Wednesday, August 21, 2019
Nothing Masked the Odor, but the Perpetrator Wore a Mask
When camping, it's not unusual to encounter some nasty odors. Whether it's from one's own body, not showering for days--and hey, who remembered to pack the deodorant?--or the eyeball-scorching smoke from the fire after throwing on something that shouldn't be burned. Maybe it's the dead whale decomposing on the beach, such as we experienced this summer, or the vomit-inducing waft from the dumpster every time a camper opens it; a campground can be rank. It's worth it, of course, to live through the stench, and there are plenty of welcome aromas to overpower the bad ones. Who can resist the smell of sun-baked pine trees, salty sea air, crackling sticks on the fire? Even the scents of sunscreen, bug spray, and my son's sweaty hair make me happy. Camping smells bring smiles because we're away from the daily have-to's and into the outdoor must-haves that open up all our senses to restore our souls.
After a long trip in the car, I was ready to leave the smells of gas station pit stops and greasy fast food to breathe in all of nature under the trees, by the ocean, in Cape Disappointment State Park. Summer almost always finds our family somewhere along the Pacific. This year we ventured into new territory, crossing over into Washington after a visit to one of our favorite Oregon treasures. We got the key to our yurt--hey, it's still camping!--and drove the winding way through the park to our site. It looked just as it should, just like the yurts in Oregon, so we knew it would be clean and comfortable. I unlocked the door, swung it wide, stepped inside, and smacked my olfactories into an unwelcoming yuck.
It wasn't the smell of death, garbage, or cleaning solution. When I sniffed the canvas siding and the furniture, nothing struck me as the source of the grossness. It smelled like urine, I was immediately convinced. Perhaps the previous occupants had sneaked in an incontinent dog? Luke rolled up the window coverings and we went to work airing it out, while also unloading the car. Maybe the smell would be gone in a few hours. We shrugged and went to the beach.
That night, the smell still there, I started to get used to it, but Luke was getting a headache. The next afternoon, Luke was sitting outside the yurt, reading, and I was going back and forth from the yurt to the picnic table, getting lunch ready. Geddy and I had already wandered the campground, found the dead whale, and experienced a few mosquito bites, but the day was warm and all was well. Except for the smell. It seemed just as strong, maybe even stronger than when we had arrived. Luke glanced over at the camp host's RV, wondering if the hosts were there, and suggested we go ask them about dealing with the smell. So I went and knocked on their door.
The friendly woman came out and heard my story and walked over to a phone, made for contacting the camp office, and called in our drama. But then she wanted to come over and check out the smell herself, as we waited for park rangers.
I thought she'd probably not notice anything at all, since she lives there months of the year, smelling all the camp smells on a daily basis. I hoped she wouldn't think we were clueless city slickers or whiners, vying for a discount on our accommodations. With a little relief, I heard her say that she smelled something not so good. Of course there wasn't anything she could do about it, so we chatted awhile and then she left, wishing us well.
Moments later, a truck pulled up and a maintenance worker got out. "I heard you had a bad smell over here," he began. I stepped aside so he could go in for a whiff. "I don't smell anything," was his almost immediate response. Hmmm. Because Luke was suffering, I knew it wasn't just a smell that only women could detect, like most bad smells that men don't seem to give a second thought too. But then again, this guy spent his days cleaning up after campers, so how good was his nose? He asked if I wanted to smell the solution he used to clean the yurts. I took a big sniff and said, "Well, that actually smells good!" It was a pine scent. That was clearly NOT what we were smelling in our yurt. He apologized that he couldn't do anything and drove away.
Our camp host came back over with a pop-up air freshener, hoping it would help. I set it inside on the little shelf by the door, hoping it wouldn't give me a headache from it's overpowering perfuminess. It was meant to smell like flowers. It did not smell like the nature I wanted to spend time in.
We carried on with our lunch, enjoying being out of our yurt, away from all the smells inside. Then two pickups pulled up and two vested, armed rangers got out and walked over, looking friendly on their faces but their body language was telling me I needed to put my hands up and confess to every cookie I ever snatched from the cookie jar when my mom wasn't looking. "We understand that there is a bad odor over here? May we enter the yurt?" I led the way, confessing that now it was filled with air-freshener and they might not smell anything else. I could still smell it though.
We told them that the last guy hadn't smelled anything, but that the host had. One of them laughed and said, "Well, that guy used to be a mortician, so I don't think he can smell at all!"
They went inside and took a few whiffs, then one of them said, "I thought we were going to find something dead." I did some mental digging and couldn't find any crimes in my past related to dead bodies, so I sighed with relief. Then he said, "You know, it kind of smells like patchouli oil. Some people like to wear that. I don't know why. Maybe someone spilled it in here." The other guy kind of smelled something but wasn't sure. "I don't know what we can do for you. The camp is full, so we can't move you to a different yurt. Unless you want to leave and get a refund."
Leave? Leave after only one night and not anywhere near enough time refueling our souls? No, we didn't want to do that. We thanked them and they got in their trucks and drove away. I looked at Luke, "Well, I guess we have to live with it. I'm sorry."
The smell in the yurt (and we didn't smell it anywhere near the bathroom, incidentally) would fade and then grow stronger during our stay, and we kept wondering if it would ever stop. On a small sign inside the yurt by the door there was a notice about wildlife, specifically about raccoons. It warned us not to feed them, but that they were kind of a nuisance. Huh, I thought, I wonder if we will see any while we are here. I figured they would only come out in the late evening or night, so maybe I would stumble across one on a groggy trip to the bathroom.
The next evening while I was again going to and from the yurt to get our food ready, Luke was sitting in a camp chair by the deck railing, reading a book. Suddenly, a curious little face peeked at him from between the yurt and his chair. A full-grown raccoon, not at all shy, was doing a little sniffing of her own, looking at us with moist, dark eyes.
"We've got to keep the door shut," I announced. While excited to finally see a raccoon, I didn't want her little paws going through our belongings.
I admit, I didn't know at that first meeting that we were being spied on by a female, but what happened next confirmed her gender. We looked around the outside of the yurt and saw one tiny body after another crawl out from underneath and wiggle along to a nearby tree. Four raccoon babies in all began following their mother up into the very top branches.
Geddy and I went to watch and take pictures, admiring their cuteness. But then I stopped to think about something. Five animals were nesting under our yurt. I've heard raccoons are "clean" animals, in that they like to wash their food, but where did they go to the bathroom? And did they have any other bodily fluids that they might use to mark their territory? I concluded that we'd found the source of our nightmare odor.
During the rest of our stay we got used to watching the mama coon come out and look for opportunities to steal our food. We were very careful about dropping even a crumb, not wanting to encourage her. As she wandered around, grooming her babies, and taking them on daily climbs, I remained wary, knowing that raccoons can also be aggressive little bandits.
She didn't end up getting any food from us, but she snagged an open bag of Doritos from our neighbor, right in front of the woman, and raced back to dive under our yurt, leaving a trail of chips in her wake.
As our time in the campground came to an end, I wondered if anything at all could be done about the raccoon problem. I didn't want the animals killed, but this was a serious issue. Chatting again with our camp host didn't bring any solution; she basically said there was nothing that could be done.
Even after all the literal headache of the smelly vacation, we'll still stay in yurts again. The time on the beach, the hiking and biking on the trails, and the quiet moments just being outside as a family more than made up for the hassle of living with stinky downstairs neighbors. But we might need to add air freshener to our camping checklist for next year. Or maybe we should just stash a bunch of Doritos in the neighboring sites!