ll assume you changed your mind,” Dad winked and went back to work. “I’m not going to change my mind,” I assured him as I turned to go. A half hour later, at dusk, we pulled down a dirt road that ran parallel to the Parker cemetery and bordered the Snake River and prime trapping area. “Come on,” dad ordered, as he undid the bolt he had installed to keep the truck door from swinging open while driving. After climbing out, I followed Dad down through brush, and to the river’s edge. “Wait there. Boats already down here,” he explained as he pulled on his hip waders, slipped thigh high into the icy cold water of the Snake River and waded swiftly out of sight.
tanding and shivering on the shore, I watched the headstone, less than six feet behind me, that appeared almost ghostly white in the dimming light. Minutes ticked by. I looked at the frozen puddles at my feet, studied the crystals that sparkled on top of ice caked mud and tried not to remember that there were dead human remains resting in the earth behind me. As the cold began to stretch its fingers inside the collar of my coat and up my pant legs, I shuddered. Where was he? The soft lapping of the water against the shore was all that I could hear. I listened intently, hoping to hear the sound of his boat gliding through water. I began to think about the silent step of mountain lions and how they occasionally came down from mountains this time of year and stalked farm animals and sometimes people. Although they were rarely ever seen, farmers occasionally reported live stock being attacked. Perhaps there was one eyeing me at this very moment, waiting to rip my arms from my body, sink its teeth into my jugular vein. Branches cracked nearby. All at once a shriek pierced the air, at the same time something grabbed me from behind. Screaming I staggered sideways, horrified but ready to die fighting. Instead of a cougar, Dad stumbled forward laughing. â€œYou suck!â€? I shouted, angry and then relieved, unable to repress a smile tha tugged at the corners of my lips. Dad continued to laugh, wiping tears from his eyes. Dad was always trying to startle his friends and family. Often he would wait behind doors or a hide round a corner for the right moment to shout, leap and grab some unsuspecting person. He found scaring people to be hysterically funny.
“Oh I really didn’t scare you that bad, did I?” he asked with a chuckle. “You got me a little,” I said and realized I should have expected this. “I got you more than just a little. Follow me, boats this way,” Dad started back into the willows he had only moments before, leapt out from. I sloshed after Dad as he led me through prickly bushes whose branches whipped my face, tangled in my hair, grabbed at my feet. Despite snow boots my feet were beginning to sting from the cold. Water seeped in through my boot seams, as I wadded through shallow puddles of half ice half water. Within five minutes we came to a small clearing along the river. Anchored to the shore by a bright yellow rope was Dad’s silver rowboat. Dad unhooked the rope and pulled the boat close to the bank. “Go ahead and climb in, I will hold it steady for you.” Starting toward the boat Dad directed me to pick up a big stick which lay on the ground near my feet. “Dad, why do we need the stick?” I asked as I obeyed. “Oh sometimes sticks come in handy for one reason or another. I usually try to keep one in the boat.” With the stick in hand, I climbed in the rear of the boat and sat down on a small built in bench, rusty traps piled beneath my feet. It wasn’t my first time in this boat.
Often, in the summer, my friends and I would take it to float the river. I knew to sit as still as possible, to keep the rocking to a minimum. Dad climbed in the front of the boat and balancing himself he shoved the oar against the river bank. Off we floated into ice cold waters in the near dark. “Where’s your flashlight Dad?” I asked, realizing it would be very dark soon. “Who needs one when you have a night sky so clear you can see all the stars and the moon?” he paused and then added, “Your eyes will adjust after you’ve been out here for a while.” Dad rowed until he came to a strand of orange flagging ribbon, tied to a dead snag on the edge of the river. Carefully he paddled the boat to the shore, where the brown grassed bank protruded slightly over the water. Stepping out of the boat and into the river, he plunged his arm down into the icy water and pulled up a trap. Hanging from it was a muskrat, about the size of a house cat, drowned. He tossed the trap and muskrat into the middle of the boat with a clank. I wasn’t really bothered by the dead muskrat. I was used to seeing dead things, and had all my life.
y childhood was full of plucking the green fluorescent feathers from dead mallard ducks, carefully saving real rabbit feet in zip lock bags, and examining all kinds of dead animal carcasses that littered the kitchen counter, filled the sink and were strewn round the backyard. The living room walls at home held numerous head of moose, deer, elk and antelope, pelts of wolverine, white weasel and mink. Prize sized salmon, steelhead, and trout hung on the walls frozen in life like poses as if leaping from the white plaster walls. And it wasn’t unusual for Dad to occasionally toss a few dead beaver in the bath tub, while trying to clear out a place in his shed to skin them. Of course that was only when Mom wasn’t there to stop him. The next trap was near a pile of rotting cattails. Dad reached down and pulled up a trap, empty but for the clawed foot of a muskrat. “Damn it, caught the muskrat by the back foot,” he complained as he shook his head in disgust and threw the trap and foot in the center of the boat. “I usually try to put the traps down low, anchor them to the bottom of the river and place then so the muskrat will get caught by the front foot, be held under and drowned.” Dad explained, “Looks like the lead wire holding the trap came loose so the muskrat was able to get its head above water and get enough breath to chew its back foot off.”
We continued floating forward the pile of dead, wet, muskrats in the center of the boat growing. A frosty breeze drifted across the water, leading cold to seep under my coat, numb my toes, freeze my face. Dad worked quickly and wordlessly, his jacket discarded, he seemed immune to the cold. I sat and watched. I found comfort in the steady sounds of sloshing water, clanking of traps, thumping of muskrats landing in a heap in the middle of the boat. I watched as mist rose in swirls on the river, seemed to stretch its long fingers toward me and then disappeared like smoke fading into air. I thought that it was hard to really appreciate the fun Dad found in floating the river at night, pulling dead things from murky water. But, I had asked to come and was determined not to complain. I sat at the back of the boat, still holding the stick I had picked up on shore, thinking of how I might need to use it to protect myself from something lurking just under the water. Turning its smooth barkless surface over and over in my hand, shivering I watched Dad. The boat glided forward slowly. ,Stopping every few yards so Dad would pull up traps, reset traps, remove dead muskrats from the steel jaws of his connibear traps. Connibear traps were steel spring traps that when triggered were supposed to capture and kill small animals. The problem was that unless the animal got caught
exactly right, the trap’s steel frame kept the animal alive and suffering in great pain. Some states had outlawed the use of the traps but not Idaho. I couldn’t help feeling sympathetic toward any animal that had its bones crushed, or its flesh torn in one of those traps. After about thirty minutes, we floated into a small cove like area. Huge trees growing along the bank, cast dark shadows created by moonlight, over water where we floated. The brightness of the moon dimmed in the shadows of the trees. But the shift in light didn’t slow my Dad. Without hesitation he moved near the bank, climbed into icy river, and reached down to pull up another trap by its lead chain. As he lifted the trap clear of the water, with a muskrat in tow, it began to move. Caught by its right back leg, the muskrat thrashed and jerked, trying frantically to escape. Dad held on to the lead chain firmly, slamming trap and muskrat into the bottom of the boat. “It’s alive,” I screamed as I moved as close to the back of the boat and as far away from it as I could. “Shut up and use the stick,” Dad shouted. I held the stick like a baseball bat in both hands. “Now hit it on the head!” Dad commanded. “What?” I asked startled.
“Hit the muskrat on the head,” he repeated. “I can’t,” the words squeaked out as I pressed the stick to my chest. “Here,” Dad hollered as he lunged toward me, the boat rocking wildly, as he attempted to thrust the lead chain that usually secured the trap to its position into my hand. There was no way I was going to hold the end of a chain that was connected to a trap, which was connected to the live orange teethed muskrat. “Fine, I’ll do it!” Dad exclaimed in disgust as he threw down the muskrat and trap and wrenched the stick from my hands. Stunned, I watched as the muskrat momentarily stilled, its eyes appearing to gleam white in a beam of moonlight that cut through the shadows, looking threatening yet pitiful at the same time. Whack…the stick smacked the muskrat’s head, its body thrashed wildly… whack…another strike to the head and the muskrat went limp. Dad leaned over, bent the muskrat’s head back toward the tail until a small crack sounded and releasing it from the trap added it to his bounty. “Is it dead?” my voice was a loud whisper across quiet water. “Yeah, no thanks to you.”
“I want to go home.” “Well, the river’s starting to freeze over. I’d like to check a few more traps. Law says you can’t leave traps unchecked for more than twenty four hours. I am about past that time frame.” Dad muttered as he climbed in the boat, sat down, and began rowing toward a bare patch of land where river and solid ground met. “Not what you expected?” he continued. “You didn’t tell me that some of the muskrats are alive or that you smash their heads in.” “Actually, I anchor the traps under the water, right at the point of entry to their tunnels which go up under the banks. Usually they drown. Occasionally, I get a live one. What kills them isn’t the thump on the head; I just rap them on the heads to knock ‘em out. Breaking their backs is what does it.” I shuddered; it was so strange to hear this person I loved, talking about killing living creatures, cracking there backs, smashing their lives as if they were pesky mosquitoes. “Don’t you feel bad when you kill them?” I asked, desperately hoping to find the kind caring father within the words of this matter of fact stranger.
“Muskrats don’t bother me. They are pests to most of the farmers around here; they damage the irrigation canals and systems. What troubles me are the raccoons.” The boat bumped softly against the river bank. Climbing out of the boat Dad pulled it toward shore as he continued to talk. “Raccoons. Raccoons die hard,” Dad shook his head. “What do you mean?” “Oh they cry and moan and yowl and thrash around. It takes more than one hit to kill a raccoon. They fight back and I can’t just break their backs. Their eyes are intelligent; they pierce a man to the soul.” Dad put his rough calloused hand out and helped me climb from the boat. “It is a difficult task to face,” he continued “but what am I supposed to do? Leave them unable to move, to suffer and starve? I usually carry a gun with me, makes the dying quicker.” Dad handed me the rope tied to the boat. “Hold on to this. I am going to shove it from behind. You just lift up the front of the boat a little. We’ll get it on shore and we’ll walk back up the road to get the truck. Getting too cold to stay out any later tonight. Besides I think you’ve had enough.”
s I lifted the front of the boat Dad shoved it forward. Once the boat was on shore, we walked down a dirt road toward the cemetery parking lot. “Why do you do it?” I asked. “Why do you kill animals? How can that be fun?” “Well, I guess it is the hunter-gatherer in me. You know it says in the bible that God put creatures here for our use. It’s good money and taking care of seven children is expensive. Anyway, I like coming out here, getting away from it all. I’ve always been a loner that way. There is nothing nicer than the moon, the stars, and the stillness. Gives a man time to think. ” That night I realized that I was different from my Dad. I could never be part of his hunting and trapping world because the actual killing of living animals was abhorrant to me. I couldn’t approve of it and seeing Dad kill that muskrat made me realize that our worlds, the things we loved to do, were more different than I thought. Seeing things already dead was not the same as participating or witnessing killing. I felt too deeply sympathetic for the animals to ever kill them for their skins, or flesh. Although I was not and still am not, opposed to eating a juicy elk or deer steak, sagehen, or freshly fried rabbit legs seasoned thickly with black pepper. Just as long as I don’t have to be a part of the killing.
ow, as an adult with a thirteen year old daughter, I think I understand myself better. I watch my daughter struggle with embarrassment when she is around me, shushing me when I laugh too loud, act too silly, dress in mismatched clothes or drive her to school in my pajamas. I see myself in my daughter; she is like me but not me. I let her know that I am there for her but realize the path she follows in life is her own. The path I follow is my own. It is made up of pieces of my past and I am reminded of the things Dad taught me and am grateful that he never expected me to be just like him. Dad continues to be there for me. I no longer mind his stained clothes or rough hands and although Iâ€™m still grossed out by his public phlegm spitting, I realize he is who he is, and love him. I am like my Dad in that I care deeply for my children. I work hard to make their lives better. I enjoy a good joke or even find myself occasionally leaping out from behind a door or around a corner with a loud roar to startle my friends and family. I even think it is hysterically funny. Dad and I talked on phone occasionally and see each other once a year. But no matter the length of time that passes between our chats,we are comfortable speaking honestly and openly about things. Even now when I have a really bad day or hit hard times, Dad reminds me of the time I ran face first into the mailbox and is sure to let me know he loves me and that he will always be my special friend.
Photo Credits: Microsoft Clip Art: pages 3,8,12,18 Stock Photos: pages 13,21 Personal Photos by Kayt Zundel: pages 24,28