One dark, bitterly cold winter’s eve while we were all seated at the table eating dinner, I heard a noise on the back porch. Putting down my silverware, I cocked my head and listened closely. A very slight scratching, dragging sound came from the other side of the back door. What on earth could it be? Earlier experiences in the Alaskan bush taught me to tread carefully in a wilderness filled with wild animals—most bigger than me.
I moved quietly, creeping to the back door, easing the handle around and carefully pulling the door open enough to peek out. Light from the kerosene lantern cracked the black night, a sliver of yellow brilliance illuminating the back porch and the mounded snow beyond.
I peered out carefully, seeing nothing large looming in the dark beyond the door; to my astonishment the frozen food box moved slightly with scuffing, scratching sounds that echoed in the cold night air.
Throwing open the door I caught an Ermine in its winter coat of white with a black tipped tail, attempting to steal our large box of frozen food! With its teeth firmly embedded in the bottom of the cardboard box, it stubbornly wrenched the corner back and forth in a valiant attempt to move the box off the porch, down the stairs and back to wherever its underground nest lie under the frozen snow.
I laughed in delight and stepped out onto the porch, my slippers crunching on a hard crust of snow. I assumed the looming presence of a two legged animal eight times larger than itself would frighten off the Ermine but NO! It let go of the box, looked up at me and growled as if to say, “Clear off you. This is my find and if I can just get it back to my den I won’t have to hunt again all winter. Now beat it!” Growling again, it made a mock attack at my feet, sunk its teeth into the corner of the box and jimmied the entire thing another half an inch towards the stairs. Shooing off the Ermine with a broom, we moved the box to a more secure location. I still find myself amazed and delighted though by such a show of pure bravado and determination.
Which brings me to the boater, i.e. my husband. Cruising up the Shroppie in the general direction of Calvely we kept our eyes peeled for wood to add to our store on the roof of the boat. Often one passes a lovely pile of recently cut tree limbs located on the offside of the canal where it is extremely shallow and there is no towpath, making it impossible to get. As we came around a bend Les spotted a group of trees on the offside which had been trimmed fairly recently. We knew though the cut was too shallow for us to maneuver NB Valerie in close enough to reach it. Disappointed, we continued on.
Further down the canal I spotted a large tree trunk sticking out from the water on the offside near some large tree limbs lying on the bank. I suggested we nose the boat in close enough to the trunk and Les could try it and see if it was stable enough to hold his weight. I thought we could tie the boat to the half submerged log and Les could gain the advantage of the bank, accessing the cut logs. We tried it and it worked!
Les was determined to get as much wood as possible on the roof of the boat, grabbing heavy logs I could never begin to budge, balancing them on his shoulders as he clambered down the steep bank, balanced on the half submerged log, crossed the tottering boat plank and heaved the wood on the roof of our boat. Yep! Dear Sir reminded me of the determined Ermine all those years ago. Never let an opportunity pass without sussing it out for a chance of success.
Ermine/Mustela erminea, aka stoat, short tailed weasel. These small, lithe animals are adept at surviving on the frozen tundra of the Northern hemisphere by making dens in the roots of old trees, or rocky ledges. Weighing between 13-15 ounces, 7-13 inches long with a tail nearly 5 inches in length. The Ermine’s flexible backbone allows it to do “the Martin run,” where its hind legs are tucked up next to its front legs, the back bone arching in a hump, arching and extending as it runs.
Miniature members of the same family of Mustelids as wolverines, badgers, weasels, Martins, sea and river otters, minks and ferrets, Ermines are carnivores with 34 very sharp teeth allowing them to hunt and eat animals larger than themselves such as snow shoe hare. Curious by nature Ermines are able to squeeze themselves into tiny opening and can often be found overwintering in summer cabins while the humans are surviving winter elsewhere!
During the Middle Ages the winter coat of Ermine tails were often used to trim the robes of royalty—as they still do today for the robes worn by members of the British House of Lords.