Living off the grid: know your enemy

THURSDAY, AUG. 7, 2014

This is the next installment in a semi-regular series of yarns about living off the grid, even if for a weekend.

The first thing I noticed after I bought my “cabin” was that I wasn’t alone.

Opening the plywood contraption the previous owner loosely called a door brought an overpowering surge of ammonia-saturated air caused by unmitigated rat urination.

My first nights in the Hantavirus Hotel left me soaked with the smell of squatters of the rodent kind.

I knew that if I was ever going to make this cabin rebuilding thing work, I first had to defeat my enemies. My first step was to break them down to their basic elements.

The general: the terrorist squirrel. The nocturnal flying squirrel apparently had long considered my cabin his home and would do anything in his rodent bag of tricks to chase me away.

For two years, the terrorist squirrel was my primary enemy. I made my patrols by day but he owned the night. I lost many a battle, and proper sleep, but eventually won the war.

I’m not certain that any of my attacks, traps or deadly goodies finally dispatched the general. I’m guessing he eventually met Hoot the Owl for dinner.

The lieutenants: wood rats, a.k.a. pack rats. These thin-tailed pests seemingly took orders from the terrorist squirrel and generally were the cause of most of the stains on the floor. While the terrorist squirrel inhabited the upper floor and took particular interest in scratching around the window where I slept, the wood rats had the run of everything else.

My door has marks where those rats clawed their way at the wood trying to get inside.

The wood rats also tried to steal me out. They took nuts, screws, tools, cloth bags, construction pencils, feathers – anything they could carry back to their daytime retreats. In their prime, the rats made sleeping in the cabin virtually impossible.

The soldiers: field mice. While my construction skills quickly sealed the cabin to the general and lieutenants, it wasn’t until I installed a wooden door stop that I managed to prevent the agile little mice from getting inside. Having a mouse bounce across your face as you sleep does not fit the definition of “wife friendly.”

Learn thy enemy

I must admit, I initially had no idea what I was up against. But in the wilderness, especially at night, anything that goes bump in the night automatically makes the camper think of the worst-case scenario: bears.

The wood rats took particular joy, it seemed, in knocking off anything that made noise. They chewed through gloves, rope and crapped on everything.

One of the locals told me about a house near Fruitland that sat vacant for two years following a foreclosure. Wood rats ate their way into the house and caused $30,000 worth of damage.

I thought, incorrectly, that the wood rats had amazing dexterity, allowing them to run up and over an A-frame roof with ease.

It wasn’t until I went to check on some dog-alerting noise in the night that I finally shined a head lamp on my nemesis: the terrorist squirrel.

He escaped my meager attack but my visual inspection allowed me to search computer databases until I was able to determine that it was a nocturnal flying squirrel, which is much smaller than the wood-rat rodent thugs.

My friend, Jed Conklin, laughed down at my stories of the terrorist squirrel until he tried to sleep on a cot upstairs. The terrorist squirrel was able to determine his location, crawl onto the steep roof and start his attack by trying to scratch through the roof.

“Clouse. The terrorist squirrel is like three inches from my face,” Conklin said in the night. “Ha,” I replied.

Our battle came to a head in the summer of 2011. I had started to build an addition and stapled a metal screen over an exposed doorway to prevent the terrorist squirrel from entering my man cave.

Just as the lantern was fading out, I looked over and saw the terrorist squirrel crawling upside down toward a cloth bag containing my bread and chips.

My dog, Lily, looked at me, and I said in slow motion, “Goooooo Gettttt Himmmmmm.”

Lily launched off the cot and jumped at her enemy. She missed by mere inches.

I crawled upstairs and learned that the terrorist squirrel had chewed his way through the screen.

My friend Victor

Victor makes the classic wooden mouse traps with the snapping metal bar. They also make a huge version for rats that snaps hard enough to break a finger.

After the squirrel chewed through the screen, I grabbed a Victor rat trap, drilled two holes and then screwed the trap in place on the door jamb just below where the squirrel had invaded my cabin.

Only 15 minutes later, the “SNAP” denoted his return. I danced the happy dance.

I crawled up the ladder to inspect my prize … and nothing. All I found was a thin line of terrorist-squirrel hair under the metal bar. To this day, I don’t know how my foe survived that blow.

The general actually survived one more Victor trap deployment before he faded into cabin lore.

End of lieutenants

The demise of the terrorist squirrel did nothing to end the nightly incursions by the wood rats.

The cabin has a space underneath where I store stacks of lumber. The previous owner started the practice, which created an apartment complex for the miscreants.

The wood rats also have plenty of rock outcroppings with which to stage their nightly escapades.

One particular rock shelf we named the “Barry White Lair.” It’s a shelf of rock with a view that once was covered with rat feces.

I and my friend, Iceman, theorized that the wood rat males would bring their dates to the rock outcropping before creating another generation of night raiders.

We tried a metal-live trap, which worked well. Um, too well.

One night, I caught a huge wood rat and placed the cage on a large boulder until I could dispatch him in the daylight.

I remember Lily stirring in the night, but didn’t think anything of it until I walked outside the next morning. Some animal, I’m guessing one that does his business in the woods, had pulled the cage off the huge boulder and had stolen the contents.

Sort of a drive-by, ready-made McRat sandwich, if you will.

That ended the live-trap experiment.

After hearing more than one tale of the terrorist squirrel, my brother-in-law Don suggested I try a poison called Tomcat. It comes in long-green bricks of death.

The rats and mice eat the stuff and then go home where they internally bleed to death.

The first night I deployed the stuff, it turned into the wood-rat Olympics. They ran around jumping from window jam to window jam, knocking over bottles and tripping my motion-detector light on my deck.

The rats acted like a bunch of kids who ate all their Halloween candy in one night. Sleep was not an option.

But the next night? Crickets. In one magnificent night, the rat problem went to sleep.

Three years later, the Barry White Lair remains rat free.

As for the ammonia smell in the cabin, I bleached the floors but could not obliterate the smell completely.

It disappeared only after I laid down heavy clear plastic and put another layer of plywood over the original floor.

Each time I open the door, I smile because my nose tells me I won, you rat bastards.

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