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Tracking the Tapir

One day late last summer when the chicken of the woods and the bear’s head tooth mushrooms were fruiting I went on a walk with my friend James. James’ house is eight houses away from mine. The Conewango creek…as big as some rivers really, runs behind our houses and in the creek lies an island…a group of islands really. The island is called Skunk Island so named for being the breeding grounds for bountiful skunk cabbage. My sister and Sarah B. named it that when they camped there for a school project on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Their project was to film their adventure for the class. It’s pretty funny. Especially the part where they try roast potatoes over the fire on sticks.
This day last summer James and I were walking and talking on the island. We ate some wild grapes. I had just shown James a spicebush with red ripe berries and he was sharing his idea about a new kind of extreme candy for kids based on the Jack-in-the pulpit berry. In case you didn’t know all parts of Jack-in the pulpit and it’s brother skunk cabbage contain this substance that is not toxic it just makes your tongue and throat burn and feel as if it has been pricked with a thousand little needles. We came to a large tree on the tip of one the islands and I smelled an animal. James didn’t smell it. I looked all around for signs but I couldn’t figure out what it was. We left. Later James had a dream about the island featuring a tapir and he knew that must have been what I smelled.
A few nights ago he dreamed about the tapir again:

“I was sitting in the blackberry bushes under the crab apple tree at the edge of my yard, quietly waiting for some rare bees to appear. I didn’t even realize the tapir was stalking me. Note: the first hint of the tapir’s existence was a strange smell picked up by Emily down on the islands in the Conewango. This was later revealed to be the scent of a tapir by some hunters in a dream. So, as I sat in the briars, I looked down, and when I looked back up again the tapir was snarling right in my face. It had mean eyes, sharp teeth, and a long snout. Its skin tone was kind of greenish. This tapir obviously meant to eat me alive, but I kept my cool and was able to defeat it. Here’s how to do it, in case you’re ever in a similar situation: 1. Look the tapir calmly in the eye. 2. Go right back to reading the newspaper and ignore it. It must have worked, because when I looked up again the tapir was gone, and I saw the rare bees coming out of a nearby red maple tree. I told a scientist about the bees. She had received a grant from National Geographic to study them, but just didn’t know where they were. I let her know so she could start her project, and also showed her a board that the bees had drilled holes in (she was wearing khaki shorts and a vest like an explorer).”

After I heard this I had the idea that I would go back to the tapir’s lair on the tip of the island and take a picture of its tracks. I wasn’t expecting to find tapir tracks since they typically inhabit the jungle regions of South America, Central America, and Southeast Asia. That wasn’t the point. It was 24 degrees and cloudy with a light breeze coming in from the west-northwest. Gypsy, our Chocolate Laborador, came with me. To get on to the island I had to cross the channel, which was flooded due to recent snow melt.

I stood on the bank and took off my boots, socks, pants, and long underwear. I wasn’t wearing any short underwear. I tied the pants around my neck and stuck my socks in my pockets. I grabbed a large stick to help me keep my balance with one hand and my boots with the other. I started to cross. I had no idea how deep it was going to be, though I could see it was over my knees at least. As the water got deeper I had to hitch my long coat up around my waist with my boot hand. The current was strong forcing Gypsy and I to cross at a steep diagonal. My feet were quickly numb which made finding placement on the sharp rocks less tedious. As the water approached and enveloped my groin area it was quite cold but strangely titillating. Safely on the other side I made no attempt to dry off. I stood on top of my boots to keep my feet out of the snow while putting on the rest of my clothes. I had been hot from the hike over before I crossed the creek and my upper body remained hot afterwards. Once I had my clothes on, my lower body also warmed back up very quickly with the exception of the toes on my right foot. I’m not sure why but they are always the coldest. I once had this theory that it is because my left arm doesn’t swing much when I walk since I’ve dislocated the shoulder too many times, but I’ve since decided that’s probably crap. Anyway I jogged a few yards and swung my foot back and forth and it warmed up.

I set out to find the place where I smelled the tapir. As we approached the tree I did not see any tracks, but Gypsy sniffed excitedly. Then, there they were on the other side. I took a picture. We walked around some more. There weren’t a lot of other tracks on the island, mostly squirrel. While the journey over wasn’t totally unpleasant I wasn’t exactly looking forward to repeating it. I choose to cross at a different location and in a different way. I thought that this time I would leave my shoes and all my clothes on and see exactly how warm my wool clothing would be when saturated. I plunged in a little above my knees and the current was very strong there threatening to throw me off balance but soon I was on a rock bar and the water was pretty shallow the rest of the way acrossed (I know it’s across but that is the way I choose to say it and that is the way I choose to spell it). I suspect the effect was mostly psychological but the shoes and clothes made me feel more protected from the cold water. All in all it was quite a bit more pleasant than the first crossing.

On the other side I sat down in the snow and dumped the water out of my boots and took off my socks and wrung them out before putting them back on. My feet did not feel cold this time, not even my right one. I think the repeated plunges actually enhanced my circulation. I proceeded to walk back home at a leisurely pace. I was warm enough that I did not bother to put on my hat. When I got to the road I ran for two houses until I got to my yard only because I didn’t have Gypsy on a leash and wanted to get her off the road before a car came. I wondered how long it would take before I actually began to get cold. Then I thought I might try and build a fire, pretend I had fallen into the water in the wilderness and had to save myself from hypothermia. I tried to break off a dead spruce branch over the woodpile but I couldn’t get it to snap so I broke off all the little sticks I could reach. I dumped some scraps of yellow birch bark out of my coat pocket where I usually hoard them and put the sticks on top but found I had no lighter. All I could find in my pockets was a hundred dollar bill. This is extremely unusual since I almost always have matches or a lighter and almost never have a hundred dollar bill. I gave up and went inside. I was still quite warm.