British Columbia is not turtley enough for me. Disregarding the discarded ex-pet, non-native Red-eared Sliders that reside in the ponds of almost every public park, historically there have been only two freshwater species of turtle in this province, and one of those, the Pacific Pond Turtle, is officially extirpated, more or less eaten out of existence (by humans; alas, they were delicious). The other is the Western Painted Turtle, which lives in watersheds in the interior of the province and in a few places on the coast, which themselves may stem from transplanted ex-pets.
In my native Ontario there were at least seven freshwater turtles, and turtle catching was a periodic preoccupation in almost every summer in the Haliburton Highlands, where we rented a cottage, and where I went to camp as camper and counsellor. Five turtle species were relatively common, the ubiquitous Midland Painted Turtle, the crazily decorated Map Turtle, the small, odiferous Musk Turtle, the dome-shelled cheery-faced Blanding’s Turtle, and, most importantly, that massive denizen of the northern lakes, Chelydra serpentina, the Common Snapping Turtle.
I found chocolate-coloured Loonie-sized snapper hatchlings and kept them in plastic palm-tree turtle ponds. I kept medium-sized ones in Gordon Lightfoot’s bathtub. I met jumbo mommas trundling through beech and maple forests and even up on granite ridges far from and high above open water, looking for egg-laying sites. I also found females heart-breakingly crushed and dying on busy roads. A few times I was able to save others from similar fates.
What makes snappers special? They are nature’s version of a battle tank, big, powerful, and impressively, beautifully ugly. The head is enormous, with a formidable beak. The carapace is a gladiator’s shield that can be tilted toward whatever threat. They move and fight on powerful, fleshy legs tipped with long, sharp claws. Their scaly tail, thick at the base, belongs on a crocodilian.
The appear deceptively bull-necked, but the extended neck is actually very long, leading to name Chelydra serpentina. It allows them to reach back or to the sides, to bite. And bite they can. Not snap a paddle-shaft strong, as we liked to believe, but strong and persistent enough that you would be best advised to avoid it. We also liked to believe that they had three-foot carapaces, and weighed at least thirty pounds, whereas in reality a large one comes in at under 18 inches shell length and might weigh twenty pounds or so. Still an impressive creature when angry, and they are by nature always angry -- when you poke at them.
They seem somewhat vulnerable from below, with a small, some might say almost indecently small, plastron (bottom shell). But this is what frees their meaty limbs, makes then so mobile, and, if flipped over by a potential predator or foolish human, the long neck, extended as a lever, very quickly sets the turtle back upright, ready to fight.
They are ornamented too. Every surface bears scales, ridges or fleshy protuberances. After a while in the water, they sprout strings of green algae and black clusters of leeches. They are an ecosystem onto themselves, miniature aquatic death stars, cruising the bottom of a lake.
I almost lost my life in pursuit of one, not because the turtle was dangerous, but because I was young, about eighteen, and easily swayed by the will of the people.
It started as a scene from Jaws. Children were screaming and fleeing from the shallow swimming area, a massive shadow passing among them. “It’s heading to the canoe dock!” someone yelled. I happened to be passing by. Eyes turned to me. I was the nature counsellor at that summer camp, responsible for taking charge of every errant creature, from moth to moose. It was an unspoken and immediate consensus: Hugh would catch the snapping turtle, remove it from the swimming area. It was now beneath the canoe dock, from whence it could emerge at any time to menace the swimmers. Something had to be done.
It was a floating canoe dock, about thirty feet square, made from heavy planks standing on edge with lighter planking laid overtop. It was tethered to the shore with its far end floating about four feet above the sandy lake bottom. Flotation was assisted by blocks of polystyrene wedged into the spaces between the planks, but every third space was vacant. I knew this from search and rescue drills. That there were air pockets evenly spaced beneath the dock was helpful if you were doing something important, like looking for a missing swimmer. Also helpful if you were doing something stupid, like trying to catch a large adult snapping turtle under a dock.
I took a scuba mask from the rescue box, borrowed a waterproof flashlight, and, fully clothed, waded through the swimming area to the dock.
Was I scared? Nope. We all knew that snappers don’t snap under water unless they’re after prey. They only bite defensively when on land. This is not in fact true, but at the time was believed to be. Plus I had an audience lined along the shore, all those shivering kids wrapped in towels, urging me on.
My plan was to duck beneath the dock, find the turtle with the flashlight, grab it by the tail and haul it out backwards. It probably wouldn’t even know what was happening. Then everyone on shore would be able to marvel at the beast, I would put it in a canoe, paddle it around the point, and let it go.
I adjusted the mask, turned on the flashlight, took a deep breath, and submerged. It would have been smart to stipulate that everyone stay off the dock.
It was murky; my half-swimming, half-walking stirred up the bottom. I hoped the turtle wasn’t too close to shore where there was very little wiggle room beneath the dock. Eventually I saw it moving along on the bottom about mid-dock. After popping up into an airspace to take a breath, I went for it. I grabbed the thick tail, and as I had predicted the turtle didn’t seem to sense that anything was wrong. It kept walking, its legs moving mechanically and ineffectually above the sand as I squirmed backward to an airspace, and yelled up between the planks, “I got it!” which caused everyone on the shore to run onto the dock in excitement, just as I started moving backward beneath the next two bands of flotation blocks. A thing about those blocks: they could hold up a dock, but were not meant to hold up a dock overrun by a throng. The dock sank, onto the turtle, onto me. We were pinned to the bottom. I don't believe that the turtle was troubled by this. It had a strong carapace, so a canoe dock resting on top was perhaps not too big a deal. More importantly, it was pretty good at holding its breath, could wait his situation out. I, on the other hand, had a compressible rib cage and about ten seconds left.
How many times in my life have I experienced pure panic? That was certainly one. A mad rush of adrenaline and flailing of limbs came of it. Somehow I wriggled my way backward, almost to the next airspace. I could get a corner mouth of air. I had dropped the flashlight and was able to pull off the mask and get a little more of my mouth into the airspace. “Get off the dock!” I yelled. The dock was sinking lower, as crowds inevitably attract more people, especially in a place where not a lot different happens from day to day.
“Off the dock!” I yelled, and with maybe my final breath, “Get off!” Someone up there (on the dock, I mean) figured out I was in trouble. “Everybody off the dock!” he yelled, and the stampede reversed, headed back to shore. The dock rose. I could move, and slid fully into the airspace. I breathed deeply, my heart pounding. Ridiculously, I was still holding the turtle’s tail, and the turtle still seemed oblivious to what had been going on.
We emerged into daylight. The spectators cheered lustily. The snapper now realized that something was amiss, and started swimming, swinging its massive front legs, but I held firm and dragged it to shore. I lifted it by the tail and in stereotypical snapper behaviour it partially extended its neck and opened its jaws, looking for something to lunge at. It was a nice moment, where everyone could see the creature up close and see that although scary-looking it wasn’t really much of a threat, that it was even a likeable thing. In the old days at that same camp, snapping turtles were shot on sight.
I let it go in a secluded place and everything worked out fine. Someone else went back under the dock for the mask and flashlight.
Snapping turtles are beautiful and not the least bit dangerous. What’ll get you are the brainless things you do in not leaving them alone.