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Showing respect for the turtles

Southbound for North Bay a few Sundays ago I thought I saw something familiar in the middle of Highway 11.
Southbound for North Bay a few Sundays ago I thought I saw something familiar in the middle of Highway 11.

I wheeled into a big U-turn – it was near dusk and there was no traffic – prompting Mary to snap out of her nap and sleepily inquire: “Is it the police?”

No, I hadn’t braked because of OPP radar, but to try and rescue a huge snapping turtle lumbering across the road at a painstaking pace. I recalled the recent news story about a tortoise who “ran away” from his home in England and was found barely a kilometre away a year and a half later.

An oncoming tanker truck from the direction of Temagami spelled certain death, but the driver spotted our frantic hand-flapping semaphore and gave us a friendly wave as he gently swerved his 18 wheels a safe distance away from the plodding snapper.

It was all clear, so I headed into the middle of the highway and put one hand on each side of his shell -- I wasn’t positive it was a male, and I had no intention of flipping it over to find out. But males are larger, and this one’s carapace (shell) was a good 18 inches long, which textbooks say is close to maximum length for Chelydra serpentina.

Canada’s largest freshwater turtles can weigh 70 pounds, but this guy felt like less than half that, although I may not have known my own strength since the adrenaline was pumping pretty good. His shell was well-worn – like the dull finish on a much-travelled used car – and I guessed he was older than the 30-40-year average species lifespan.

On the other occasions I have carried turtles across highways, my good Samaritanism has met with little or no resistance. But this fellow was not about to go gently into the good night. He made several lunges of his long neck backward toward my hands which nervously clutched the sides of his shell. About then I began to recall stories I had heard about a snapper’s toothless jaws being able to devour baby ducks, or separate fingers from careless hands. I don’t know which of us was more relieved when I put him down on the highway shoulder he had been headed for.

Before I left him, I sprinkled some tobacco on his shell as a gesture of respect, but he shuffled around to point his head in my direction and let out a defiant grunt – something else I had never heard from any of his cousins with whom I had been acquainted.

Whenever I encounter a creature in the wild I remember a story a Montagnais Innu chief told me one time about he and his father finding a marten struggling to get out of one of their traps.

“I reached down to let him out and my father grabbed my hand,” he said. “I told my father ‘I’m trying to help him.’”

“But he doesn’t know that, son,” his father reminded him.

I hold turtles in high regard since a special encounter in Petroglyphs Park near Curve Lake First Nation about nine years ago. The Teaching Rocks at the park bear 13 different carved images of turtles, so they were obviously highly-regarded by our ancestors as well.

All other living creatures deserve our respect, because we are all related, but turtles are like Elders whose longevity and life experience warrants special reverence. The Iroquois creation story says North America was formed on the back of a giant tortoise, hence the frequent Native references to this continent as Turtle Island.

Earlier on the day of my Highway 11 turtle encounter, I had visited an old and very dear friend in Timmins, a man who has a reputation across Northern Ontario for generosity and kindness, a man who has coached and mentored Cub Scouts and future Stanley Cup champions.

He went back to school in his seventies to earn a Bachelor of Arts Degree.
He was playing tennis, golf, and even squash in his eighties, despite knees that had been battered by hockey battles many years before.

He had been full of life, and loved by many, and given the Order of Canada by a governor-general.

That was before he was crippled by his worst body-check -- Alzheimer’s Disease.

Now he is captive to a wheelchair in a place where nobody knows him and he doesn’t know them, waiting for his 93rd birthday, looking out from empty eyes. His wife and daughter speak to him, hold his hand, and desperately hope he can remember even a glimmer of happier times.

They also try to protect him from the unkindness and even cruelty that often greets those seen as helpless in our world.

How I wish he had the strength and the fight of that turtle on Highway 11.


About the Author: Maurice Switzer

Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation
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