Ground squirrels aren’t chipmunks

Michael Raffety


Reader Bruce Long of El Dorado Hills sent me an essay from the Marin Independent Journal that was published in the 1980s. Bruce moved here from there and likes getting the Mountain Democrat in the mail.

It’s a nice sketch about someone who has a summer cabin along the South Fork of the American River. It talks about fishing, August thunderstorms and trout breakfasts. Since I don’t know the author and can’t reprint it without permission, I’ll touch on some of the similar subjects as I personally know them.

I haven’t gone trout fishing since our family left Montana for California, though I did troll for salmon when I kayaked from Vancouver, B.C., to Ketchikan, Alaska. Salmon baked over hot coals is fantastic.

The best fish breakfast I had is when my grandmother sent me to a dude ranch in the Blue Mountains of Eastern Oregon. I was 16. I got there early and spent the time riding with the ranch owner who had a contract to clear trails for the Forest Service. I helped him move logs and clean up the trails. He had a little mountain cabin in a meadow perched right by a small stream that was teeming with little trout. They were bite-size but not legal-size. Nevertheless, I quickly caught a dozen. They were small enough that one only needed to gut them and cut off their heads. No deboning was necessary. We just popped them in the frying pan with bacon grease and then ate them. Because of their small size, the bones just made them a little crunchy, but posed no danger. Your might say we ate the evidence.

At our house, summer is barbecue time. The only meal cooked inside is breakfast. Fall is barbecue time also. When it gets dark and cold I turn on the deck floodlights and bring up a propane space heater. This year I’m going to add my painter’s floodlights so I can see what I’m barbecuing, since it’s backlit by the deck floodlights. The only thing that ends barbecue season is winter rains. Snow is also a motivator to move dinner cooking inside.

The essay from the Marin Independent ended by writing about a chipmunk cleaning mud off its face after the August thunder shower, “dipping a claw into the dirty water and shaking its fur like a dog after a bath. It was time to roll up the porch furniture and head back to reality.”

Everyone can agree chipmunks with their brown fur and white stripes are cute. At our place the reality is a little different. Ground squirrels are not chipmunks. They have invaded, creating burrows all over. They have just about killed one tall oak tree. Its bark is peeling off and the number of green branches are less and less each year. They also can chew up some fruit trees. Needless to say, there is a constant battle going on between these invaders and me. I never had ground squirrels until about three years ago. Gophers were my main nemesis, with moles coming in second.

The pickings are so good that my neighbor’s cat, to his annoyance, spends more time stalking around our property than his.

There are at least a couple of king snakes around our property, but no rattlesnakes. The king snakes have their work cut out for them exploring gopher holes and ground squirrel burrows. From what I have seen, they’re falling down on the job. Having seen the king snakes several times while whacking weeds I would say they’re spending too much time goofing off above ground and not getting underground to do their job.

Once my son and I dug out an area where we were going to pour cement for a foundation for a piece of outdoor metal sculpture. After digging down about 2 or 3 feet between some boulders we were surprised to have uncovered two young king snakes, who suddenly popped out of the dirt and slithered off. There was no entrance hole indicating the presence of anything. It was a startling discovery.

Once I had a plumber come work on my irrigation manifold system. A big king snake was stretched out across our walkway sunning himself. I just walked over him several times, but the plumber was reluctant about stepping over the sleeping snake. Eventually it moved on out and I got the plumbing work done.

That was the only time I saw a king snake that wasn’t zipping off in the opposite direction from me. That’s an instinct I appreciate. I like the work they do with the gophers and moles. I’m like the plumber. I don’t want to step over them unless they are in the way and not moving at all. If they are moving I am not going to be the man who “dances with snakes.”


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