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Posted on Apr 21, 2013

Turtling in the Michigan Cold by Whit Gibbons | An Excerpt from Courting the Wild

Turtling in the Michigan Cold by Whit Gibbons | An Excerpt from Courting the Wild

On April 24th we will release a second edition of Courting the Wild: Love Affairs with Reptiles & Amphibians, edited by Jamie K. Reaser. Over the years this little book has become a Hiraeth Press classic. In the coming weeks we will be revisiting some of our favorite essays. We’ll begin with a selection from Whit Gibbons.




Turtling in the Michigan Cold

An Excerpt from Courting the Wild: Love Affairs with Reptiles & Amphibians,

edited by Jamie K. Reaser


The first reptile that entered my life in a significant way was a rough green snake. It lay outstretched on the largest limb of a redbud tree. I smashed it many times, until it was dead. Quite dead. I didn’t feel good about it—about killing that snake. That was 63 years ago. I was five.

To this day, snakes still draw me to woods, swamps, and rivers on never-ending quests to find the next one. I’m more interested in protecting than killing them, however.

Yet, in 1965, I found myself staring not at a snake, but into the icy waters of Michigan’s Wintergreen Lake, looking for life—or perhaps, a life.

Something within me knew that I needed to learn about the world beyond the Deep South, to traverse lands less humid,less gentile, and less tied to stories people didn’t want to talk about. So, I migrated northward from Alabama. I enrolled in Michigan State University, and began dissertation research at the W. K. Kellogg Biological Station. In no time, I concluded that Michigan winters are excessive, especially in length. Of course, being a herpetologist is not a prerequisite for making such an astute observation, but a reptile-favoring herpetologist, such as myself, is unlikely to find much of interest amid ice and snow—especially ice and snow that blankets the entirety of the landscape and builds upon itself for months on end.

My first spring in Michigan came none too soon. By early April, the winter had gone on long enough to suit me, and I longed to see a lake without ice. George H. Lauff,director of the biological station, had arranged for me to collect turtles during the warm months on the lakes at the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary. April is not noted for being a warm month in Michigan, but as luck would have it, Joe Johnson called from a nearby bird sanctuary to say there was open water around the boat dock at Wintergreen Lake. And better yet, he claimed he had seen a painted turtle swimming beneath the ice shelf. Out the door my parka and I went.

Well, this was back when herpetologists “knew” that turtles were not active in cold weather. A turtle venturing about under the melt of Michigan ice seemed preposterous. Despite three anecdotal observations by well-known herpetologists Archie Carr, Fred Cagle, and Owen Sexton of single turtles swimming under ice, reptile ecologists did not waste time looking for turtles in half-frozen lakes. And, they certainly wouldn’t let their colleagues catch them “turtling” amidst a Michigan winter! Reputation means a lot to a herpetologist, almost as much as it means to a Southerner.

But, I proceeded anyway. The day was sunny, in fact brilliant,and by my Alabama standards the winter had overstayed its welcome by several weeks. It was time for it to go and if Mother Nature wasn’t going to do her part, I was going to create a palpable delusion. I was thus anxious to see my first reptile of the year; even if it turned out to be a single, equally delusional turtle.

I arrived at Wintergreen Lake and, yes, there was open water at the dock. Icy cold, clear Michigan water surrounded the wooden dock and extended for only a hundred feet in either direction along the shore. The open water stopped at the edge of the ice shelf that covered the remainder of the lake. I was quite disappointed; the twenty-acre lake was not really accessible. Still, the sky and water were clear and I had no other herpetological prospects. I decided to take a look.

Standing in the bow of a frigid aluminum boat, I shoved off into the water and used one of the oars as a pole to push my way along the shoreline. And there it was! Within seconds, I saw a painted turtle swimming rapidly along the bottom of the lake. I grabbed my dip net and thrust it into the icy waters, turning my first reptile sighting of the year into my first capture: a male painted turtle, its black shell margined with crimson, its black head and legs adorned with bright yellow stripes. A handsome creature, and very active; in fact, it was amazingly active for a reptile in ice water. I assumed this to be the turtle Joe had seen, an aberrant animal as anxious to rush the season as I was.

As I was putting the turtle into a collecting bag, the boat drifted further from the dock, assisted by a cold draft of late winter wind. I found myself moving toward the ice shelf, near the lake side of the open water. I peered into the crystal clear waters, hoping to see more signs of life, perhaps a fish. The ice at the edge of the shelf was like a glass counter. This was pristine habitat. I stared and marveled at what I saw. Turtles. Dozens of painted turtles. Crawling. Moving. Swimming along the bottom beneath the transparent shelf of ice. The scene brought to me an emotional mix far warmer than the surrounding world of cold water, cold air, and ice.

My interpretation of the phenomenon I had stumbled on was not particularly profound. I concluded that the turtles were trying to raise their body temperatures on what was probably their first view of the sun in months. Subsequent observations of turtles in cold water, during periods when they were once assumed to be dormant, have been made by others.

It’s possible that the turtles were trying to get warm enough for breeding season activities; but herpetologists are still trying to determine exactly when painted turtles mate, so maybe there are other reasons—like a desire to celebrate another winter’s end. Whatever the case, the painted turtles had taken advantage of the opportunity to raise their body temperatures, and perhaps, like me, their hopes. We were all motivated enough to be active under near-freezing conditions.

I got even more than a turtle that cold April day. Following my initial amazement, what did I learn from the experience personally and professionally? Aside from the not-needed reminder that Michigan is cold much of the time, the observation inspired me to write my first technical publication in a scientific journal. I viewed publishing as a sacred ritual, and seeing the galleys of the short note that would appear in a reputable scientific journal gave me a confidence I had lacked as a boy from the Deep South. I could actually experience a herpetological phenomenon and write about it for other people to read!

The event also revealed to me that other reptiles could be as remarkable and engaging as snakes. But perhaps the most important lesson was one that has continued to be part of my life long learning experiences with reptiles and amphibians. That is, animals do not always do what our preconceived notions prepare us for, so we should always be prepared to embrace Nature’s mysteries even before we know they exist.



Reptiles & Amphibians Front cover

Courting the Wild:

Love Affairs with Reptiles and Amphibians

Edited by Jamie K. Reaser

Second Edition

ISBN 9780979924651

214 pages, Paperback

Release Date: April 24, 2013

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$2 from each purchase will go to the IUCN Amphibian Specialist Group.