Update: A day or two after my encounter with the skunk chronicled below, I read of a wild urban encounter involving my friend, CBC Radio host and author Grant Lawrence. In the coastal waters washing around Vancouver, B.C., where he lives, he saw a huge, prehistoric-looking fish whose presence in water he had been about to swim in alarmed him and a young nephew until they determined that the marine creature was actually dead. He took the photo shown here and sent it out on Twitter, crowd-sourcing identification of it. Grant’s discovery turns out to have been a sturgeon, the world’s largest freshwater fish. This one was seven or eight feet long, as shown in Grant’s amazing picture. Now, a local paper has written up the account in full, which I invite you to read at this link. Not so coincidentally, this summer Grant is hosting CBC Radio’s The Wild Side, all about encounters with creatures and the wilderness. As Grant’s discovery shows, and even mine with the little skunk, our cities are also the scene for brushes with the wild side.
I ride my bicycle nearly every day in New York City, even during this current heat wave. Biking is my preferred form of exercise, and has been for years, going back to my days at Franconia College, near Franconia Notch, New Hampshire, when I rode all over the White Mountains. I was never in better shape than in those years.
New York City doesn’t offer quite as many topographical challenges as the North Country but I get my miles in every week, and there are some lovely spots to ride in the city. Some days I ride on the Central Park loop that goes around the perimeter of the big park; other days I pedal along the Hudson River on Manhattan’s west side, all the way up to the George Washington Bridge, where readers of this blog may recall the Little Red Lighthouse resides under the Great Gray Bridge, which I wrote about in a foundational post, How This Blog Got its Name.
Today I was on the west side but in the 95 degree heat, I took a reading break at what are called the Harlem West Piers, about even with 125th Street, near the uptown branch of the Fairway market. Sitting on a bench, I read three engrossing chapters in the spy novel I’m currently enjoying, The Double Game by Dan Fesperman, which I’d made my #FridayReads yesterday. Looking at my watch I finally decided it was time to head home, so picked up my cell to let my wife know. As our phone at home began to ring, I was startled to see a creature stirring in the shrubbery and bushes just near my bench. I thought at first, ‘a rat,’ since they are common sights in New York these days. But, no, the coloring was wrong. When it emerged from the bushes, I could see it was black & white, and I said to Kyle just as she answered the phone, “Holy shit, I see a skunk!” She was taken aback, and I quietly explained what was in front of me. Neither of was completely shocked, as we have occasionally detected a skunk-like odor that wafts up from Riverside Park at night, though we were never certain that’s what we were smelling. I quickly added that I’d soon be heading home and ended the call so I could pull out my IPod-Touch and take some pictures of the sleek little creature.
I observed that it was almost certainly immature in growth, though not a pup, or whatever baby skunks are called. It seemed unafraid of me and there was not a moment where I thought it was riled up or likely to spray or, even run away from my observance of it. I took quite a few pictures and followed it as it crept along the path in front of the fence. Once it disappeared into the shrubs, I prepared to strap on my helmet and ride away, but saw a Parks Dept. worker nearby. This is a very well-maintained park so I walked over and asked her if it was known to her and her colleagues that skunks are living right here in front of the river. She blanched a bit and said, “You saw what? Oh, no the landscaper is going to be here tomorrow and we’re supposed to work in those beds. I’m so glad you told me, I don’t want to be stirring up any angry skunks!” I explained to her that it had been a young one I’d seen, and that it didn’t appear to have been made at all nervous by being near me. She was glad of that, but mentioned there must be more than just the one. Her name was Penny Hyman and I gave her my card which I’d been using a bookmark in my novel, as she said her supervisor might want to see my photos of the little creature. For you, my dear readers, here are several of those pictures, proof that I had a close encounter with a surprising example of Manhattan wildlife. All this goes to show, you never know what may happen when you leave your house for some exercise and quiet reading time.