Turtles and the truths they teach us
It’s been a busy few months as I’ve been immersed in storytelling and business writing…and the revered summer tradition: Escape to the Lake.
So…in the spirit of a season that’s coming to an end way too fast, and the hope that it may have brought you closer to nature in some way of your choice, I’m sharing a story.
It’s about a turtle. Not just any turtle but a respected, giant snapping turtle that graced our bay just off the Winnipeg River for over a decade. All the time we’ve been in the area. She was the matriarch of our camp life. Untouchable. Shy. Yet occasionally showy and willing to allow us a glimpse of her magnificence. It didn’t happen nearly enough. In the early days, our family was a little afraid of her, but as we grew into life at the lake and the wisdom of how we were meant to be a part of it, we welcomed her as we did the many other creatures that are part of our life here.
We lost our great friend, turtle, this summer when she drowned by becoming lodged in an automobile tire that had made its way into her territory along the bed of the river. A tragic end to a stately, venerable animal that we hope had many offspring. My partner Michael and I both wrote about her at different times as we worked through our grief for what felt like a senseless, irreplaceable loss of part of our history at the lake.
This is our shared story.
Michael: When I first acquired my bit of earth I, like most cabin owners, went about the business of making it hospitable for human existence. I did this in total ignorance even though I have spent much of my life close to the water. So much was forgotten during life in the city. Over time the land has again taught me things I couldn’t learn on the Internet. I am wiser now about nature, how strong it is, how dominant and how flexible. I’ve always had an affinity for the natural world but until recently, I’ve never been saddened by it. Often, as humans, we think some of the things we do in the wilderness are just fine. We don’t think enough about the legacy we’re leaving. Just the simplest of things can make all the difference in the biodiverse system. I’m sad because this cost a dear creature her life.
Picture a large snapping turtle stuck in a tire at the bottom of the lake. She is drowning. Eventually she dies and her body and the tire rise to the surface. This is what I discover as I’m out fishing.
She was known to us, known by everyone in our bay. Just this past month the family had been excited when she came up on our shoreline. Maybe she was saying good-bye. She avoided us mostly – for good reason.
I felt awful as the wake from my boat dislodged her from the tire. It wasn’t pretty and that isn’t the picture I’ll leave you with. The one you see here is instead of a splendid Mikinaak* in her prime.
In wildlife years this turtle was an elder and deserved better.
She was like the whales of the world. How old are they? Do they get what’s happening to them; that it isn’t safe to be near humans? I think she did, like I said, mostly avoiding us. In the end, would it bring her any comfort to know that she would feed the river?
You do not gain wisdom because you are smart or clever or strong. You gain wisdom because you survived. And she did for a very long time.
My message to turtle: You have been with us, around us, near us for over a decade. I remember seeing you for the first time, green and moss covered like a living plant, watching my family. I took your picture, marveled at your size, at your ability to just sit in the sun and ignore us all. One time you came right up to us as if to chat. We swam with you fearfully wondering if you’d ever snap at us. But all you wanted was to see us. Another time you visited and stayed awhile, unafraid. You charmed us with your colour, blew bubbles as you drifted to the surface and under again. I will miss you my friend. In wildlife years you are up there with the whales, the giant elms, and 100-foot white pines. How old were you? 75 years? Nearly a century is a long time for a wild thing. You have my respect, my admiration, and my prayers. My family and the bay will miss you. Meegwetch**.
Leanne: Turtle. Mikinaak. She was the grandmother of our bay for many years, majestic and graceful in her sleepy, lumbering way. Neighbours who shared the bay would tell us how they often saw her popping up for air around our floating dock.
One season she nested on an island nearby and, as our children were small, I worried that they might land on her someday as they jumped off the dock. That never happened.
A few years later, she perched herself higher up on the same island and we were able to get a photo, immortalizing her. Then there was a blissful, warm afternoon when a friend and I came upon her as we paddled into a bay where she was basking in the sun. We were so close to her and she looked enormous but just for a second as she slid into the water causing my friend to exclaim, “Will she attack us?” She didn’t.
None of these brief interactions with Mikinaak compare to the time she popped up to meet me eye to eye. Turtles represent truth in Indigenous teachings. That wizened gaze reminded me that if I faced my own truths and was also truthful in what I did, I would always be okay.
That great turtle has been lost to us, her long, enduring life ended at the hands of humans. It’s unfathomable to me that she is gone, drowned in her own river home.
We’ve since talked about how she fit into the biodiversity of our river system. Untouchable as she made her slow and steady appearances in and out of the bay over the years. Almost immortal in a way that is rarely seen in nature.
Early this summer she crept up onto the shore near our dock enjoying the warmth of spring or maybe the company of my husband and daughter watching her from the deck above. I was busy preparing to attend a traditional Indigenous ceremony the following week. It’s called Sundance and celebrates new life returning to the land. Because of this, I missed the entire episode and wonder now about that. She’d rarely let you get that close but when she did you marveled at the size, the age, the look in her eye, and how calm this creature seemed to be around us. Perhaps she was there that day to remind us of the reasons we make sacrifices for the gifts of the land.
These creatures instill themselves in our lives and we watch for them when we’re in their places. At the lake, I feel this way about the turtles, herons, beaver, loons, otters, fox, eagles, ducks and birds of all kinds, and even the bears. We listen intently at night, waiting in the silence, and are rewarded occasionally with the wolves calling across the wilderness.
My message to turtle: You remind us that everything has an end but also a purpose and a place. There was a time when I was afraid of you but, by facing my own truths, I overcame that along with many other fears that allows me to be present and at peace in this place you used to call home. Thank you for stopping in from time to time and reminding us of the importance of truth.
We know that we may not see a creature like turtle again although we hope to see her offspring. Yes her end was at the hands of humans, a discarded or lost tire, likely once part of a dock that floated away, harmless at the bottom of the lake until she decided to investigate it. The owner of the tire likely didn’t mean for it to cause such harm.
But if we think about it now, maybe we’ll do a better job tying those damn tires or floats to our docks to protect our precious boats from getting scratched or keep our docks afloat.
There was a time when our family didn’t always show nature the respect it deserved. When we first set up camp on our weedy bay we were hell-bent on making the wilderness work our way. This included many hours dredging the weeds in the bay – actually not weeds at all but wild rice that always grew back, usually thicker than before. It wasn’t the first or the last time that nature would show us who was the boss.
We certainly weren’t the only ones with this idea. Along our river and on nearby Lake of the Woods we’ve seen cottages where hundreds of pounds of rock or concrete have been put in to kill everything that needs to be mowed or maintained. Creating sterile surroundings where people feel less encumbered and less threatened.
Sand put down that kills the ecosystem so the children and adults can enjoy the beach experience in places where beaches weren’t meant to be. Killing everything to create barren environments. Is that the legacy we want to leave our children? Is that what they want? How about we ask them…or at least try to get them to take notice?
Even if we can’t get their attention, can we at least think about it? Because everything we do matters.
A turtle and a tire taught us that.
Blog page illustration by Lisa Rydin Erickson. You can find more of Lisa’s work on Etsy.
Photos by Michael Fournier.