I’ve chanced across wild alligator snapping turtles several times in my life, and seeing one again recently triggered memories of the hair-raising encounter I had as a cub scout, when I was a boy.
Our troop was having a picnic in an idyllic setting of tree-dappled meadows on a century-old farm in Michigan. The manicured landscaping and tidy grounds were delightful, and gave no hint of that anything might be amiss. After the picnic lunch, I was exploring the grounds, looking for bullfrogs along the brook that flowed across the grounds. I came to a road crossing that had a simple stone bridge set over a concrete culvert.
Sitting on the side of the bridge was a very pretty little girl in a pink and red dress, who was dangling her feet in the water, playing in the rippling currents with her toes. Even as young as I was, I couldn’t help but notice her bright blue eyes, rosy cheeks and ruby-red lips. She looked like one of my grandmother’s dolls.
As I drew closer to the bridge, about six feet away, I leaned over the brook to look into the culvert. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light inside, I saw some slow movement inside, a dark shadow moving toward the opening. I couldn’t make out any shape, and I wasn’t sure if my eyes were playing tricks on me or not. I squinted and shaded my eyes from the sunlight.
A shape started to emerge in the dark water, and rise ever-so gradually from the bottom of the brook. The water was about three and an half feet deep there. The shape looked like a small log at first. Slowly though, the shape shifted. It seemed to split slowly open and was a lighter shade inside the opening gap. With a sudden shock of horror, I realized it was a huge snapping turtle reaching up with his long neck and sharp, jagged bill for the little girl’s feet!
Panic and instinct took over. Without thinking, I sprang into the air like a deranged linebacker and slammed into the girl with a flying tackle. There was no finesse in the maneuver and we both tumbled back and skidded onto the gravel bed of the road, kicking up dust and getting a bit scraped up as well.
She screamed like a banshee. When I tried to help her up, she screamed even more. Everyone came running over. Some of the kids, probably her siblings, even started pummeling me with their fists. I stood there mutely, understanding their misplaced anger and just waiting for the grown-ups to break it up. My father, fortunately, was one of the first to arrive, and I blurted out about the snapper. He believed me, partly because we had captured a fairly large, but common snapper the previous summer.
He had to rather loudly admonish the other adults to listen to me. Many of them didn’t believe my tale, but my dad came up with a way to prove it. He found a dead, dry, sapling tree at the edge of the woods, and he wrenched and waggled it out of the ground, pulling up most of the roots with it. It was about twelve feet long and fairly stiff. He and a couple other guys pushed it through the culvert from the opposite side, roots first. The going was easy at first, then they met resistance. Something was actually pushing them back! Two more guys joined them, and they succeeded in forcing the alligator snapper out the other side. He was still pushing back with all fours when he cleared the end of the culvert.
There was a general rush and scramble as a number of people tried variously to pin him down or lever him out with branches. Eventually one of the farm hands got a rope around one of his hind legs and they hauled him out. He looked like a pre-historic monster, his scales forming sharp, horny ridges along his thickly armored shell. His massive paws had three-inch claws. He hissed like a steam train, and his maw was at least six inches wide. From what I know now, I’d guess he weighed probably a hundred pounds or more. (I probably weighed seventy pounds, and the little girl about thirty.) The last I saw of the snapper, he was trussed up in the back of a pickup truck. There was talk of taking him to the State Park Rangers or the Zoo, but I don’t know what actually happened to him after that.
But in my next story, we’ll fast forward four decades to the time when the opposite scenario takes place. Rather than rescuing humans from snappers, I rescue an alligator snapper from humans.