Cordova Chronicles: If you build it, they will come

Creative sandboxes are a magnet for cats, who in turn chase off squirrels

Despite clever efforts, a newly installed cat sandbox under the slide remains untouched. Photo by Dick Shellhorn

We all know the saying that  “one thing leads to another”, a truism verified by something as simple as a pile of sand.   In this case it’s the one located in front of our house.

The small mound comes from the Mile 9 mountain that has become a popular spot for kids of all ages during warm summer days.  Heavy equipment is used to create those 30- foot high stacks, which will be hauled off to the state Department of Transportation at Mile 13 for sanding roads during the winter.

The 4×4 sandbox on our front beach is a big attraction for our grandkids, and little Texas engineers Huck and Liesl enjoy it almost as much as mud puddles, which are evidently rare in the second largest state.  However, it turns out the sandbox at his pre-school in Austin and ours here in Cordova both are also magnets for creatures of a different sort, namely cats.

These clever and fastidious felines have designated them as the neighborhood litter box, and are saving their owners considerable time, expense, and indoor odors in the process.

When chatting via phone with Huck back in Austin prior to his arrival, I mentioned one of our first projects upon his annual pilgrimage to Cordova would be to go out to 9 Mile and get buckets of sand to restock the sandbox.  His reply was:  “Grampa, we have a problem with our sand box at school”, going on to explain that things beside longhorns must still be ranging about the Lone Star State.

Ironically, we know two of the visiting Cordova cats on a first name basis.  Reggie and Meow are a couple of granddaughter Ellie’s favorites. Then there is one whose left ear is considerably shorter than the other, evidently after a scrum with a fellow feline or free-range dog; and a small black one that we enjoy laughing at as it stands out like a sore thumb while trying to sneak up on teal out on the slough.  It’s lucky an eagle from the tall trees across the way, frustrated in its pursuits of the same prey, hasn’t nabbed it instead.


Four year olds have a way of thinking outside the box, and rather than try covering the sandbox with a tarp, like they had done in Texas, Huck came up with a better idea.  “Hey Grampa. Let’s build them their own sandbox.”

So we engineered a little 2×2 box, put it under the play set slide so it would be out of the rain, and even transplanted pungent sand from the other sandpile into the new one, hoping it would serve as “bait.”

Well, we now have cats that are enjoying a multitude of options.  Kind of like airports, schools, and other public facilities around the country.

Jiffy peanut butter and a single unshelled peanut will attract squirrels to any live trap in a jiffy. Photo by Dick Shellhorn

None the less, the cats are likely doing us a favor.  Occasionally squirrels show up in the neighborhood.  They are fun to watch, and one time a bushy-tailed critter was so busy tearing spruce cones off a tree overhanging our house that it sounded like hail pounding on the roof.

Despite their entertainment value, squirrels can raise havoc with insulation under the house and around pipes, especially in older homes such as ours, and the Van Den Broeks, which are built on piling and have skirting rather than solid cement foundations.

Fortunately, squirrel visitors don’t seem to hang around very long.  I suspect the cats are earning their free potty service.

For squirrels that do, Trapper Marv VDB has the solution:  a live trap.  His works so well I had to buy one when he was still working at Seaman’s.  We soon had a trapping contest going.  Marv revealed his surefire bait:  a mound of peanut butter, with a single unshelled peanut (unsalted) stuck on top.

The first time I set it out, a captured squirrel was chattering away within an hour. The second time, I made the mistake of setting it atop the wooden cover on our garbage bin, so we could see if we were successful by glancing out the window over morning coffee.  Oops.  The squirrel had begun chewing a hole in the T-1-11 wood thru the bottom large wire meshes.

Marv had been releasing the squirrels beyond the bridge across Eyak River at 5 Mile, so I followed suit.  Then it occurred to me that the squirrels might be migrating back.  After all, back in the early 80’s, in an effort to reduce bear predation on Dusky geese nests out on the Delta, ADF&G tranquillized several brown bears and heli-transported them all the way to Montague Island.  Within a week, transponders indicated they were already back.  Evidently they dodged any tankers while swimming across Hinchenbrook Entrance.

So, despite their short little legs, a quick squirrel sprint back to town from 5 Mile would seem a breeze for our problematic foes.  We decided to launch our own research project.  But how do you tag a squirrel?  We opted for spray paint instead.  If you want to have fun sometime, try spraying florescent orange or green paint on a caged squirrel’s tail.

Our granddaughter Ellie was four at the time, and eager to learn about the scientific process, so the two of us headed out to Eyak Landing for the release.  My squirrel’s tail was sprayed orange, of course, in honor of my alma mater, Oregon State.

When we opened the door to the live trap, our subject vanished in a blur of orange which I wish OSU running backs could duplicate. In fact, Ellie wanted me to catch another squirrel, so this time she could be ready to see what actually happened.

The good news was we never did see any orange or green hued squirrels around our houses.  Of course, there could be a multitude of reasons the coloring had vanished, and the same guys were back anyhow.  Animals have a way of confounding deductive reasoning.

So.  Sandpiles, cats, and squirrels.

Another saying:  “If you build it, they will come.”

And go.

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Dick Shellhorn
Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and 2020, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes. Reach him at [email protected].