I have always loved and been fascinated by nature. As an adult, I view plants and animals as the current face of evolution’s ever-changing, long running experiment. But the child I used to be perceived only wonder – and that ain’t a half-bad way to experience life.
A large chunk of my boyhood was lived on the cutting edge of suburbia – a paradoxical landscape of neatly rowed, almost identical houses juxtaposed with derelict farm fields. Being not-too-far from Detroit Michigan, it wasn’t exactly wilderness, but a kid can pretend, and I did what I could to investigate things.
Random memories: provoking a harmless eastern hognose snake into flattening his neck like a cobra and lunging at me before it rolled on it’s back and ‘played dead’ *** switching eggs in birds nests of different species to see if they would raise a ‘foreign’ chick (yes) *** abducting a clutch of box turtles from a nearby swamp, and lugging then all home in a bucket (and no, my mother was not amused). Now that I think about it, that particular experiment didn’t turn out so good – on one especially cold morning I was appalled to discover my new ‘pets’ frozen and quite deceased in blocks of ice in their plastic containers in the shed. Ah well…
Fast forward to today: I guess you could say that I went on to make a career out of that childhood obsession. At age 53, with two degrees in biology hanging on the wall behind me (not really – I have no idea where they are), I have been teaching the stuff for twenty-odd years. But after decades dissecting and studying life, the original sense of wonder can fade a bit too – things fall into more or less predictable patterns – right?
For me, apparently not.
Don’t get me wrong – everything does line up predictably almost all of the time. I have never seen an embalmed cat jump up from an examination tray and run away, for example. But now and then, I have had experiences that I have not been able to classify – bizarre animal encounters which become stories that hardly anyone believes. And yet, I am compelled to tell them – as I will tell you. Yes, there are likely to be rational explanations for these things, but I haven’t been able to locate any myself. Okay, enough beating around the bush:
The Giant Turtle
As a boy who needed considerably more nature than my urban life could provide, I considered myself supremely fortunate to have ‘country cousins’ whom I could regularly visit. My aunt, uncle and their two kids lived on a small river that led into a not-too-big lake in what was then a rural part of south-eastern Michigan. Hard to believe today, but in the pre-internet era, there was much to be done outdoors. My cousin John and I explored, swam and/or fished nearly every summer day that I was there. Yup – real Huck Finn stuff – and it was a blast. For us, fishing was our primary concern, serious business: when, where – proper bait and casting technique – it was what we did.
So I was maybe 9 or 10 years old , he about 7 – and there we were, fishing away as usual, right behind his house where the shallow river meandered toward the lake. With both lines in the clear water, we scanned the surface for the slightest movement or furtive shadow – indications of an interested fish. That’s when we saw it.
Movement seen out of the corner of my eye caused me to glance upstream to see two turtles swimming our way. Now John and I had seen many, many, turtles before, so this was no big deal except for one thing: one of them was big – enormous actually. I’ll cut to the chase: I estimate (probably somewhat inaccurately at this late date) that this turtle was about four feet long and maybe three feet wide. Impossible? See pic below… That’s a fresh water Vietnamese Turtle – that exists (barely) today – the one that I saw was roughly that size.
Believe me, I knew that something extraordinary was going on. The sight of this animal was electric, exhilarating – way, way outside of anything considered ‘normal’. But there it was – as far as I knew (or know now) the biggest goddamn turtle anyone had ever seen in old Michigan.
The two swam right before our eyes – the smaller, normal sized painted turtle giving size perspective on the monster about a foot behind. Moving a good clip, they ignored us completely. But I was already frantic – aware that no one who hadn’t seen this would believe it. Desperate to slow them down, I threw my baited fishing line in front of the giant turtle’s nose – maybe he’d take it? No reaction at all. They swam on. John and I trotted along beside them on the bank, following them toward their destination – the lake. I don’t recall how far we got, or how we lost sight of them – but we finally did.
And that was it. Did anyone else ever see this thing? Not as far as I know. Was a turtle of this size even possible for this location on Earth? Not as far as I know. Species? Unknown – but it was not a snapping turtle, not a softshelled turtle. To be honest I recall it looking kind of like a giant version of the normal-sized one swimming with it – a painted turtle – but they don’t get anywhere near that big. So, I have no idea.
Skeptical? Join the crowd. I have to say that I don’t recall anyone truly believing me. Akin to a bigfoot sighting, reactions range from weak, bemused smiles to laughter and derision, but fuck it – I saw what I saw (he says, somewhat defensively). But there was another witness, right? Good old John… Well as we grew up we more or less lost contact, but we did see each other a few years ago at our grandmother’s funeral. And yes, I asked him if he remembered – and he said something like, ‘Umm, yeah, I’m not sure about that…’ And damn it if he didn’t wear that classic ‘bemused smile’ too! Oh man – what a blow. Guess I’m all alone with this one.
There is one, albeit legendary, bit of support for this thing. The Great Lakes Native American’s have a myth of a turtle so large that the Earth itself rested on its shelled back. Did ancient sightings of real giant turtles inspire the legend? And just maybe one lived a long, long time??? Highly unlikely…
Frogs from Nowhere
Many years later – at the other end of the size spectrum…
The scene: north-central Oregon, near Mount Hood and surrounding wilderness. We (my wife, son and I) live on some acreage, mostly forest, with a pear orchard next door. Finally – the real rural life – nature all around, no neighbors in sight – just the way I always wanted it. Date: around 2003-2004, roughly this time of year (late fall).
After a quick dinner at home, we went out for a middle school function for Lucas – a band concert, I think. And while middle-school band concerts are anything but memorable (except in a bad way), what came after certainly was. We got home, I would guess around 8 pm, I unlocked the door…
Inside, on the entrance landing – the place where we normally take off shoes and coats – were frogs. A bunch of them. As you can see from the picture above, they were teeny-tiny Pacific Tree Frogs. Yeah sure, they live around here – although I have to say, I rarely see them, don’t even hear them ’em much – except for a lone croaker forlornly sounding off in the night. But here – inside the house – were 15, maybe more. Most were clumped together, mid-floor, although some were on the stairs leading up to the living room, others had meandered downstairs toward the family room – a few had moved around enough for their moist bodies to be covered in dog hair and dust from the floor.
We stared, laughed, then started chasing them down. Picking up frogs here and there as they tried to jump this way and that, I recall exclaiming – “what – the – hell!?” more than once. It was a very strange experience, yet oddly fun. Eventually all (that I know of) were rounded up and taken out to the forest for release – never (thankfully) to be seen again.
1. They came in through some kind of opening (under the door, a window, etc.). Ah, no. It was pretty cold out, and there were no doors accidentally left open, no open windows, and if there had been any crack under the door, it would have been way-too-thin for them to squeeze through. Even if this somehow was the case – sneaking in via some passage unknown to me, it still begs the question: Why (and how) did they come in en masse like that, especially when you never find them like that in their normal habitat (mating season aside)? Also this would have had to have happened in the (roughly) two hours we were out of the house.
2. Some joker was having fun. Yes – this makes a lot of sense. I can even imagine doing something like this myself during some long-ago period of my life. And Lucas did have two close friends – kids who just might have had the sense of humor to conspire to pull such a great prank. The problem with that theory is that those two dudes would have been at the same school function as Lucas. Also, to pull it off, one of their parents would have to have been involved (driving) – and knowing them as I do – it is highly unlikely. And country living or not, I still lock all the doors when we go anywhere. So lets just say that maybe they were somehow able to do it – you know, sneaking in (through an unlocked window perhaps) after we left. Yes, but the best part of a prank like that is in getting the victim to mention it, feigning ignorance until you can’t stand it any longer, then laughing and admitting it. Well, that never happened.
So if neither of those scenarios is correct, what is left? You tell me.
Midnight Convocation on Cooper Spur Road
If you are not a country person or someone who knows more-than-average about animals, this next one may not seem like a big deal to you – but hang in there.
Last year (2011), mid-December: The nuclear family was being reunited as the kid came home from college for the holidays. Happily heading out in the trusty Prius, Ramona and I zipped over to the Portland Airport; the plane arrived on time – we collected our boy, rejoiced & headed home. It was an evening flight, so it was midnight (more or less) by the time we approached little Parkdale. For the time of year, the driving conditions weren’t too bad – not another soul on the road – but as we hit Cooper Spur Road, the fog descended and I slowed down. You’d have to do that here anyway, since the first section of the road is curvy, which in combination with all of the trees, reduces the sight-line considerably. So there we were, rounding the bend just before the bridge over the east fork of the Hood river – nearly home – when forms emerged out of the fog, right in the middle of the road.
Laying or crouching down, two animals stood up. They were cats – large, grey-coated, with green eyes shining in the headlights. Domestic house cats? No way – they were perhaps three times that size, with stocky bodies, and no visible tails (thus excluding mountain lions). So that leaves two possibilities: bobcat or Canadian lynx. The picture at the top of my blog page is a bobcat – a photo I made myself, as it sat in a tree right next to the garage – so they are obviously around. But the animals I saw that night were significantly larger, solid, husky, and walked with a swagger. I thought at the time, and still believe, that they were in fact lynx (here is a pic of one that I lifted from Google Images).
So I can hear you now – ‘Okay Dan, you made your case, you (maybe) saw a couple of cool lynx, – is that a big deal?’ Actually it is. If you do a Google search for ‘Lynx in Oregon’ as I did – you’ll find an article from 1999 that says that some hair samples belonging to a lynx were found in Oregon that year. BUT – no one actually saw it, and the next paragraph says this: “The last confirmed lynx in Oregon was taken 25 years ago near Corvallis and since then it was believed that none existed in the state.” And search as I may, the confirmed sightings since 1999 are, in fact, zero.
So here I go (again) seeing something no one else does. But there is a little more to this story, something so weird that I still shake my head when I think about it.
Back to the scene:
When we came around the corner toward the animals, the misty conditions created what looked like one large thing separating into three in the middle of the road – so that was a little freaky right there. Stopping the car dead in the road, I said something like ‘Jesus, look at that’ to Lucas who was in the passenger seat (Ramona was in the back). You’d expect surprised, skittish, wild animals that hardly anybody ever sees to quickly run away, right? Well, that didn’t happen. With slow deliberation one cat rose, looked into the car headlights and meandered (south) into the trees toward the river. Meanwhile the other simply stood and stared for a long moment before also walking off to the opposite side of the road.
And this my friends, is where things get really, really trippy. Between those two cats – a large bird arose – either hawk or eagle. With wings stretched wide, the thing flapped about madly for a moment, before finally launching itself and veering off into night.
For me, this last bit puts things on a whole new level of the ‘weirdness scale’: two big cats and a huge bird, apparently sitting peacefully – consorting – in the middle of a road on a pitch black night? Doing what, exactly? I still can’t fathom it…
Occam’s Razor tells us that I must have something wrong here. So let me go ahead and present the more logical version of what old Mr. Occam would say: First, the cats were obviously NOT Canadian lynx, just plain old bobcats – which, besides being much more common, overlap in size with lynx – making positive identification difficult. Logically, they were in the road because something was dead (a squirrel, whatever) and the cats were eating it. Meanwhile, the bird – no hawk, or eagle – merely a large owl (this is night after all) came along and landed by them (or the owl could have come first, killed the animal and the bobcats were trying to steal it) and that’s when we came around the corner: end of story.
Possible, I suppose. And it all happened rather quickly, and in the dark and fog to boot! So yeah, maybe. But my goddamn biology degrees have to count for something, right? Of course, I would think so. But when something unusual pops up you work with what you have (experience-wise) to make sense of it, and I do have some background in this area. So as a last defense I’ll say this:
1. While I haven’t seen a lynx before, I have obviously seen bobcats, and these things seemed much too big. Based on the size overlap between the species however, I’ll admit that this is my weakest argument…
2. As for road-kill – there was nothing there in the road ( I looked) as we drove over it. It is possible however that the bird may have flown off with it.
3. I can distinguish an owl from a hawk (the shape of the head is a typical give away) – the bird wasn’t an owl. And yet, as far as I know, neither eagles or hawks ever fly around at night – they don’t have the eyes for it.
4. Whether bobcat or lynx, both species of cats are solitary creatures – seeing two together, except in a mating situation (in the middle of a road??) would be in itself, super rare.
You are free to make up your own mind concerning the nature of this incident, but a year later my confounded reaction lingers: I know not what it was all about, but something very unusual was going on in the midnight fog of that country road.
So there you go kids – three incidents and one grand story, forty years in the making. Enough? I should hope so.
Actually I have one or two more oddball tales of the sort, but I’ll wait and see if any of you out there found this subject interesting enough to merit the telling.