Three feet from me, it rears up and exposes four of the brownest, most jagged and, I must say, gross looking jaws I’ve ever laid eyes on.
So I’m walking mid-afternoon a week ago to our homemade ladder stand situated on a tri-trunked tree in the woods along the edge of a field of harvested soybeans. It’s been a productive deer hunting stand for our family over the years, but we’d avoided it over the previous two days of posting because the stand gets far less productive, when it comes to the number of deer who get within range of it, with a north wind.
But on this day, the wind is gusty and has switched to the southeast, so the ladder stand I determine is the best place for me to post. I’m walking along the field edge, bundled up in blaze orange from head to toe. This has been a colder hunt than we’ve had in recent years, too, so I’m wearing my massive Irish Setter boots with their impressive Thinsulate rating. My smaller, lighter boots never left the garage during this deer hunt.
And there it is, sort of walking/waddling down a field row, 20 feet from me. I immediately discern that it’s no muskrat or woodchuck or anything like that, but what is it, then? A rat? Some kind of mole that escaped a lab conducting experiments on the effects of Human Growth Hormone on rodents? I’m not exactly inconspicuous in my bright colors and trudging along with my big, heavy boots, so I figure that any second now, it’s going to spot me and bolt. But it doesn’t, it keeps meandering in my general direction with its head close to the ground.
But then, instead of actually laying eyes on me, it suddenly seems to sense me, and, oh man, does it ever react. Three feet from me, it rears up and exposes four of the brownest, most jagged and, I must say, gross looking jaws I’ve ever laid eyes on. It extends its front legs into the air toward me, and the claws I see are no less pleasant than its teeth. It kind of hisses at me. I understand it’s trying to mask any fear it may have by playing tough and defending whatever turf it’s laid claim to, but I also get the sense that it is genuinely angry at me. Enraged, even. It’s not about to back down.
As I curiously looked down at this prehistoric thing as it displayed a level of toughness about to be, unbeknownst to me, unleashed in a hail of furor and terror, I realized I was suddenly not entirely comfortable with the situation I’d stumbled into.
And then it infinitely ramped up the intensity of the moment when it jumped at my foot, while still sort of semi-silently hissing. A second or so after we both realized - him in frustration, me in relief - that his jaws were no match for my boots, my fight-or-flight instinct kicked in, and I opted for the former, kicking that little monster as hard as I’ve possibly ever kicked anything. He landed about 15 feet away, rolled around a bit, and then seemed to re-gather his wits and bearings. He was no doubt no longer 100 percent, but that didn’t stop him from making his way back toward me. He hissed/spit some more, reared up again, and my boot came in contact with him a second time, with possibly more intensity than it had a moment earlier. This time, he landed at the woods’ edge, and it was clear after my second foot assault that he wasn’t going to see another sunset.
As I continued walking toward my stand, I came across a series of freshly dug tunnels through the white snow and hard, brown dirt, and realized that I had indeed crossed paths with a creature who wasn’t about to willingly give up an inch of his territory.
Later, the power of Google enlightened me to the fact that I’d encountered a pocket gopher. I felt more than a bit sheepish upon realizing I’d battled to the death an animal with “gopher” in its name, and my wife the “farm girl” certainly didn’t ease the consternation felt by her “city boy” husband when she laughed and laughed and laughed, and told of dealing with countless pesky pocket gophers as a child. Then she went on to remind me of my embarrassing moment as a reporter intern at a TV news station 25 years ago, covering a high school FFA competition and having to ask what a cow’s udder was.
I found myself reading everything I could about pocket gophers, searching for evidence that, while maybe not pointing toward my life actually being in danger that afternoon, would at least indicate I’d come across a small animal that packs a big punch, or at least one hellacious temper.
Then, vindication. The pocket gopher has powerful jaws and claws, the description read, and will aggressively defend its territory, even if the invaders are much larger. It will attack cats, I read, and even humans, inflicting “vicious bites” in the process.
When I alerted my wife to the barbaric savagery the pocket gopher is capable of, she replied, “Making memories.”
And living to tell about it, I was quick to reply.