© 2001 by K Pelle

I'm certain that almost anyone in North America has met, seen, or at least smelled that malodorous member of the weasel family, the common skunk.  Although they are a shy animal, they do have a rather distinct odour, and once you have smelled that scent, you'll never forget it.  Actually though, there are five distinct versions of the skunk living in North America, the one I am most familiar with is the common striped skunk.  That branch of the skunk family happens to be quite commonplace on the Canadian prairies, at least in Alberta.

When I was growing up I seemed to be one of those people who not only smelled skunks quite often, but also saw and even hunted the little pests if they broke into our chicken coop and killed any of our chickens.  In all those years I have never once been sprayed, touch wood.  But then, there were many other cases where I or some close member of my family interacted in some way with skunks and my family members weren't always as lucky as I was.  In fact I suppose you could say that my family's interaction with skunks really started not long before I was born, in other words, during the depression years.  Those were the years when the weather was so dry and the winds were so harsh that the soil in our area of the prairies was ground into dust, which blew freely between one farm and the next, but money didn't move freely at all.

However during those years there was still a bounty on certain animals, so the government would pay you a small amount if you provided them with proof that you had killed one of the 'pests' on their list of 'nuisance' animals.  You see at that time farmers were still trying to 'tame the wild prairie' and no one had any thoughts about the 'balance of nature,' so wolves, coyotes, weasels, and skunks were considered to be pests.  (In fact if I remember correctly even a gopher's tail or a pair of crow's feet was worth a nickle or a dime until sometime in the 1950s – at that time you could buy a bottle of coke or a chocolate bar for a nickle, and a comic book or a scoop of ice-cream for a dime.)  As well as that there were still a few fur buyers around, if you knew where to look for them, and they paid much more than the bounty for any prime furs.  So during the depression years, my older brothers became amateur hunters and trappers, with the thought of making a few extra dollars running through their young minds.

Now along about the same time, my mother was raising a few chickens, just so the family would have eggs for breakfast and an occasional chicken dinner.  One morning though, she went out to gather the eggs and found trouble instead.  A gapping hole in the floor, torn through a rotten board, several dead birds laying around and the overpowering scent of skunk in the building were all the clues she needed to make a positive identification of the guilty party.  Needless to say, Mom was on the warpath, but since her two oldest sons were now calling themselves fur trappers, she gave them the job of getting rid of the varmint.

Now if my aunt hadn't chosen that week to deliver a baby, and if Mom hadn't had to go help out, things might have ended much differently.  However Mom and my Aunt were very close and often helped each other out during difficult times, so she went to spend a few days at my aunt's house in a local town.  Since Dad and one brother worked in a coal mine during the week and one sister was off to town to school, that left only one sister and one older brother at home to look after the farm.  Before she left though, Mom made sure to mention that my brother was to get rid of that skunk, not that she needed to tell him to do that, Carl was quite willing to do any sort of hunting.

So my teenaged brother tried waiting in hiding for two days, hoping the skunk would come around during daylight hours so he could shoot it with a .22 rifle.  At the same time though he set a snare at the entrance of the hole that it had dug under the chicken coop.  One way or another, he was going to get that skunk.  When he approached the chicken coop on the third morning, he knew the snare had worked because he could smell the skunk long before he got there.  After all, when a skunk is trying to escape, he's going to try to use every weapon he has to get free and other than his teeth or claws, the only weapon he has is his spray.  Needless to say, the whole area around the chicken coop reeked of skunk.

Now except for the fact that Carl had come across an advertisement by a fur buyer in the "Western Producer" the night before, things might have been different.  Unfortunately he was tempted by the unholy dollar, or in this case five dollars, because that's what the fur buyer offered for a 'prime' winter skunk pelt.  Hey, it was December, my family lived in Alberta and the skunk had a heavy coat, which meant the skin was prime, so the temptation to make a quick five bucks was just too much to resist.  In the depression years, five bucks was a lot of money even though he'd have to share part of it with the family, so his mind was made up.  He had to find a way to skin and ship that skunk pelt, and he had to act fast, because if he didn't skin the skunk soon it would freeze solid, then it would be a lot harder to work on.  In case you're wondering, it was cold that day, really cold.  In fact it was nearly forty below zero on the old Fahrenheit scale (which coincidentally is about minus forty degrees Celsius).

Being a farm boy he had a quick and dirty, but very risky solution, Carl decided that he'd skin the skunk somewhere warm, preferably on the kitchen table.  However once my older sister got a sniff of his prize she chased him out the door, swinging the broom at him to get her point across.  No one was going to bring any darn skunk inside the kitchen while she was in charge of keeping house.

So, my brother took the dead skunk out to the barn and hung it there so it wouldn't freeze, but even the cows and horses didn't seem too happy about that.  Carl was left with a conundrum, our sister wouldn't let him skin the skunk in the house and now the animals were raising cane about it being in the barn, which was really the only other warm building on the farm.  Well, the pump house was kept a little warmer, but only because of the heater in the water tank for the cattle, but even that was barely kept above freezing.

Then fate stepped into the picture, one of the neighbours needed a helping hand and came to ask my sister if she could come over to help them out for a few hours.  Needless to say in our family if a neighbour asked for help, you did your best to accomodate them, but before she left my sister warned my brother not to do anything stupid.   Carl, ever the opportunist, didn't feel it was stupid to earn a quick five bucks though.  Instead he saw a chance to get that little skinning job done while she was out, after all he knew how to do the job quickly, so he thought he could skin the animal and she would never be any the wiser.  So as my sister rode away in the neighbour's car, my brother was already hurrying out to bring the skunk from the barn and into the kitchen of the house.

Since he'd been handling the skin for some time, he'd become somewhat inured to the odour, and he didn't realize just how badly it stank.  In moments the skunk was lying on old newspapers that he'd spread on the kitchen table and he was busily skinning it out.  Unfortunately he ignored the fact that the odour of a skunk transfers extremely easily.  By handling the skunk he was picking up the scent on his clothing and his skin, so it wasn't just transfering to his hands, but it also transferred to anything he touched.  Soon the smell was distributed throughout the kitchen.  The smell was on the kitchen door knob, the backs of the chairs that he moved away from the table, the handles of the knives he used, and so on.  That stench was even seeping through the slightly porous newspapers and as a result, it also contaminated the wooden table top.

Since he'd grown accustomed to it, he didn't notice the somewhat diminished odours, so my brother finished his skinning job and cleaned up his mess.  He washed the table with strong smelling soap and burned the used newspapers in the kitchen stove, then slipped outside with his trophy, convinced that he'd hidden his malodorous activities.  He even buried the denuded carcass in the manure pile.  Then even though he was somewhat accustomed to its odour, he knew that the skunk skin still smelled and knew he should try to reduce that odour before he tried to mail it off to the fur buyer.  So he tacked the skin up on the wall of one of the granaries to scrape and stretch it, hoping that the stench it exuded would be reduced by exposure to the cold wind.

Needless to say, my sister was not impressed when she came back to the house in time to make lunch.  Instead she absolutely furious, so she handed Carl a sandwich and told him to go eat in the pump-house, which other than the barn, was the only other building on the farm that was warm.  In fact, she warned Carl that if he couldn't get rid of the smell on his hands and his clothes, he'd be sleeping in either the pump-house or the barn that night.

While he was eating his lunch in the stuffy little pump-house he decided that since he had to try to clean up anyway, he should probably finish handling that skunk pelt beforehand.  So after he'd eaten, he went back to the granary and pulled out the shingle nails he'd used to tack the skin to the wall.  Unfortunately, there was another small problem; during the time it had hung outside the pelt had frozen solid and since it was still uncured, it was as stiff as a board.  Considering how big it was when it was flattened out, he couldn't see any way to package it in order to ship it to the fur buyer.  It was going to have to be thawed and folded into a smaller sized package, but at least in it's frozen state it didn't smell as badly as before.

Unfortunately he had to thaw that dang pelt to fold it and the only way he could think of doing that quickly was to use warm water.  So he managed to thaw the pelt by pouring warm water over it, but now it stank to high heaven once more and on top of that it was also soaking wet.  Hoping to get rid of most of the water, he went to the woodpile, got a round log that was fairly smooth and after laying the pelt on the flat top of the big chopping block, he rolled the log back and forth over it.  Next he went to the house and asked my sister to find a shoe box, some waxed paper and some wrapping paper, then took the skin back to the barn where he folded it as best he could.  Once it was folded, he wrapped it in waxed paper before forcing it into the shoe box, then wrapped that in brown paper.

Eventually Carl managed to get the skin packaged, but he still had the problem of shipping to contend with.  Now in those days, mail delivery on the rural route past the family farm was every Tuesday and Friday.  Since Mom was coming home on Saturday, Carl was down at our mailbox on Friday morning to meet the postman and sent the package off with him.  Now when he handed it over, the package had been sitting outside and was frozen solid.  Then since the back of the postman's van was unheated, the package stayed frozen as made his rounds and even for some time after it was unloaded at the post-office late that evening.

Now I know you realize that's not the end of the story, but I have to take the time to tell you that when Mom came home the next morning she could smell skunk everywhere she went.  The front step and the front door smelled of skunk.  Her kitchen and even her kitchen table reeked of skunk.  Her son stank of skunk.  The chicken coop smelled of skunk and so did the pumphouse.  The barn had the slight odour of skunk and even the woodpile had a whiff of the selfsame stench.  Mother was a very unhappy woman and needless to say Carl was in the doghouse, only we didn't have one of those since the dog slept in the barn.  So until he'd bathed several times and no longer reeked, my brother slept in the hayloft of the barn, using horse blankets to keep warm.  Having to live on a farm that reeked of skunk and a mother who was angry with him wasn't the worst part of the situation for Carl though, that came later.

When the postmaster opened the post-office door on Saturday morning and was greeted by the rank miasma of a thawed and dripping wet package that reeked of skunk, he read the return address.  Then using a pair of old gloves that he could discard, he set the package outside to freeze once more.  Now my family didn't have a telephone, so he couldn't phone my brother to tell him that his package could not be accepted in its present condition.  However, the postmaster did know where my father worked, so he phoned the mine and demanded to talk to Dad.

The manager of the mine took the call and had to send the foreman down the shaft to get Dad so he could call the postmaster back.  By the time the post-master talked to Dad, he'd had to put up with several people who had stopped by to pick up mail and had fielded multiple complaints about the odour.  Needless to say he was not in a good mood and he passed that mood on to my father.  Dad had to take time off to drive to the post-office and pick up the package, then drive back to the mine.  Unfortunately he had to put the package inside the car and although it had been partially frozen when he had picked it up, by the time he got to the mine it was starting to thaw and smell again.  That odour in his car didn't help Dad's mood either.

Dad lost almost three hours wages that day, and although he was slow to anger, he certainly wasn't happy when he headed home that night.  For several months my brother had extra work and other punishments because of his actions, but I think the worst punishments came from the kidding he received over the years.  You see Carl never did live down the story of how he shut down the town's post office for a week while the postmaster had the whole place aired out, scrubbed down and completely repainted to kill off the odour.

And the skunk pelt?  Well, the mine had a steam engine which powered the winch that lifted and lowered the main hoist and of course that engine needed a boiler to supply steam.  Normally that boiler was heated by burning coal, but that morning, part of the heat was provide by the burning hide of one dead skunk.