Everybody’s got a story but Trip Barnes has more stories than anybody.  Trip is well known around these parts. If not truly famous, he is definitely infamous. He pops up (like this week’s creature) in the oddest places and somehow both — full of verve — have found their way into this week’s column.  

Some innocent Googling about the history and presence of chipmunks on the Island led me, strangely, straight to Trip. In a Martha’s Vineyard Magazine article written by Nina Bramhall in 2017, Trip claims responsibility for the presence of chipmunks on the Island.  

In that story he explains that he procured a pair of chipmunks from a Falmouth pet store for his children (who are now adults). On the way home, the chipmunks (along with Trip) spent time in the Leeside Bar in Woods Hole, on the Steamship Authority ferry and at The Ritz in Oak Bluffs. At each of these locations, Trip brought the animals out for a show and tell of sorts. And at every one, they escaped.   

Somehow Trip was able to catch these rodents almost every time — except at that favorite dive bar, where one adventurous chipmunk scooted out the door. In the small town that was Oak Bluffs, a call from a local business reunited Trip with the escapee.  

Drama over? Not quite! Clearly, these were no pets for children so Trip brought the reunited pair to his office, where they chewed through the wooden windows and absconded for good. And according to Trip, “Ever since then, there’ve been chipmunks on Martha’s Vineyard and, as far as I know, there never were before.”  

As much as I love a good yarn, I don’t think we can give all of the credit to Trip. The word chipmunk comes from an Algonquin name, “chitmunk,” so it’s reasonable to assume that natives throughout the East Coast were acquainted with the creatures. 

British adventurer John Brereton reported Bartholomew Gosnold’s 1602 voyage to Martha’s Vineyard to Sir Walter Raleigh and could not find any reference to chipmunks, but this is not too surprising. Mr. Brereton did note sight

ings of “Beavers, Luzernes, Martens, Otters, Wild-cat skinnes very large and deepe furre, blacke Foxes” and “Conie skinnes” but made no mention of such unprofitable animals as squirrels, mice, or chipmunks. 

According to an article written by naturalist Allan Keith in the Dukes County Intelligencer, there were a very limited number (if any) of these animals in the mid-1960s. He relates how author and historian Gale Huntington stated that there were no chipmunks on the island in 1962.  However, other sources confirm sightings in 1963, 1965 and 1966. Mr. Keith himself noted that he hadn’t seen one at the time of the writing in his 25-year history on the Island. At that time, he shared that this species is “not important in the overall faunal picture though their progress will be interesting to watch.”  

Truer words could not have been said of the chipmunk, though the chipmunks themselves may object to the phrase “not important.” These animals have made their mark and increased their presence over the last 50 years, spreading from (appropriately enough) the tiny, plucky populations that were reportedly introduced on Chappy and Christiantown in the late 1950s to an Island-wide presence.  

Chipmunks seem to be everywhere now. Of late I have been playing Frogger with them as I pedal to work on the state forest bike path along Old County Road. In my own time on the Island, their numbers have significantly increased. Boom and bust cycles are normal for this animal and populations fluctuate with food supply and weather factors. Notable are “mast years” when acorns are more plentiful than usual and chipmunks may flourish on the acorns that squirrels don’t collect. It’s the way of nature; whenever there is an opportunity, some living being will exploit it, from fungi on up. 

So though I can’t confirm or deny Trip’s nutty tale, chipmunks, like the man himself, are likely here for the long haul.

Suzan Bellincampi is islands director for Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown and the Nantucket Wildlife Sanctuaries. She is also the author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.