The small 17-hp garden tractor struggles as I inch my way through the foot-tall grass. As is typical, I find myself behind in my mowing of our trails/fire breaks on this sunny May afternoon. Suddenly, the front of the tractor lifts skyward, and I firmly grasp the steering wheel to keep from falling backward while quickly shifting into reverse. Thinking I ran up on an ant mound, I walk around to the front of the tractor and bend down to investigate. A pair of open, hooked jaws explodes out of the grass and accelerates rapidly towards my face. I instinctually flinch backward, lose my balance in the tall grass, and come just short of doing a back flip into the nearby pond.
It’s a snapping turtle, and it’s big! As I move closer, I’m greeted with a rapid-fire succession of striking popping jaws. We study each other. Me – how am I going to get this turtle safely out from the front of the tractor. The turtle – how am I going to get a satisfying piece of this guy! As I circle left and then right, the turtle matches my moves by pivoting its bulky armored body with its powerful front claws. The turtle seems to instinctually know to keep its vulnerable back side up close to the tractor and its powerful jaws aimed directly on me. It has been such a long time since I had last “handled” a snapper this big. This might not go well! My mind drifts to past snapping turtle encounters…......
I’m snorkeling in a small clear lake with a marl bottom. I see the outline of what appears to be a small snapping turtle shell on the bottom, and dive down to investigate. Immediately after I gently tap the shell, marl explodes in a blinding white, silty cloud disorienting my sense of direction as I hang weightlessly in the depths. My bout of vertigo is quickly broken with the image of gigantic open jaws seemingly inches from my face mask. I shoot up to the surface and watch below me for several minutes. Thankfully, no monster emerged in pursuit from the silt cloud below.
Debra and I are taking a clover leaf exit off a busying highway when she yells “STOP, THERE’S A TURTLE, YOU HAVE TO SAVE IT!” Cars whiz by as the snapping turtle and I do a short “turtle” dance before I successfully get a safe handhold on the back of the shell and promptly put it in the back of the truck. Debra, all excited, says “can I see it?” I open the topper hatch door. She bends over the tailgate to look in and instantly repels backward and upward narrowly missing the hatch door with her head. Eyes as big as golf balls, she stands frozen with a look of horror, terror, amazement and wild excitement. I smile. Meet Chelydra serpentine, my dear!
I pull into “my” gravel parking spot with my 1970, 455-cubic-inch Buick Limited. Standing on a wash tub out in the yard is my sister. She’s frantically waving her arms and yelling help! As I approach, she excitedly says: “It’s a monster snapping turtle, and it’s trying to get into my swimming hole.” She relived how she saw the turtle making a beeline to our pond. Wanting to keep her swimming hole safe and knowing how nasty a snapper could be, she wittedly covered it with an old wash tub. She thought she had thwarted the beast’s assault, but quickly found out she now had a turtle-powered wash tub advancing quickly to the pond. Her only recourse was to use her own body weight to overcome the turtle’s power. Beauty conquers beast! My sister’s courage impressed me that day.
With my current turtle dance over, I watch the large female snapping turtle slowly slip into the water’s depths. Fortunately, she is no worse for wear with her encounter with the garden tractor front tire. I hope she was returning from a successful egg-laying mission. Life is harder now for these prehistoric relics. Adult females are at most risk to human-related mortality, typically turtle-car collisions, as they travel between their watery homes and egg-nesting areas (typically loose-soil banks with minimal vegetation). With luck, 30 years from now, some child will have her first encounter with one of this turtle’s descendants.
Every kid needs a “monster in the depths.” A mysterious creature of prehistoric origin that spends most of its time in an unfamiliar watery world. A legendary creature whose bone-crushing jaws is more folklore than reality. A creature, while fierce and terrifying, is approachable with caution. A creature, with experience and familiarity, gives us confidence, growth and the conquering of our fears.