Fifty miles into a two-week backpacking trip in Alberta’s Jasper National Park, my friends and I were beginning to take wildlife encounters almost for granted. We’d caught rainbow trout, seen elk bound across the trail, spooked a mother ptarmigan and her chicks, and watched a family of woodland caribou meander toward camp before scattering for the opposite bank of the river. But nothing prepared us for the preternatural mewing that shocked us awake one night.
Several sniffling, shuffling beasts were brushing against our tents. Our minds raced frantically to identify the strange, almost plaintive whimpers, while our hearts pounded out a primeval guess: grizzly cubs learning how to extract food from a quivering tent, with mom probably somewhere nearby.
We were terrified. Steve, a military type scared only of cluster bombs and germ warfare, stopped breathing. James, a camping veteran whose only fear is premature hair loss, croaked out an impromptu prayer. I nearly wet my sleeping bag.
Our anxiety quickly gave way to amusement, though, when the fearsome flesh-eating marauders waddled past the tent door. Before us, unabashedly savoring the ripe, salty stink of our sweaty clothes and boots, were two porcupines.
Porcupines are not known to travel in packs, but we soon had four or five of the prickly bark-eaters scampering around our tents. For an hour, our campsite was their playground and our equipment a source of great curiosity. They inspected our firepit, found a waterbottle to chew on, and generally chattered about like hyperactive children. The frolic ended with a final nonchalant visit to our door, where, with noses pressed to the screen, the orange-toothed rodents took one last longing sniff of the strange salt lick that had wandered into their woods.
We’d been treated to a rare and delightful scene. The porcupine is by no means endangered, but a hiker is far more likely to spot a bear or wild turkey than this secretive animal.
The North American porcupine, whose scientific name, Erethizon dorsatum, translates appropriately to “the irritable back,” is also known as the quillpig, a nickname bestowed by early European settlers who thought it tasted like wild boar. It’s the odd North American animal that actually benefited from the trapping frenzy of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The lust for fur that decimated beaver populations wreaked a similar havoc on the fisher, a weasel that’s the porcupine’s only successful predator, and permitted porcupines almost unfettered growth.
Their numbers had swelled so by midcentury that several timber-dependent states, irritated by how much damage the animal was doing to marketable trees, placed bounties on their prickly heads. In the 1950s in Vermont, a pair of porcupine ears fetched 50 cents. In recent years, wildlife managers in New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, and several western states have experimented with a more natural method of controlling porcupine populations, reintroducing the fisher.
A healthy porcupine can live for 10 years or more, subsisting primarily on the bark, leaves, and new buds of sugar maples, beeches, cedars, aspens, and birches. From late summer through fall, it forages for apples, acorns, alfalfa, dandelions, and seeds. It is the continent’s second largest rodent after the beaver, with adults averaging 3 feet in length and weighing from 10 to 20 pounds, with ears on.