Outdoors Columns

Up Moses Creek

Snapping turtles have long, saw-toothed tails. Fred Coyle photo Snapping turtles have long, saw-toothed tails. Fred Coyle photo

Snapper, Part I 

Snapping turtles have been on my mind this spring after one showed up in our pond. Its arrival was not unexpected; it comes every spring — and with increasing presence. When Becky and I first saw the turtle years ago, it would have fit in the palm of my hand. We named it “Snappie” and hoped the little turtle would stay for a while — which turned out to be all summer. But as the turtle kept returning each spring, the cute-sounding “Snappie” no longer fit the formidable-looking reptile now living in our pond. What a long, saw-toothed tail it had grown! What a hooked beak on the end of its snout! So, we began to call it “Snapper.”  

Where Snapper comes from is a mystery. All we know is it doesn’t over-winter in the pond. For one thing, there’s no mud on the bottom for a “mud turtle” — to use an old name — to burrow in for the winter. When we built the pond, which is about the size of a swimming pool, we sealed its basin with a thick liner, and covered that with flat rocks.

For another, when we draw the pond down in February to clean out the year’s accumulation of leaves, letting it fill again with fresh spring water, every overwintering creature comes to light. We don’t stock the pond with fish, but salamanders and tadpoles, looking confused as to why their water world has shrunk, swim in the pool left in the deepest spot. But Snapper is not there.   

We think it goes down to Moses Creek, where there’s mud enough for it to burrow in to survive the winter’s coldest snap. There the turtle will slow its pulse and breathing until life is barely a whisper. When spring returns, it claws its way out of the warming mud and heads back up to the pond.

I’m always happy to see Snapper, but Becky has mixed feelings about it. That’s because spring is also the time when she shows up in the pond, attracted by the warming weather.  A dip in the pond is all it takes to break our inner heat on the hottest days. We go in every afternoon, twice during the Dog Days.  

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I wade in slowly, lie back and float, looking up at our house and the trees and the blue sky. But Becky doesn’t wade. She doesn’t want to touch the bottom because of That Which Lies Below.

Nature books assure us that except when feeding on prey, such as tadpoles and frogs, “snapping turtles rarely bite underwater.” But Becky reads “rarely” to mean they can bite if they want. So, holding a yellow inner tube close, she launches with what she tells herself is a turtle-cowing big splash. I watch her float contentedly around the pond’s edge on her yellow ring, slowly kicking her legs like a frog and looking at the mosses and flowers, while the pond’s one snake peers out from a moist crevice in the rocks. I don’t tell her the kicking makes her look like prey.   

Becky has mixed feelings about the turtle for another reason too. Snapper eats her water lily. Becky planted the lily in a pot, and it extends long stalks up from the bottom of the pond to unfurl heart-shaped leaves in the sun, where they slowly change from maroon to summery green. Then one morning we wake to see the plant chomped down to nubs. As if to let us know who did it, the turtle leaves a single leaf floating disconsolate on the surface, with a pie-shaped bite mark in it. The lily sends up more leaves. Again, the turtle strikes. Under such assault, the plant never grows pure white blossoms or set seeds.

Snapper makes it up to Becky when it joins us for lunch. We sit on the porch, sandwiches in one hand, binoculars in the other, knowing the turtle’s head will come up beside a certain shelving rock every few minutes. And when it does rise, our binoculars rise too. The head may stay up for just one breath, or it may linger awhile, the eye on us, rimmed by a dimple of water that looks like the halo around the head of a saint in early Christian art.   

Once Snapper has its fill of air and saintliness, the head retracts, the dark shell tips down. The last thing we see is the long, reptilian tail disappearing under the rock.  Becky says that tail gives her the willies.

(Snapper, Part II will appear in the June 14 issue of SMN.)

Burt and Becky Kornegay live in Jackson County.

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1 comment

  • How about a full photo of Snappie? I grew up in the New Orleans area and as a boy we saw several of these creatures over the years. One spring in 1957 a huge 'Alligator' snapper was caught in a ditch at the edge of Kenner Jr High School which was somewhat near the New Orleans International Airport. It was of great size (like a VW Beetle even) and the whole school turned out to see it. That far south the 'regular' snapping turtles had to contend with the alligator snappers which differed slightly in that the shell of the latter had pronounced rows of humps like the hide of a gator. There may be other differences (am going from memory here) but both species are considered quite dangerous. Being mostly ambush predators a person could easily step on one underwater or reach into a crevasse where one is waiting for a meal to pass within reach.
    An interesting twist to this story is in June of 2018 when I was moving into my home in Maggie Valley Country Club I found a large snapper at the base of my driveway! I've yet to learn what it was doing up this high well above the local pond below on the golf course. I have no water up at 3000' and there is no stream nearby! God's creatures never cease to amaze...

    posted by sam hopkins

    Tuesday, 05/16/2023

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