by Mark Daul
Outdoors in Niagara
The common snapping turtle was adopted in 2006 as the official New York state symbol. The naming came from a vote of the state legislature. In 1988, Ohio designated the black racer snake as their official reptile symbol. Many other states have reptile symbols. More common among the states are birds, flowers, fish, etc. New York's state fish symbol is the brook trout (fresh water) and the striped bass (salt water fish).
Snapping turtles are strange acting creatures that can snap a small tree branch in half with one "snap." They feed on a variety of things like small mammals, fish, toads, and even aquatic birds. They eat water plants for survival, too. These animals are fierce and can grow to 35 pounds. Not like other turtles, snappers can't pull their head or legs into their shells for protection. If you are that feared, you wouldn't need to anyway. A quick way to identify a snapping turtle is by its tail. It is very long compared to others, plus they have a pointy head.
Several years ago, when we had a crew draining the walleye rearing ponds at the Wilderness Preserve on Balmer Road, every year loads of turtles would move in and make the ponds their homes. We had one old timer that loved to eat turtles and snappers were his favorite. He told us all about the different flavors of meat these guys had in different sections of their body. He said he would soak them in milk for five days to sweeten up the meat, then cook them and eat them.
This one day, three turtles were caught in the seining nets, and the old timer asked to take them home to eat. No one else wanted any so he took them home. He had an old cast-iron enameled bathtub in his backyard and put them in there for the night, to prepare them for cooking the next morning. When he went to the tub in the morning they were all gone. It was a mystery for sure, because for a turtle to climb the high sides of that slippery enameled tub would be impossible.
Mature turtles don't have many predators, so it couldn't be an animal hungry enough to eat three of these. They had to crawl out somehow. A group of us were discussing this strange event, and the consensus was they had to do it by climbing on each other's backs to get to the top. First one turtle on top of the bottom one, then another turtle on top of that one, then maybe the second to last one climbed out, but the real mystery was how did the third and last turtle get out? The mystery remains.
When my brother and I were little guys, we had a flat-bottomed Jon-boat that we would take up and down Four Mile Creek. That was before the state park was built where large apple orchards stood belonging to farmer Jim Allen. The other side of the creek was owned by Jim's brother, Leonard, and that side was filled with cherry, apple, and pear trees. There was a lot of water in the creek back then, and it was full of fish and turtles. We could paddle up and down the creek from one end to the other, from Lake Road to the mouth of the lake. The turtles would be out through the day sunning themselves on a log or a tree branch, and if you got too close they would slide off into the water, then peek just their head out of the water just enough to see where you were.
In a bay at the north end of the creek there were always large baited fish hooks on a jug line attached to a tree branch or something. It was there to catch turtles. Turtles would reach up and grab the meat, chicken or fish or whatever, and get caught on those nasty looking hooks. Brother Ed and I thought we would be kind Samaritans and take the bait off and throw it away, preventing any of them to be caught.
Thinking we were doing these turtles a service by keeping them from being caught, cooked, and eaten, we heard grumblings that those jug lines belonged to the "Dutchman" that lived in a nearby cottage and those lines were his. We heard he was angry and was going to find out who was doing that to his bait, and was going to do a 'disservice' to them. We never knew the Dutchman's name; just that he was "The Dutchman." From then on, we never touched his lines again, or even went near them. I think we thought being called a Dutchman, they were big, mean, tough, and meant every word they said.
A few weeks ago there was a vehicle stopped in the middle of the road on Route 93, up near Tom Towers' Farm Market, and there was the driver in the front of his vehicle making motions with his hands, jumping, and kicking with his feet. My wife and I thought, 'Oh, oh, there must be a crazy guy out there.' It wasn't, not by a long shot.
When I crept up along side of his car to pass, I saw what he was doing. He was saving the life of a 8 or 10-inch turtle by guiding him across the road where he could have easily been hit by a car. I couldn't really tell if it was a snapper or not. When you see one of these guys in a predicament like that, do what the "not-so-crazy" guy was doing. Help it out. The rule here is if the turtle is going in one direction, do not turn him/her around to go the other way that will only confuse it. If its mind wants to go north, it is programmed to go north, not the way you think it should be. I think the not-so-crazy guy knew what he was doing with his feet by gently helping it to cross. The jumping is questionable; maybe when the turtle was snapping at him, he knew he had to get out of its snapping range. His hand gestures were from talking to the critter telling it to get going and to 'go that way.'
Turtles are prehistoric creatures, and date way back even before the dinosaurs. The not-so-crazy guy helping that turtle along might have realized that if he was to pick that little giant up to move it, many turtles have a tendency to empty their bladder when you pick them up. Most turtles you can pick up at the sides of its shell. Snapping turtles can actually reach around and bite you if you attempt to pick one up. It can reach around and grab you really quick. If you get grabbed, you had better go and get a tetanus shot. There are a lot of bacteria you should be concerned about. Never pick a snapper up by the tail. If you encounter a snapper, offer it a tree branch or something similar, and have him/her bite on to it and drag it to safety. It is best to pull your car off to the side of the road and signal other drivers to slow down until that prehistoric monster can be safely moved to the side. In New York state, the only turtle you can possess is the snapping turtle. The law says: "A small game hunting license is required to take snapping turtles," and "The only legal implement for taking snapping turtles is a firearm or a bow" (no trapping, etc.).
The great outdoors is where it's at. Exploring, hiking, fishing, boating, there is so much to see and do, so do it while the weather is so great, I promise you or you family won't regret it. Take a kid fishing, take an elderly person fishing, take you mom and dad, and just show them around the outdoors, they'll love you for it. Comments-suggestions: [email protected] or my "boss" Terry Duffy at [email protected].