How’s this for an urban camping experience?
After an evening of paddling on the Welland recreation canal in the full moonlight, my girlfriend and I went back to my friend’s place to set up a tent in his backyard. My pal lives in suburban Welland, but has the backyard of a countryside hangout.
He and his partner have several raised gardens, a big tree, a rabbit enclosure, and a fire pit to enjoy. However, the inner city is home to a lot more than just neighbours.
“What was that?” asked my girlfriend, sitting up suddenly in her sleeping bag.
There it was – the first representative of the raccoon gang that would be paying us visits all night long. This was set to be one of the most restless nights of my life, but it came with irreplaceable entertainment.
The raccoon was inches from the tent. He was peering straight in at us, as if to say, “I mean no harm, but you probably have food, right? Are those chip crumbs still on your shorts? What is this giant garbage bag you’re sleeping in?”
We gave it a hiss and a couple of claps, and it retreated into the darkness.
We laughed, tried to doze off, and then I heard the sound of one of our backpacks being robbed.
This next raccoon looked a little larger, and it was pawing ferociously at one of our bags just a couple of feet from my side of the tent. Raccoons may disturb the peace, but at least they come packaged with comedic value. Something about their cute bandit faces, human-like hands, and bushy tails has most people at subconscious emotional odds with these creatures.
It’s highly unlikely this was the first manmade item this raccoon has dug into this evening. You see, humans create an ideal world for raccoons around our typical areas of residence. Raccoons are primarily nocturnal, meaning most of their locomotion commotion occurs at night. Our human lifestyle leaves behind odours and objects which peak the curiosity of raccoons, such as garbage, food scraps, gardens and pets. Raccoons are scavengers, and will gladly take up any free and easy meal we leave out for them. Even if not left out, per se, their nimble nature will have them curiously exploring boxes, bins, and sheds alike. I imagine that even our tent was simply just something worth checking out.
I hissed at this raccoon as well, and like a burglar you can’t be mad at, its silhouette quietly but quickly retreated into the dark bushes. I laughed.
“Cover me!” I joked to my girlfriend, asking if she could shine a light for me. I stepped out of the tent to retrieve our backpacks and the cooler, which I moved to the top of the barbecue. I knew they could get there just as well, but at least it wouldn’t be a couple of feet from our heads.
Later, as I’m sleeping with one eye open looking out the tent, a shady figure appears from underneath the van, and grows as it advances towards the tent. At eye-to-eye level, this raccoon just walked straight toward our tent, it’s banded face now in plain view. I was interested in seeing how bold this individual was, so I let it keep walking toward us. This extra bushy, well-fed raccoon got right to the tent door, where it earned another hissing sound from me, and retreated up the fence and into the neighbour’s tree.
Raccoons are excellent climbers. Fence lines, tree branches, and rooftops are their urban infrastructure. They have sharp claws, which you can hear scratching their way up any wooden surface as they look to attain safety with height. In a wilder setting, where their populations are controlled by coyotes, foxes, and birds of prey, raccoons use these sharp claws to handle food such as crayfish, snakes, and frogs. Not ketchup chips and pizza crust. I once watched raccoons in Florida sit upright and bite the heads off of slippery fish, crunching away with little room for table manners.
Another raccoon suddenly starts scaling up a different tree, and it is just a foot away from our tent. The noise startled us, and that probably startled this individual furthermore. He spent the next couple of minutes sniffling and scratching away at the tree bark, shamelessly trying to get at an empty bird feeder (another urban favourite). We then watched with humour as the raccoon descended down the tree head first. You could tell this one was trying to be cryptic and cautious, as it was aware of our presence in the tent.
“I want to see how close he comfortably gets,” I said quietly.
It then proceeded to push its nose to the tent, which is when we hissed and clapped yet again. It scurried behind the bunny shed, as another raccoon did so just moments ago.
Like a video game’s “final boss” or the climax of a movie, I’m now watching not one, but two shadowy figures emerge out from under the van and start waddling directly toward us. At this exact moment, I could verify that there were at least five raccoons within whispering distance of our tent. We were surrounded!
These two also got another big hiss from me, and their slow, ponderous bodies kicked into high gear as they ran off. Half an hour later, we heard less rustling in the bushes and were paid no further visits. Later, as the sun came up, the raccoons had retreated to the treetops branches or hollow trunks in which they reside.
We’ve all seen a raccoon at some point. There are certainly more specialized or rare animals I could write about, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen so much raccoon action in one night. It was quite remarkable and impressive, staring into the eyes of an animal which has benefitted enormously from our human world. This Canadian icon is a classic example pulled from a suite of animals that succeed in our human environment, following the mantra of “if you build, they will come.”
It was my buddy’s backyard. That being said, we can’t deny that it was the raccoon’s backyard first and foremost.