Cambrian: Slice of Life

Gopher it

Cambrians may bicker and battle about politics. They may draw lines in the sand over desalting plants and other projects. And sometimes, alas, they seem to argue for the simple sake of arguing.

But at parties and coffee klatches, at the farmers market or in front of the post office, at least one topic unifies the whole town.


Mention the mere word, and some gardeners start frothing at the mouth, stomping their feet and waving their hands like athletes with hornets in their shorts. And if you want to see a true hissy fit, just say “gopher” or “ground squirrel” to a rancher. You'll hear tales of pure misery and some absolutely ludicrous hints.

Year after year, local gopher chasers have said that the yard-demolishing rodents multiply like dust mites in a featherbed, and then go on the rampage in yards, gardens and fields.

“The yard looks like a prairie-dog town,” artist-cartoonist Art Van Rhyn said of the gopher mounds dotting his garden like a bad case of landscaping acne.

When gopher-haters assemble and start sharing stories, the talk can really get rabid.

Can-you-top-this tales (“Would you believe it? The entire artichoke plant went down, right before my very eyes. Poof! It was gone.”) are almost inevitably followed by some pretty outlandish-sounding solutions and “you gotta try this” tips.

And the ranchers? They hate anything that digs tunnels … squirrels, moles, mice and especially gophers.

They have the right: Cattle and horses can’t see most holes in the ground, let alone buried tunnels. Put 1,000 pounds of heft atop a relatively tiny hoof, stick it on the shallow dirt layer atop a tunnel, and it doesn’t take a Jeopardy champion to figure out why ranchers spit and sputter about gophers and squirrels and tunnels and such.

How do ranchers and others deal with the tunnel-diggers? None of the methods seem fool- (or gopher-) proof.

Forget traps. As one San Luis Obispo garden-shop salesman told a frustrated Cambrian, "Your gophers up there are too big for our traps."

So, enterprising North Coasters figure out their own solutions, sort of.

“We’d put mothballs down in the holes,” said Charlotte MacLean. Didn't work. “The next morning, we’d come out, and there’d be all the mothballs, lined up around the edge of the gopher hole."

Dawn Dunlap said her family tried soaking cotton balls in cheap perfume, “like ‘Evening in Paris.’ Remember that? We all bought some for our mothers. Awful stuff. Be worth a fortune now, I suppose. I wonder what would have happened with Chanel No. 5?

But the gophers knew bad perfume when they smelled it. MacLean’s family also tried that method, and the cagey little gophers “tossed the cotton balls out, too. Stinkers.”

Bill Payne said he’s stomped gopher tunnels and tried to stomp the gophers, but “they were too fast. They kept popping up out of the hole, just not the hole I was closest to. I got a shovel, and they stopped coming to the surface. How’d they know when I had a shovel in my hand?"

Other ranchers used to plant gopher bombs, which when lit, emit an evil smell along with the poison.

According to Richard Greek (a Cambrian who was the county’s agriculture commissioner for a quarter century), it doesn’t take long for the gophers to get wise to that tactic.

“When they detect the odor, they just plug up the burrow” below the bomb, he said of the clever critters. “They hate the smell.”

I can just see it now — gophers with clothespins on their sensitive little noses, shaking their heads about the awful odors humans can produce.

Gopher chasing can be big business. Remember the team of youngsters who set up shop in Southern California in the mid-1970s, killing gophers, selling manure and mowing lawns? The industrious young entrepreneurs made enough money to form Kidco Ltd. Ventures, a corporation which turned around and bought the town of Gorda. (They sold it soon thereafter, amid some family problems and bankruptcy, but the gophers didn’t have anything to do with all that.)

The gopher-trapping capper had to be another episode from Dunlap's childhood.

“We used to take big, funny-looking cotton things — actually, they looked like big, 30-year-old petrified Kotex. We'd soak them in gasoline, put them in all the holes and light them off. Kaplow! The whole yard would lift up!

“It was hell on the gophers,” she recalled, “but it wasn’t great for the yard, so the folks stopped doing it.”

That’s probably the bottom line: No matter how Cambrians gripe, kvetch and, yes, argue about the gophers, the gophers will always win.

Note: This column ran first in The Cambrian on May 20, 1999.