The critters were already there when my wife and I built our house on Smith Mountain Lake in southern Virginia in 1992. Back then the lake was not so crowded, a true mountain lake. We were looking forward to living in the middle of nowhere with all the squirrels, deer, birds and even the snakes. We had no idea what we were getting into.
It seemed that over the years, each animal species took its turn at trying to get rid of those pesky humans. I can’t really blame them, as the critters were there first. The snakes came at us first. We had just finished the house, and I sat on the deck relaxing. Looking down at the lakeside lot, I saw two brazen black snakes slither down the path towards the lake together, clearly hunting. It appeared that this was their evening routine. The lot at that time provided a veritable smorgasbord of frogs and lizards.
My two young daughters were sitting with me on the deck, and they and my wife encouraged old dad to dispatch these dangerous reptiles. Being the hunter, gatherer, protector and professional pharmacologist, I grabbed a shovel and gave chase. Those critters were a lot smarter than I would have guessed. They split up, and one of them headed for the trees. While I was in pursuit, the other one circled back and started moving in behind me.
My wife yelled from the deck, “Honey, you might want to turn around.”
When I took her advice, I saw the second black snake, a six-footer, sneaking up behind me. To this day I am not sure of its intentions, as black snakes are not known to be particularly aggressive. However, when the critter continued moving in my direction, the hunter-gather-protector abandoned me in favor of the pharmacologist, and I fled back onto the deck. Snakes one, pharmacologist 0.
That next week at the advice of an old farmer friend from church, I procured a .22 pistol and some snake shot. My friend advised me against killing black snakes, because they keep away rodents and other poisonous snakes. So, I left the black snakes alone. Over the years, I did dispatch several copperheads and a number of rather aggressive water snakes that threatened the girls while swimming off the dock. As the lake got busier and busier, sadly the snakes seemed to disappear for the most part.
The worst of the critters to deal with were the squirrels. You wouldn’t think that such a small critter could cause so much harm, but not so much. We had several serious squirrel encounters, including one straight out of the Twilight Zone.
The first squirrel incident began when my wife and I took our tritoon boat for a ride out to the big water. We puttered up our cove, and half way to our destination the outboard Honda engine died and refused to restart. I finally thought to check the gas tank, a large plastic tank located under a cover at the back of the boat. When I lifted the cover, I discovered that a squirrel had built a nest in the chamber where the gas tank was located, the critter had also chewed through the gas line and rudely left it dangling in the air.
It took me a while, but I eventually managed to jury rig the gas line sufficiently to get us home. We solved this problem by using wood to block all the possible entryways to the chamber that held the gas tank. Then we poured a large amount of crushed red pepper into the chamber around the plastic tank, to further discourage the critters from returning. This approach worked, and we won this round with nature.
The squirrels weren’t done with us yet. A few years later, we owned a Honda Fit that we had bought for one of our daughters. When my wife took it to the shop for routine maintenance, the mechanic pointed out that 1) one of the brake lines had been chewed partway through and 2) there was a squirrels nest in the engine air filter. He said we were lucky the brakes hadn’t failed.
This occurred about the same time that our next door neighbors came for the weekend. They got into their pickup truck, that they left parked in the driveway, and started driving to the market. The wife smelled gas, they pulled over to check, and a squirrel had chewed through their gas line. Gasoline was dripping down onto the hot manifold, and they were lucky the whole thing didn’t go boom. It seemed that the squirrels had upped the seriousness of their attack to the level of “kill all humans.”
My neighbor and I both purchased BB guns and chased away a number of squirrels that wandered too near our vehicles. Eventually they got the idea, and as long as we remained vigilant we were able to keep these critters at bay.
The most bizarre squirrel event occurred one summer afternoon while I was working downstairs in my home office. I saw a couple of squirrels run by the sliding glass door and went outside to investigate. A single squirrel sat just outside the glass door on the gravel path, and when I walked outside toward him, he didn’t budge. This surprised me, as I’m six-foot-seven and he was not.
A more unpleasant surprise presented itself when herds of squirrels came running from both the front of the house and up the path from the lake. Pretty soon there were over thirty squirrels, congregated behind the original one. Once again the hunter-gatherer abandoned me, although I did stand there momentarily, trying to figure out how I’d inadvertently entered the Twilight Zone.
In one last desperate attempt at maintaining my dignity, I took a couple of threatening steps toward the horde of critters. Again, to my surprise the lead squirrel began walking towards me. The rest of the herd slowly followed. I fled inside the house, closed and locked the sliding glass door. The squirrel gang eventually broke up and went on their way.
After a couple of beers, I was able to stop shaking and go back to work. When my wife got home from work that evening, I told her of my sci-fi encounter. She just laughed and explained that one of the neighbors had recently started feeding the animals, and those squirrels were probably expecting me to provide them with a mid-afternoon snack. I was not amused.
Deer are beautiful creatures, big brown eyes, graceful in every way, and dangerous as hell on country roads. They also devour every plant in sight, apparently with the exception of rhododendrons.
Traveling on the country roads around the lake and into the nearest city involved the game that I liked to call ‘dodge the deer’, especially at dusk. My wife and I owned at least five different cars during the time that we lived there, and we bought our three daughters each a used vehicle when they were old enough to drive. I can honestly say that out of the eight cars, only two had never had an encounter with a deer. Both older daughters hit deer within two weeks of receiving their new/used cars.
The strangest encounter we had was while driving seventy mph on Route 29, when a deer somehow managed to crash into the front left fender of our Subaru Outback. To this day I can’t figure out how that critter managed to run into us when we were traveling at that speed, but he did.
That same new neighbor that fed the squirrels got the bright idea to feed the deer, actually illegal in southern Virginia during deer hunting season. One morning I got up early to go into town. At the top of the hill at the end of our cul-de-sac, I was forced to stop and wait for a total of twenty-seven deer to cross the road in front of me. I’m really glad deer aren’t particularly aggressive, because us humans were heavily outnumbered by those critters.
Then there were the birds. The worst of these were the Canadian geese that found the lake and flocked there by the thousands. Our neighbor (nobody liked that guy) insisted on feeding them as well. His next-door-neighbor told us that he placed food on his floating dock, and there was so much goose crap that he’d have to use a shovel to remove it, into the lake of course.
Unfortunately, those geese had to pass our dock to get to his, and as time passed more and more of them found our dock to be an appropriate place to…well…you get the picture. I spent several hours a week chasing geese off of our floating dock and scrubbing off the geese leavings. Yuck! Again, who’d a thunk such beautiful critters could be such a pain.
Then there were the pileated woodpeckers. These are beautiful birds, and they are so large that they are funny to watch in flight. Their bodies are so heavy that the entire body goes up and down with each flap of their wings, and they fly fairly slowly. They look like cartoon characters.
Their contribution to the ‘remove the humans’ project included killing of the trees surrounding your house, rendering them likely to fall into your living room. These giant woodpeckers build their nests by pecking a large hole into a tree, killing the tree in the process. At first we enjoyed watching the beautiful birds build their nests, and we even got to see young ones as they grew and flew away. Then the trees started falling.
One of the more humorous things that happened while we lived there came when our next door neighbor, an elderly lady, made a rather strange request. She knew that I had a .22 pistol that I used to dispatch copperheads. She asked me if I would please shoot the pileated woodpecker that had built a nest in one of her trees. This surprised me, as the lady was otherwise extremely nice and neighborly. I told her that I would not kill the bird because it was beautiful, and also because it was endangered and I would face the wrath and fines of the local forest rangers. She didn’t speak to me for months.
And finally, there was Herman the hawk, another venture into the Twilight Zone. One morning I was working in my downstairs office, when I heard a loud racket coming from the lakeside sliding glass door in the next room. I went to investigate. When I opened the curtain, I had one of the strangest encounter with the critters of my long time at the lake.
I looked down and saw a juvenile hawk, fighting with his reflection in the glass door. He was flopping, running at the image and crashing into the door repeatedly, making a great deal of noise in the process. I have no idea how he got there or what he was doing on the cement pad beneath our deck, but it was quite an experience. Eventually I chased him away, before he hurt himself. I named him Herman…seemed like the right thing to do.
I had forgotten all about Herman until the following summer. I was sitting on the deck drinking my evening cup of coffee, when out of nowhere a large hawk swooped out of the sky and carried off a squirrel that was grazing on the lake side of our lot. It seemed that I had made a friend that was willing to help me control the population of the critters that had previously tried to kill us. I cheered him on, and saw him several other times that summer.
My youngest daughter did not have as pleasant an experience with Herman as I. One summer afternoon she returned home from her job at the state park and parked her Subaru Forester near the wood pile. When she exited the car she was confronted by Herman, sitting on top of the woodpile, a squirrel’s leg sticking out of his beak. He had captured his dinner and was enjoying a leisurely repast.
My daughter tried to shoo Herman away, but he was having none of that. She had no choice but to pass close by the wood pile on her way into the house, so she wisely got back into her car and waited until Herman finished his meal and departed.
We sold the lake house last year and moved to Florida, also home of some pretty serious critters. The critters down here include alligators, poisonous snakes, sharks and hurricanes (not a critter, but dangerous nonetheless).
The other day I was asking my wife why we had moved to a place where the critters are so dangerous and want to eat you. I pointed out that it was her idea for us to move to Florida (might have been a mistake to point this out). That’s when she reminded me of all the critters we had to battle at the lake, putting things into perspective as only a wife of forty-six-years can. At least here in our second floor condo, the groundskeepers have to battle the critters. I can just sit here and write.
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I’m donating all of my after-tax profits from the book to two children’s charities, Holly’s House and Darkness-to-Light.