There are only a handful of animals that we fear on the James Bay coast. Most of these creatures are strong and powerful. These include the black bear and polar bear mainly because they can easily outrun a person on just about any terrain. Wolves and wolverines are considered dangerous as they are strong enough to maim or kill a person. However, as powerful as these animals can be, they seldom create problems for us. In fact, these large animals are just as fearful of us as we are of them most of the time.
Bears of any type, including the large polar bear, will come near camps but will mainly want to scavenge for garbage, waste or harvested wild meat that is kept outdoors. Sighting wolves is a rare thing, as these animals will smell the scent of strangers before they are seen and they will generally avoid people. Normally, even though hunters, trappers and traditional people may spend months in the wilderness, they rarely have trouble with most animals.
The one animal that seems to cause us the most fear and consternation is the “Shee-kak,” the Cree name for the striped Skunk. As a matter of fact, the English name “skunk” is derived from the Algonquian word for the animal “seganku,” meaning “one who squirts,” which shares similar roots to the Cree name.
I remember one trip along the coast after a successful moose hunt. We camped on the shore of James Bay and we spread out our butchered meat in the open air under a large tarp to keep it from spoiling. In the morning our camp of hunters was a spectacle of agitated men in T-shirts and rubber boots running away from a shuffling little Shee-kak that wanted a piece of wild moose meat. No one dared go near the striped Shee-kak, so from a safe distance we all hollered, screamed and threw sticks and stones to chase away our unwelcome visitor. Nobody dared to shoot the animal as it would have made a foul stench and have ruined our tent, the tarp and the meat.
In the wild, Shee-kak is a fearless character because this small animal the size of a cat has a powerful defence system that everyone avoids. Shee-kak has two small scent glands near its anus that it uses to discharge a powerful noxious smelling musk at potential threats or attackers. Many people may have never had thechance to see Shee-kak in real life but just about everyone has smelled the odour of one of their discharges.
However, this creature will only use this defensive measure as a last resort. A first line of defence is to show itself to everyone. Shee-kak does not have camouflage rather it is solid black with a white stripe so as to make itself visible to everyone. That look is unmistakeable and so is the power of his spray. If showing off does not work, Shee-kak will hiss, growl and stamp its feet. When all this fails, he will turn his rear end towards an attacker and spray away.
The spray itself is made up of several chemicals but the primary one is known as trans-2-butene-1-thiol. The smell is powerful enough to be detected up to a kilometre away but when you come into contact with it the spray is strong enough to irritate skin or eyes and cause nausea. Shee-kak can be accurate enough with its spray up to about three metres and it will aim primarily at the face of an oncoming animal or person. If he has no obvious target then it will spray a fine mist that the individual will walk into.
I have never had the misfortune of being sprayed by Shee-kak, nor do I ever want to. I have come close to pets, clothing and places where Shee-kak has done his work and it is noxious for days. Prospectors’ tents can reek for years if they are sprayed by Shee-kak. I have heard of several remedies for this smell. The most common one being tomato juice but it is not so dependable.
Apparently, when you are sprayed, your nose can only take so much and then it literally shuts down in what is known as olfactory fatigue, which makes us think that our remedies are working, whatever they may be. A more technical and scientific method that is known to work is to mix a three percent solution hydrogen peroxide with a quarter cup of baking soda and a teaspoon of liquid dishwashing soap. This solution changes the chemical composition of the musk to make it soluble in water and allow it be washed away.
Probably to best thing to do is to avoid Shee-kak altogether. Just let him go on his merry old way.