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My Dog Ate My Homework:
Muskrat Ramble at Pilot Creek

by Jerry Farlow

Professor of Mathematics
at the University of Maine
Orono, Maine

Rolfe High School Class of 1955

There are a couple of prerequisites necessary for a small town to receive a Five-Star rating for kids. The first is a creek running through town, the second a railroad track or two, preferably one with a trestle where kids can live out exciting (foolhardy) fantasies, waiting for the sound of a distant train whistle, causing them to scatter like rats escaping a sinking ship. Rolfe had all those and more. Rolfe was also blessed with two ponds, Howland's pond on the north side of town and Thompson's pond on the west. It was well-known that Howland's pond harbored crawdads that could snip off a toe without giving it a second thought. It was a heart-beating experience to raft on Howland's pond, looking down in a foot of water at the little buggers, knowing they would claw you to shreds if you fell in. Then too, according to my sources, Thompson's pond was a hundred-feet deep in places, making winter skating particularly exhilarating. There wasn't a boy (even some girls) that grew up in Rolfe before the age of the Internet, Facebook and the iPod Touch that didn't spend half their youthful years exploring every nook and cranny of those places.

Rivers have often been used by writers as metaphors for life and escapism, and that was part of the fascination of Pilot Creek. Where did it go and where did it come from? Every kid knew it ended up in the Des Moines river over by Bradgate, but no one knew where it began. One winter day, Russell Thomas and myself decided to skate upstream to answer just that question, and like most good ideas we generally had, it was bad.

Little did we know that after about a mile upstream, the creek took on an unexpected character; no longer was it the exciting meandering stream that passed through town, but simply long stretches of boring dredge ditches. But undeterred, we skated on. Unfortunately, we never checked with the weatherman before we left, and the temperature kept getting warmer and warmer, until eventually we were skating in slush, and later we were met with running water and had to abandon ship, whereupon we found ourselves on a country road, half-frozen, somewhere up near Plover. It was getting dark, but luckily an understanding man came by and upon hearing our plight, drove us all the way back to Rolfe, whereupon we were greeted by non-understanding parents.

But stories often have happy endings and this one is no exception. Sixty years after our ill-fated trek up Pilot Creek, I actually discovered its source. I'd like to say it was the result of a long, arduous journey but I would be lying. I simply logged on to Google Earth on my personal computer and followed the creek upstream with my mouse, ending up in a farmer's tiled field, three miles east and a half-mile south of Ayrshire, about 30 northwest of Rolfe.

Although our ill-fated odyssey to reach the headwaters of Pilot Creek ended in slush, it paled in comparison to another Pilot Creek endeavor embarked upon by George Swan and myself. But before I relate that disaster, we must make a brief detour, the reasons of which will soon be apparent.

There are some proverbs that should not be taken literally, one being that dogs are man's best friend. Show me someone who takes that old canard at face value, and I'll show you someone who's never met Smokey.

One day Smokey arrived at our house unannounced, demanding food and lodging. Smokey was an adult male dog whose breed was a mixture of mutt and mutt. Why he adopted our family I'll never know, he probably thought we were the biggest suckers in town.

But just because we rolled out the carpet and welcome mat and gave Smokey a loving home, that didn't mean he reciprocated the favor by hanging around the house, fetching sticks, playing dead, and doing all that stuff good dogs do. Smokey would leave the house at dawn and meet up with his dog buddies, where they would roam the streets, generally up to no good. Back in the 1950s, dogs scoured the streets of small towns like packs of hyenas. Most dogs were good dogs at home, but in packs there was generally one bad dog who was the leader, and that dog was Smokey. Families would bemoan the fact their otherwise good dogs had gotten in with the wrong crowd, and Smokey was the wrong crowd.

But back to George Swan.

One year my buddy George Swan, suggested we run a trap line down at Pilot Creek. I didn't know anything about trapping; for all I knew, he was talking about trapping fish, but he told me the creek was full of muskrats and they were there for the taking. And what's more, a good pelt would go for $5. I didn't know where George got his traps, but he had about a dozen and he knew how to set them. I more or less watched him when he set the traps, rigging them in a way so to drown the poor critters. Our trap line was about a half-mile long and ran right north of town.

So every morning before school George would stop by our house and we'd spend the next hour checking our line. I was thinking there were better ways to spend time before school than wading in ice-cold water and mud up to our knees, releasing dead muskrats from traps, but it did have a kind of Grizzly Adams excitement to it. We generally caught a muskrat or two every day, which we brought back to my house where we (George) skinned them and stretched the pelts over drying boards which we (George) made.

One morning when we went to check on our traps, we discovered the creek was completely frozen over and our traps were buried under a foot of ice. We tried to chop them out, but they were in so deep we had to abandon the entire campaign. The next spring they were never found and to this day, unless found by someone else, there are a dozen traps rusting away in Pilot Creek.

But all was not lost. We had trapped something like 25 muskrats, which George estimated had a pelt value of $50. He said he knew a man who bought muskrat pelts so we were ready to go.

So at last, the time came for the mountain men to load their pelts onto the dogsleds and run their pelts downstream to the trading post. Well, it wasn't exactly like that but it was thrilling, considering the fact the only adventures I remotely had related to trapping were reading Jack London stories from Tales of the North. So down we go to the basement to peel the pelts from the drying boards and then take them to the muskrat man, who would reward us handsomely for our ….


George and I stood there petrified, wide-eyed, looking at a grisly scene from a Jack-the-Ripper movie. It was a macabre spectacle that would spook Stephen King. 'Ol Smokey had managed to get in the basement and upon seeing the pelts strung up along the wall, had gone completely berserk. He tore every pelt into a zillion pieces. Every inch of the basement was covered with muskrat fur. It looked like a bomb went off in a pillow factory. And if that wasn't enough, Smokey didn't even have the good graces to leave the scene of the crime–he was still there, mutilating some last scrap of muskrat hide like his life depended on it.

I can't even begin to describe what poor George said, but it was something like $%^&*^%#@*&*($%^#^&%$@%^^% !

I tried my best to console him by saying something like maybe we could get something for the little pieces, but he never replied.

- the end -

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