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A listening turtle

| Wednesday, August 22, 2018

I was sitting near the edge of the dock, dipping my toes tentatively into the warm lake water, when a dinosaur appeared.

A mossy rock came to life, the massive creature — maybe a yard or so long from tail to beak, a size that would increase with every retelling of the event — swam up into the sunlit, greenish waters from its resting point in the depths below. Sunfish darted away with alarm at its entrance, then slowly gathered back around with a wary curiosity.

My mother speculates that the turtle had heard our voices and decided to float up to join the conversation. And it’s true that our voices, as we chatted back and forth on the dock by ourselves for an hour or so, had a soothing rhythm to them, one which likely echoed through the planks of the dock to the murky sediment below. Waters on this lake are often so flat and so calm that someone on the dock can have a conversation with a kayaker in the center of the lake and barely raise the volume of their voice. As the monster raised its small nostrils, two barely-discernable holes in its leathery face, I let out a surprised laugh — you could hear it breathing, in sharp, short bursts, like little disapproving snorts.

We Googled it — because even the remote Minnesotan lakes have cell service. Common snapping turtles are vicious and fast. Our turtle seemed neither common nor vicious, but a collected and confident observer of its watery environment. “Chelydra serpentina” was a bit wordy. My mom decided on “Yoda.”

As many as 90 percent of snapping turtle eggs are lost to predators — raccoons, skunks, crows. Judging by its size and the length of its algae beard, we estimated that it had reached its mature size. It must have lived here for 25, maybe 50 years. My family has been coming to the same lake for more than 30 years — was it just a baby when my grandparents first arrived, my teenaged father and his siblings in tow?

In all our years coming to this spot, we had never seen this turtle until now. Why it chose this year to reveal itself, we don’t know. But I feel lucky that it did. Since freshman year, every summer has shortened. My trip to the lake this year, normally a week-long affair, had been compressed into a long weekend. Even conversations with family members took on a subtle urgency this summer, as if we had to fit in everything to say before time was up.

My mother and I spent some time chatting with the turtle, transfixed. Our turtle was a good listener, likely because it had nowhere in particular to be. It paddled around, nudging the wooden dock gently, moving its bumpy, clawed hand in steady circular motions. And then it lifted its head dreamily, took a last small, strange gasp and floated down back below.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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