I’m eleven years old, wearing a hand-me-down tie-dye t-shirt way too big for me, and soccer shorts—my legs riddled with welts from black fly bites. My hands still reek of snake musk from spending the morning looking for snakes in the woods around the lighthouse.
I’m sitting at the picnic table, telling my dad about all the garter and fox and ring-neck worm snakes I caught, when the park naturalist, Paul King, stops by to inspect the live traps under the lilac bushes beside the table. He pulls the trap out from under the leaves to reveal one big raccoon.
I like Paul. He has spent every summer in the park for decades and knows everything about Rock Island—he’s a walking encyclopedia of its history, geography, plants, and wildlife. My family is spending the week as volunteer docents in the island’s restored lighthouse. Paul checks on us most days. He tells us where to turn off the official trails to see secret places regular visitors don’t get to go, like the coyote dens, and the natural rock windows in the cliffs, and the ruins of the old fishing village. The day before, Paul told me a ghost story about the St. Martin’s lighthouse just across the channel. A long time ago, the lighthouse keeper’s four children got caught in squall in their rowboat and drowned. Paul pointed out a buoy near the tip of the island and told me the keeper’s ghost still walks that beach every night with a green lantern, searching for his lost children. That night, I stayed up, peeking out from behind the curtains and saw a green light bobbing over the water, exactly where Paul said it would be.
“It’s a state park. Why do you trap raccoons?” My dad also likes talking to Paul. He smiles with his eyes and leans forward, resting his elbows on the picnic table. Paul stops dragging the trap toward his ATV.
“No predators on the island,” Paul explains. “When there gets to be too many raccoons, they start to make nuisances of themselves over in the campground.”
“What do you do with the raccoons after you catch them?” Dad asks. Paul sits down at the other end of the table.
“Well, we used to release the ones we caught over on Washington Island, but the residents complained.” He looks at me carefully. Paul has only four teeth and a white beard that wobbles when he talks. His eyebrows look like albino wooly bear caterpillars. His face reminds me of Abraham Lincoln—asymmetrical, homely, wise.
“So, we decided to train ourselves a swim team for the Raccoon Olympics.”
I scooch closer, sensing a story.
“You ever heard of the Raccoon Olympics?” Paul asks me. I shake my head. He winks. “No? Well, some raccoons are very good swimmers. But we want to find the best for our Olympic team, so whenever we catch one, we have tryouts.”
Paul doesn’t really say what the raccoons look like when they swim. But my swimming raccoons wear goggles and have special swim caps fitted over their ringed tails to decrease drag. They front crawl through the choppy green waves on Lake Michigan. My raccoons swim with excellent form and breath control, pointing their toes as they kick, and remembering to breathe on alternate sides. I am missing summer swim team practice this week while we stay at the lighthouse. It will not occur to me until I am an adult to wonder if Paul convinced all the kids he could train wild raccoons to compete in swim meets, or if he just made up a kinder explanation for me.
The raccoon in the large Havahart trap beside our picnic table hisses and grips the wire mesh. I had seen raccoons before, staring shiny-eyed into the beam of my flashlight and skulking down storm drains, but never up close, in daylight. Raccoon paws look like tiny human hands. I know raccoons can swim. They eat fish and leave little handprints all over the sandy patches of the beach at night. I picture nocturnal lap swim sessions, in raccoon-sized lanes with little log floats holding up the lane lines. Even in late June, Lake Michigan is so breathtakingly cold that jumping in the water feels like getting punched in the stomach, but maybe the raccoons’ fur helps them stay warm?
“So, to test their swimming, we drive the raccoons out into the middle of the lake and put them in the water. If they’re good swimmers, we start training them for the Olympics—every day taking them out a little bit longer—to increase the distance they can swim.” The park rangers have an old wooden fishing boat with peeling forest green paint and a partially enclosed cabin topped with a bulky marine radar receiver. I imagine Paul and Ranger Kirby with clipboards and stopwatches, pacing the deck and yelling encouragement, like real swim coaches.
“Unfortunately, we have not found our champion yet.” Paul winks again, but he’s looking at my dad, not me. Dad catches my eye as if he wants to tell me something, then looks away. I wonder if Dad has heard of the Racoon Olympics before. I’ll ask him later. As Paul packs up the trap, I wait until I think nobody else is listening and whisper to the raccoon,
“Good luck little guy! Swim fast!”
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Rick Hobson