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Strangest Thing Ever?
LMRD 674, July 27, 2016

Strangest Thing Ever?

We big river guides often are asked "what is the strangest thing you've ever seen on the Mississippi River?" Images of skulls, twisted steamboat wrecks, and industrial protoplasm might inhabit the expectations of the inquirer. No, we have never found anyone tied to a sack of concrete after being thrown off a bridge -- although we have found many other carcasses -- all being remains from inhabitants typical to the Lower Miss, such as deer, coyote, turtles, and fish. (Note: You can't see the fish for the muddiness, but like roadkill you can get an idea of their density by those strewn about the beach in low water, when they get trapped in depressions). But no, none of these has been as strange.

Fact is stranger than fiction. The strangest things are often the common things you see every day in front of you, on your path. Maybe you've never looked close enough. Maybe you've never seen the "other" side of something you've been seeing all your life. You might be amazed at what you find, like seeing the dark side of the moon for the first time.

Such was the case with the bottomside of this creature depicted below. This is a common inhabitant of the Lower Miss. But you probably never saw the other side of her body!

A Season of Turtles

It's been a season full of turtles for us, ever since the water started dropping from the seasonal high (47.5HG) in March. And not just tracks and sightings, but several turtles behaving strangely, moving slow, or not moving at all. Alive, but not running away as they most often do whenever we humans approach by canoe or foot.

Mississippi Map Turtle

One of the first encountered was a small Mississippi Map Turtle found near a blue hole on Island 62 in April. The young man above is not getting ready to eat him like a turtle-burger; he is looking into the turtle's face, its snout, and the innocent eyes peering back at him.

After communing with this turtle, we placed him back on the hot sand near the blue hole. He had a unique evacuation method. Usually turtles make a bee-line for the nearest water. This youngster dug himself a burrow in the hot sand and disappeared from view.

Box Turtle

Later in April I found a semi-comatose Box Turtle as the water was dropping from flood stage out of the forests near Montezuma. He was on shore at water's edge, but not moving. We brought him home for inspection and sketching. He lived a week before going cold. What his ailment was, I never knew. Maybe he was just ready to die.

Portrait of a Dying Box Turtle

Dying Box Turtle (Watercolor)

Another Box Turtle

In May we rescued another Box Turtle off a pile of driftwood. This one lived. It was a precarious moment. Box Turtles don't swim. We discovered him partially submerged, clinging to a limb with half its body in the swirling currents alongside Buck Island, a steep 20' bank with fallen trees. He was hanging by one claw! We imagined this poor fellow had slipped over the edge and been unable to climb back up. What a river coincidence that we were there at that exact moment. Someone spotted him as we were paddling upstream along the edge of the island. We back paddled, and then draw paddled left to reach him. If he had let go before we arrived he would probably have drowned. But he was in fine shape at rescue, hissing at us with spirited vigor, and trying to bite our fingers. We let him go at the nearest next location upstream where the bank was low enough to make landing and encourage him in the direction of the forest.

Mississippi Stinkpot Turtle

We rescued this immature Mississippi Stinkpot Turtle crossing the road one day in June as we were headed out to the river.

He's not really that smelly -- his aroma is that of the wetlands. Poor guy got a bad name. But you wouldn't want him in bed with you; he does smell like the muddy bayous from whence he comes. This should be no surprise -- he lives in the swamp, he eats from the swamp, his days are spent wandering through the swamp.

Another Mississippi Map Turtle

At the end of May we found another slow-moving Mississippi Map Turtle, this one an adult. Again, contrary to normal reaction, she did not flee our presence. This made me curious. I gently pulled her off the bank and placed her in the canoe for observation. We stopped at the next island for sunset supper, and after some sketches I let her go. She seemed to recover the zest for life. She had no problem returning to the river.

Farewell Glance of a Mississippi Map Turtle

Strangest Thing Ever?

So now getting to the point of this story. Maybe the weirdest thing I have ever seen on the Mississippi River was discovering this Smooth Softshell Turtle in June when we made a muddy landing at the top end of Scrubgrass Bend at Henrico Bar. She had dug herself a shallow basin in the mud.

Smooth Softshell Turtle

Softshell Turtles do not let you ever come close, but scurry away at a surprisingly high rate of speed. Their webbed claws are huge, and they react quick with lightning bursts of motion when approached. I think one could outrun a coyote, and most certainly outswim any other turtle in the muddy river. But this one didn't. Like the other turtles above she remained motionless at our presence. I petted her smooth back and then picked her up for inspection.

Everything about this turtle was bizarre, like an alien creature. Did she fall out of the sky? Is she intelligent life from another planet? No, she is a Smooth Softshell Turtle, one of the most common such on the Lower Miss.

How come I've never taken a photo or sketched a picture of one? Because we never get this close! Why did she not run from us? She did not have any obvious marks of injury or bodily harm. We picked her up and she gently accepted our attention, seeming to watch us with as much innocent curiosity as we did her.

The pattern on her bottomside looks something like Darth Vader's helmet with lightning bolts, and a frowning face below... or something like that... The discovery of this outlandish black & white pattern is probably the strangest thing I have ever seen on the Mississippi River. Maybe this encounter was exaggerated on a creature I have always noticed, but never beheld up close.

This experience makes me wonder what else I am not seeing in those things close around me!


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