We drifted around the corner into a quiet swamp, looking at and listening to this new neighborhood we were invading. My attention was drawn to a large wetted rock protruding slightly above the water’s surface. It didn’t quite fit with the surroundings. Everything else was water in near flood stage, the expansive swamp all around, and luxurious wetland vegetation. Not another inorganic solid was in sight.
Whether it appears to belong there or not, a rock in the water is worth noting when you’re underway in a boat. As we silently approached, something emerged from the water, adjacent to the rock. It was dark, about the diameter of an 81 mm mortar shell. “What the devil is that? A small log,” I thought, “or a dead branch pinned by the flood and shifting with the subtle current.” It emerged to about a foot above the surface, slowly twisted and looked at me. That wasn’t a branch. It was alive and it had purpose.
As I gaped back at it, my attention now riveted, another dark, dripping, shape emerged from the water under the one already intently inspecting us. The second head and neck, big as the first, sinuously, sensuously glided up alongside the other. There was no territorial tension at all between those two heads. They were evidently very comfortable with the intimate contact. The rock was actually a turtle shell. It was early spring, before eggs that become baby turtles are buried. The two snapping turtle lovers were now cheek to cheek and inspecting us after having their weightless, cool, and slippery amorous adventure interrupted by our gliding intrusion. They were the biggest snappers I’d ever seen.
We were about to pass, perhaps ten feet away. I was speechless, eyes wide and mouth undoubtedly hanging open. Our ninety-pound Lab Retriever, riding regally in the center of the canoe, had similarly been processing the same visual images. At times he can be less reflective than I, motivated by simpler, more direct neural pathways. This was one of those times. He suddenly and simultaneously abandoned both his well-bred canoe manners, and the canoe itself. With a full muscled spring, he launched himself gloriously into the air. For an interminably frozen moment he hung tautly at the apex of his leap. His lean, stretched out physique was most impressive. His will and commitment was clear and unquestioned. His eyes were focused unwaveringly on the prize before him. The leap carried him half the distance towards the pair before he splashed down. A powerful swimming stroke immediately surged his shoulders clear of the water. Lynne Cox herself would have admired his athletic resolve.
You can probably deduce that, since we had observed Alsek’s entire leap, flight, and splash, our canoe had not capsized, and I was, at least, pleased with that. Though I’m not normally leery of swimming with snapping turtles, I empathize with the irritation one can feel when abruptly, if unintentionally interrupted as that huge snapper pair had been. But here I digress, with my brave dog resolutely striving towards the loving couple.
My partner and I found our voices, which were the best implements available to us at that moment. A combined scream and command of horror, warning, and direction emerged that would have caused consternation a quarter mile away had there been anyone else within hearing. Alsek’s head miraculously jerked around just in time. Puzzled, he reluctantly swam back to the canoe, I hauled him aboard, and he thoroughly shook himself free of all the river that had come aboard with him. The rock that was not a rock was gone and only a swirl remained in its place.
April 1, 2004