I WAS DRIVING HOME from the airport when I saw it: in the lane opposite mine, on busy Route 101, a huge snapping turtle was emerging from the forest, about to step onto the road.
I pulled over immediately. You can’t hesitate in a situation like this. In the time it took me to park and dash across the highway, the snapper had already placed one of her armored feet on the painted line demarcating the road’s shoulder.
Had she been a different species, I would have simply picked her up and carried her across. But this won’t work for a big snapper. Her shell was at least two and a half feet long. She was too heavy for me to lift, and if I tried, she’d bite me, hard. Neither could I induce her to turn around and go back into the woods behind her. Female turtles undertake migrations to lay their eggs in the fall and spring, and some scientists think they are following ancient pathways used for thousands of years. If she wanted to go in that direction, there would be no convincing her otherwise.
If I were going to save her life, I would have to stop her — now. The only tool in my trunk that could be of use was an umbrella, which I quickly unfurled, and placed, like a bright blue curtain, in front of her face. The umbrella stopped her cold. What now? How could I get her across? Pulling a turtle by its tail or legs can injure its spine, and a big snapper won’t usually give you a chance anyway. With powerful, clawed back feet, the turtle grabs your hands and rakes them across the sharp, serrated back edge of its shell. Then it turns around and bites you.
I couldn’t get her to step into the umbrella’s bowl and pull her across, either. She was too heavy and would have torn through the fabric. And the handle was too short for safety — snappers jump. But nor could I afford to let go of the umbrella. The gathering wind would blow it away, and the turtle would have headed into traffic. I had to stay with her, I thought, realizing I could be doing this for a very, very long time. There might eventually be enough of a gap in the traffic for her to cross at her natural pace, perhaps after nightfall, but that was hours away.
Bloody hell! Too many stupid drivers who don’t care enough to watch out for animals on the road. I began to curse them under my breath as I prepared to sit vigil on the side of the road.
And then the cars started pulling over.
“Need help?” a dark-haired woman with two kids in her station wagon called from her window as she waved and pulled over in the oncoming lane. A blond woman in a blue car also pulled over. “That turtle must be one hundred years old!” she gasped in wonder. “What should I do?” I suggested she find us a fat stick in the forest. Maybe the turtle would bite it and we could use that to drag her across the highway.
Another car pulled over in the opposite lane. “I have a rake!” shouted a tall man as he emerged from the car. “Can you use it?”
As I held the turtle at bay with the umbrella, the blond woman emerged from the forest with an appropriately sturdy, fat stick. She presented it to the snapper, who lunged so powerfully that the front half of her breastplate left the ground as she leapt and bit the edge of the stick off.
Then I had another idea. “Does anyone have a cardboard box?” I asked. “We can dismantle it and pull her across like a sled.”
The first woman went back to her car and did me one better. Thanks to her two kids, she happened to be carting around one of those plastic sledlike devices you can use to slide down grassy hills. It was even equipped with a long pull rope.
We used the rake to coax the turtle onto the plastic sled. At the first break in traffic, while the others watched for oncoming cars, I pulled her across to the other side.
To get her well away from the speeding cars, I wanted to pull her up a small hill, but the rake guy saw I wasn’t strong enough to do it. He took the reins and tugged her up and over a rise in the woods. Then, as the turtle hissed and snapped, he gently slid her off her sled, safe and sound.