Canyon Tales
Skunk Rescue
by Mike Putiak

If someone asked you to name the critters you’d most like to avoid while hiking, your list would probably start with the potential killers—the big, toothy flesh maulers (like bears & big cats) and the creepy, slithery venom injectors (like snakes & spiders). But if they asked you to ignore physical harm as a factor and to only consider general disgust and repellence, skunks are probably at the top of your list, right?

Lucky me. In the fall of 2003, within a period of one week, I had not one but two close encounters with a skunk. The first encounter was unexpected and unavoidable. The second, however, was not only expected and avoidable ... it was planned. If you’re curious as to why someone would intentionally arrange a close encounter with a skunk, read on ...

In the wee morning hours of November 17, 2003, I drove through snow flurries up the slick, muddy road toward Orderville Canyon with Rick Green, my canyoneering buddy from Escalante. Our goal today was to travel down Birch Hollow, through Orderville, and ending at the second vehicle we parked at the Temple of Sinawava. Piece o’ cake, right? Well, yeah ... except it was sooo darn cold outside that we found ourselves coming up with reasons to turn back—dangerous ice, loose rock, brittle webbing ... blah, blah, blah. But once at the trailhead our gear was yanked from the truck, hoisted onto our backs and off we went, bushwhacking down Birch Hollow.

As is usually the case, the situation felt and looked better once we were moving. And despite a light fog and the accumulating clay on our boots, we were making good time. We soon reached our first rappel and dropped into the technical section of Birch Hollow. Today was the first of six days planned for slot canyon adventures, and we were having a ball. Good weather, beautiful scenery, fun canyon—everything was sailing along without a hitch. Well, at least until we got to the seventh rappel.

While I pulled the rope from our sixth rappel, Rick continued downcanyon to set up the seventh. After bagging the rope and proceeding toward the next anchor station, I was surprised to find Rick lying on the ground just below the anchor, peering over the edge at something below.

I asked Rick if there was a problem, if anything was wrong.

Rick somehow managed to get his heart out his throat and inhale enough oxygen to squeak out the words, “Mike ... we’ve got company.”

What?! I didn’t see how that was possible. There was no indication that anyone had come through the canyon before us today.

So I asked Rick, “How could anyone have hiked down this muddy canyon and not leave a single footprint all day?”

“Because it’s not an anyone,”
Rick explained. “It’s a skunk.”

Attempting to process this news, I walked over to the edge for a look–see, while laughing and accusing Rick of messing with my head. But he wasn’t kidding. Eighty feet below us, at the bottom of a vertical drop, sitting on a narrow ledge in a small muddy chamber, was a skunk.

Then I remembered. In a Birch Hollow trip report on Todd’s Hiking Guide, I recalled reading about a skunk that was trapped in this canyon. But that report was written two months ago. How could he still be alive? How could he survive that long with no apparent source of food ... or shelter from rain and flash floods?

That’s when it hit me.

To this point, the skunk was nothing more to me than an obstacle to avoid, to get past. But now, recognizing that he had been trapped in this dark, dank slot canyon for at least two months, my fear was replaced with sympathy. He had fallen 80 ft. into a small stone chamber, half filled with sand and half with water. I was overcome with respect for his determination to survive. Peering down the 80 ft. chute into the chamber, I could see the skunk was curled up on a small ledge above the muddy pothole. Opposite the pothole was the only way out of the chamber—an opening in the rock wall that exposed a sheer 60 ft. drop to the canyon floor below.

Rick whistled a few times to gauge his alertness but there was no response. A louder, sharp whistle finally got him to look up. A shout got him to move his head but importantly—very importantly—he never sprayed. Rick and I kept sniffing, testing the air for the slightest hint of skunk smell but it never came. We assessed his probable condition as weakened from malnutrition and figured we might have a chance of getting through the chamber scent–free if we were quiet and avoided large or sudden movements.

We calmly set up the rope and Rick rappelled first into the skunk chamber. On his slow descent, the skunk began to pace nervously along the back wall. Once on the chamber floor, Rick slowly made his way toward the opening, hugging the chamber wall to maintain maximum distance from his chamber–mate. Amazingly, as Rick completed his cross to the anchor station at the opening, the skunk turned away from Rick and put his head in a small corner on the back wall. Observing from above, I can’t tell you how incredibly sad it was to see him hiding his eyes in a small sandstone crack, so hopelessly seeking shelter. While Rick began to set the next rope, I slowly descended and pulled the rope as quietly as possible. As the rope whooshed down against the fluted chute, I nervously watched the skunk turn away from the wall and face me. And then ... he relaxed his body and laid his head down, as if to sleep. That image ... of resignation and weariness ... was heartbreaking. It was a sad and lonely image that Rick and I agreed we wouldn’t soon forget.

Backcountry protocol notwithstanding, Rick left behind a generous mound of granola as payment for our passage through the chamber. Now prepared to rappel out of the chamber, Rick and I looked back at our exhausted friend and thanked him for not once raising his tail against us in defense. We left the chamber and continued on through Orderville to the Temple of Sinawava.

Over the next two days, Rick and I navigated through Mystery Canyon and Pine Creek, reveling in beautiful weather and perfect conditions. Like most hiking buddies, we talked about the usual stuff—ideas for future trips, gear we love, gear we hate, people we like, people we like less, what are we going to do for dinner tonight, et cetera. But we also talked quite a bit about the buddy we left behind ... the skunk ... the prisoner of Birch Hollow.

Neither of us could shake that sad, lonely image which was apparently etched not only into our minds but our hearts as well. But while our hearts were telling us to go back and rescue him from his prison, our minds were telling us to be practical, enjoy our vacation and learn some valuable life lessons—like death being inevitable and life not being fair. Life or death? Compassion or stupidity? Should or shouldn’t we? Rick and I wrestled with the pros and cons of conducting a skunk rescue.

We posed the question to our friend (and fellow American Canyoneering Association alumnus) Verlyn Hawks, who met us in Springdale Wednesday night. Since Verlyn planned to join us for some Zion canyoneering adventures over the next three days, he would be part of our rescue mission—if we decided to go through with it. So Verlyn obviously had a voice and vote in the matter. We set aside Saturday, our final day, as the contingency day for either a slot canyon trip—or a skunk rescue.

Over the next two days, through Fat Man’s Misery and Behunin, Verlyn added his thoughts to the pro & con debate. So now there were three of us finding as many reasons for the rescue as against it. Well, at least until Friday when we saw the weekend weather report—a massive cold front was expected to arrive late on Saturday, dropping temperatures into the low twenties that night. Birch Hollow would see its first hard freeze of the season.

That did it. End of debate. Let’s roll ...

The skunk’s comin’ out tomorrow.

Over dinner that night we formulated a rescue plan. Various scenarios and contingencies were considered and evaluated. Gear requirements and tactical sequences were established. Post–rescue and release scenarios were considered. And although we really didn’t know if he was male or female, we simply picked male and gave him a name. We named him ‘Keeper’ because he was trapped in a ‘keeper’ canyon and, also, because we considered him a fighter, a true survivor that shouldn’t be left to die . A keeper.

After months of hardship and deprivation, we doubted that Keeper was sufficiently prepared to survive the fast approaching winter if we merely released him in the woods once we got him out of the chamber. More than just a prison breakout, Keeper would need some time in a controlled environment, one with shelter, warmth and adequate food to prepare him for the winter. Rick called our animal loving friend, Kristi Kulidge, who eagerly accepted the challenge of finding someone who was capable—and willing—of caring for a skunk. In almost no time at all, Kristi made arrangements with some people in Kanab who were willing to accept Keeper and nurture him back into fighting shape for the upcoming winter.

“Oh ... and don’t worry about cost,” Kristi added. “They want to help.”

When we arrived at Birch Hollow Saturday morning, the wind was howling and clouds were gathering to the west, but it appeared we had sufficient time to get the job done. Our gear was packed and ready so we were soon heading down canyon. The attitude today was clearly more focused than at the start of our earlier trips this week—more methodical. We were intent on getting to Keeper’s chamber as quickly and efficiently as possible. One rappel led to another and soon we found ourselves at the ledge directly above Keeper’s chamber. Rick’s fingers were crossed all morning, hoping that Keeper had survived since we saw him last.

Peering over the edge, it was as though time had stood still. Keeper was in the exact same position as we left him, against the same cold sandstone wall, motionless, his head laid down to one side on the ground. It was as if he hadn’t moved for five days. Rick whistled down to him and he lifted his head.

“Ready guys?” Rick asked. “It’s show time!”

Instinctively, Verlyn, Rick and I went into our traditional salute for good luck—a quasi–Power Rangers, fist–against–fist circle that I can’t remember how we started but we just do whenever we’re facing a challenge. Some people say, “good luck” or “go for it.” We do our Power Rangers circle. Go figure. It seems to work.

We verbally rehearsed our planned rescue sequence as we quickly and quietly rigged the anchor and set the rope. Rick would descend first and do a quick assessment of the Keeper’s condition. Verlyn would descend second for photographs and to set the rope for our final rappel to the canyon floor. At the point Verlyn was set on–rope for the last rappel out of the chamber, I would descend and help Rick with the Keeper capture.

It’s important to know that as a child, Verlyn got sprayed by a skunk and was subsequently expelled from his house until the stink wore off. Unpleasant memory aside, Verlyn now has zero tolerance for that distinctive skunk aroma. It makes him physically ill. It’s also important for me to admit that I was absolutely certain that Keeper’s natural defense mechanism was nonfunctional. Whether due to malnutrition or from a broken tail caused by his fall into this chamber, I assured Verlyn that he had nothing to worry about. What more proof was required that Keeper was incapable of spraying than the fact that Rick and had I walked right past Keeper a few days earlier, at times no more than four feet away, and yet we were never sprayed? Well ... regardless of whether I was right or wrong, Verlyn was reassured by my theory.

We were ready to rock n’ roll. Rick rappelled down into the chamber and quietly waited for Verlyn to descend. Watching from above, I could see that Keeper was a bit more active today, pacing slightly on the ledge during Verlyn’s descent. How ironic that the very moment Verlyn’s feet touched the chamber floor, Keeper launched the first wave of his skunk oil defense. Although attempting to remain perfectly quiet and still, Verlyn and Rick were cupping their faces and gasping as Keeper paraded on the ledge with his tail raised high, letting loose with his essence time and again. Trying to sneak by Keeper this time was futile, as each movement brought a renewed barrage of nasal assaults. Verlyn gagged his way past Keeper and through the sea of tears that flowed from his burning eyes, frantically labored to set up the next rappel. With the anchor now rigged, Verlyn went on–ope and locked off, bravely reaching for his camera to record the moment.

In the meantime, Rick was setting up my rope bag as a lure. He had initially hoped that Keeper might crawl into a well–placed, food–laden backpack. But any attempt to get close enough to situate the pack set off a full–scale stink attack. Keeper blithely traipsed over and around the opened rope bag with absolutely no indication that would simply climb in and making things easy.

Fortunately for Rick, fresh air started flowing from above down into the chamber where he stood. Unfortunately for Verlyn, this fresh air was forcing the foul air of Keeper’s full strength perfume attack directly toward the exit where he stood. The smell and fog was soon overwhelming and Verlyn was compelled to escape, rappelling to the fresh air of the canyon floor below. Verlyn’s escape was my cue to descend into the chamber. By the time I arrived on the scene, it made no difference to Keeper whether we whispered or shouted. So we shouted. As Rick repositioned the rope bag once more, Keeper apparently decided he had enough excitement for one day, and started to make a break for the 60 ft. drop he must have pondered a thousand times before. Surprisingly light on my feet, I leapt toward the opening and blocked the furiously running stinkball’s path.

Denied his assuredly fatal escape plan, Keeper seemed to run out of juice. While staring at me intently, he froze in his tracks, directly below a small ledge in the pothole. I immediately recognized the opportunity from this fortunate placement—Keeper couldn’t see Rick. As long as Keeper’s head was below the ledge and focused on me, he couldn’t see Rick sneaking up on him from behind. Flat on his belly, Rick started old “army low–crawl” toward the ledge while I maintained the staring contest and informed Rick of his proximity to Keeper. As Rick got close enough see over the ledge, Keeper suddenly stood up, turned to Rick, and looked him square in the eyes.

Although their noses were only about three feet apart, he seemed relaxed. Incredibly, he turned his head back toward me and rested it on the ground. While I observed this unexpected behavior in amazement, Rick seized the moment to reach out and position his leather–gloved hand on the back of Keeper’s neck, just behind the ears.

Rick had him. With Keeper’s head now under his control, Rick shifted focus to his tail, attempting to keep it down and unable to spray. But whenever Rick attempted to shift his hands, Keeper responded with more aggressive attempts to bite. Wanting to subdue Keeper as gently as possible, Rick let go of his tail and regained control of his head. They went through this same routine two or three times until Keeper managed to get one of Rick’s gloved fingers in his mouth. Rick managed to slip his finger out of the glove before Keeper’s teeth found their mark, but Keeper still grunted and growled in victory. With his teeth now focused on the glove, he seemed to relax and Rick was able to get hold of Keeper’s body.

While Rick was working to maintain control of Keeper, I crossed the chamber, grabbed the rope bag, dumped the contents and positioned the opening directly in front of Keeper’s nose. Rick effortlessly slid our friend right into the bag, the glove still held firmly in his teeth. With Keeper’s entire body now inside the bag, Rick held it upright as we cinched it shut and shared a high–five.

We rigged up and descended to a cheering (maybe coughing?) Verlyn below, Rick victoriously toting Keeper ‘in–the–bag.’ We were elated on our hike out of the canyon. It was hard not to smile, laugh, and reflect on our hard–won success as we hiked up Orderville and back to the vehicle. Anticipating success, we had left a sturdy plastic box in our truck for Keeper’s transportation. After securing the box to the luggage rack with an abundance of webbing, and bidding farewell to our Salt Lake City bound friend Verlyn, Keeper, Rick, and I took off for Kanab.

We reached our destination within an hour and were introduced to the people who would serve as Keeper’s rehabilitation team. Rick and I were amazed at how comfortable these folks were with Keeper—and how relaxed Keeper seemed with them as well. True animal lovers, they shared with us their plan for Keeper’s recovery and his eventual return to the wild. We returned to Springdale with a peaceful sense of satisfaction—from successfully completing our mission, from knowing that we ‘did the right thing,’ and from confidence that our little canyoneer was now in very good hands.

Nine days later, we heard back from Keeper’s caregivers. Keeper had spent a week rejuvenating—staying warm and eating great food. Healthy, plump and eager to hit the trail, Keeper was set free near the Virgin River on a warm and sunny fall morning. We were fortunate to have met this incredible survivor, and we wish him well as he begins this new chapter in his inspirational life. I read this story and knew I had to invite these guys on some of my trips. Now regular partners, I count them among my more spirited friends.


 tales  ‹›  new 

© 2003 Mike Putiak