This story comes from my teen years, when I spent the summers as the “Nature Counsellor” at a summer camp in Ontario.
It was an afternoon program and I was with a typical oddball assortment of kids, aged about 8-12. One was carrying a cardboard Pringles can, sharing the stack of potato chips with the others.
We were up to nothing in particular, poking around to see what we could find. Many of the programs had particular themes, but running five programs a day, it was easy to achieve theme-fatigue. The cure was to simply go somewhere and flip rocks and logs. You wouldn’t know what you were looking for until you found it.
We were walking along the edge of a rank-smelling drainage ditch that was half-filled with stagnant water and dead and dying algal blooms. To escape the smell, I was trying to keep a brisk pace, but one child stopped and lifted the only piece of nearby ground cover, a weathered scrap of plywood.
“Whoa!” the children yelled. A small bundle of brown fur flew from the exposed patch and splashed into the ditch. It was a vole. It swam like a miniature muskrat to the far side, scrambled out and vanished in the tall grass.
Left behind in a whirl of dried plant material was a heap of grey-pink jellybeans—five hairless, blind, newborn voles.
“Can we take them back to the nature house and raise them?” the children wanted to know.
Simply put, no. I ran through the list of logistical challenges I could imagine.
“We could feed them to the Milk Snake,” a boy suggested. This sounds cruel, but he didn’t mean it that way. He was trying to make the best of a bad situation. The other kids let him have it, anyway.
I thought we should cover the babies with the plywood, but we couldn’t find an orientation that wouldn’t seem to crush or smother them. In lifting the wood, the supporting structures of the burrow beneath had been ruined. I doubted Momma would be able to find her way back to the babies beneath the repositioned board—if she bothered to come back.
“Could I have the Pringles can?” I asked. I shook out the crumbs and placed the opening next to the baby voles, and gently pushed them inside. It was going to be the Milk Snake solution.
But when I touched them, they squeaked. And when they squeaked, a small brown head poked out from between the grass leaves on the far side of the ditch.
“There’s the mother!” someone whispered.
Mother vole jumped into the ditch, and, amazingly, started swimming back to us. She scurried up our side of the ditch and frantically ran back and forth between our shoes. I placed the Pringles can on the ground, but she of course had no idea that that’s where the babies were. They had stopped squeaking, so I sucked on my lip in my best baby vole impression, and she immediately cued in on the sound. I leaned close to the opening of the can and squeaked again. She ran inside and popped back out with a baby in her mouth.
She jumped into the ditch, swam across and again disappeared into the grass. Now we had a Pringles can containing four baby voles. A minute later, with less hesitation, Momma popped from the grass, plunged into the ditch and swam our way. Everyone stood still and watched, spellbound, as she searched among us. Again I squeaked, and she ran to the can, and again removed a baby, jumped into the ditch, swam across and vanished into the grass.
This happened three more times, until she had rescued all her offspring. She did not come out again, suggesting, perhaps, that voles can count to five.
It was agreed by all to have been an awesome nature program.
We took the Pringles can back to the nature house and put it in a place of meaning, on a shelf next to the antlers, turtle carapace and raccoon skull.