The Old Man On The Mountain

A View From the Backwoods of NH

The Great Turtle Hunter

As a kid I grew up in Concord Mass near Great Meadows Wild Life Preserve, a grand expanse of swamp and trails that ran along the Concord River. Along the edge of this area ran the freight train tracks, from Concord Center east toward Bedford. And on these tracks, creeping out of the swamp to sun themselves, came the turtles – Painted, Box, Spotted and Snapper. And nothing intrigued me more than turtles.

So, with my “band-aid tin” filled with crackers (yup, band-aids came in tins back then), I’d start off across the neighborhood to the swamp, with my dog Copper in tow (the crackers kept her with me – until the tin was empty) – after all, a kid needs company and if I got lost, Copper always knew the way home. Dad once told me that, whenever they’d come looking for me, he’d look/call for Copper, as he knew I’d be near by. Since Mom had taken me on picnics to the Concord River when I was little, I was familiar with Great Meadows, the observation tower (back then made of railroad ties stacked like a Jenga tower), the dirt paths, roads and the rule – never be anywhere near the tracks when a train came. And, since they didn’t come by frequently or travel fast, that wasn’t a problem.

The neighborhood next to mine, between me and the swamp, was built on an old farm (when I was real little the builder used to give me and my sister rides in the bulldozer bucket). So I’d start off toward what to me was (facing the swamp) the “left side” of the neighborhood, pick up the tracks there and walk toward what would be the “right side” of the neighborhood. Only a couple of times did I run across the big snapping turtles, slowly crawling up the incline toward the tracks to lay their eggs. Mostly I’d just come across what was left of them after the police shot them (with so many kids in the neighborhood, they were considered a hazard, so parents would call the police).

The rest of the time, as I walked along the tracks, I’d find the turtles (mostly Painted occasionally a Box) warming on the tracks – some squished by trains but most alive, and I’d take one or two home to show Mom and Dad (Dad would release them later to go back to the swamp – when I’d go looking for them the next morning, Mom would say “they must have gone home.”). And some days there weren’t any on the tracks, and that’s when I’d go down the trails and roads of Great Meadows, Copper in tow, checking the edges of the swamp and all the little ponds to see if I couldn’t find a turtle or two. The rarest of all were the spotted turtles – I’ve only seen two in my life, and only caught one.

I learned a lot about nature during those walks, sometimes imagining what it must have been like for the pioneers when they first discovered this land. When you’re young and adventurous, a place like Great Meadows is a constant source of wonder. Totally unaware of the potential dangers of such a place, I was never scared for a minute – besides, I had Copper to protect me, at least until the last cracker was gone.