Mud Squelching, Boot Topping, Nymph Catching, Snake Snuggling Adventure
I joined the Wilderness Awareness School 14 Day Wander Challenge; Monday was day 4. The adventure the kids and I took that morning was, in part, inspired by this challenge, and my desire to share it all with you is definitely inspired by that challenge. The sunny weather and anticipated high of 70 degrees Fahrenheit was also part of the inspiration. The challenge for the day was to seek mysteries.
We went the the Aldo Leopold Nature Center intent on visiting the pond to see if any aquatic macroinvertebrates were awake yet. Before we even reached the lobby (to check out a couple nets), we were distracted by blooming bloodroot in the Kindergarten Woods. Bold white flowers against a stark brown ground. We bounced between trout lily and Virginia bluebell leaves.
Nets in hand, we got to the pond more directly, only slight detours for muddy puddles, their squelchy goodness, and the possibility they hold for finding tracks.
The first dip showed us the pond was wide awake and very active. Before long we had scooped water boatmen, clams, many damselfly nymphs, crawling water beetles, dragonfly nymphs, midge larva, stonefly nymphs, and a single leech. I even managed to retrieve all dropped nets and keep from needing to retrieve my very enthusiastic nearly 2 year old. Both kids (Pie is 4 and Muffin is nearly 2) took great notice and interest in the pond critters. Pie would have stayed much longer, but Muffin was getting antsy and he’s already a bit of a wild card.
The geese, a pair resting on a nearby dock, a pair coming and going, splashing and honking loudly as they entered the water, were enthralling for the kids. I was more interested in the frogs and turtles. We made it to the little bridge (having identified some raccoon tracks and done some more mud squelching) where we saw numerous Eastern Painted Turtles basking and a small (~6” diameter) snapping turtle swimming through the water. We continued to journey through the boot stealing mud on the island. The boreal chorus frogs calling at the other end of the island were now unmistakable to my ears, but Pie needed the chorus to be a little more obvious before he could distinguish it from the louder urban noises. By the time we reached the far end of the island, the chorus was unmistakable for him as well. Muffin was largely focused on mud. As quietly as a woman wearing rain pants and toting 2 small children in rain suits could manage, we snuck up on the frogs. As expected, they hushed when we arrived. I now stood in marsh water (above my waterproof shoes), surrounded by cattails and frogs. I knew I was surrounded by frogs because they sang until I was nearly upon them and they went quiet with no movement nor sound of splash. Even though I’ve approached frogs enough time to expect exactly this scene, this was my first mystery: How can that many frogs be so well hidden and camouflaged that I, otherwise adept at spotting quiet, still critters, could not locate a single frog? A mystery and a joy.
The promise of frogs lured us through the stand of tamaracks (still without leaves) and to the second bridge. Unfortunately, the spot that I expected bullfrogs was bereft of bullfrogs. We spotted several more basking turtles and took an opportunity to lay down on the ground and smell the recently burned earth of the prairie - it is such a lovely smell. The kids opted to go back the way we came rather than around the pond the other direction. By now, we had all topped our boots/shoes and they were looking forward to repeating the boot topping, log walking, mud squelching excursion.
Frogs still on our mind, I led them back to the place I’d spooked a number of bullfrogs earlier. I held both of our two largest nets, knowing that I was highly unlikely to sneak up on the frogs and snare them. Muffin charged the ponds. I heard plops and saw dark frog shadows dash away under the water. Not a single one let out the slightest squeak - nothing for the kids to notice at that speed. Instead another goose offered us curiosity and wonder. It sat proudly on its ground nest, tucked tightly into the reed canary grass and cattails on the edge of the pond.
It was well and truly lunchtime and my kids were fading fast, when a friend appeared and asked if we liked snakes. [Now, many of us have irrational fears and phobias, snakes is a common one. If snakes creep you out a bit, please keep reading and try to see snakes in a new light. If you have a genuine phobia of snakes, then consider this your trigger warning. You might want to skip to the end.] Pie gave an enthusiastic, “I love snakes,” and soon we were headed to a garter snake hibernaculum where dozens of snakes were emerging from their community hibernation den. Garter snakes - one. two. three. Then a pile here and a cluster there. Six little heads poking out of a hole and looking at me, three long slithery bodies a little further away. The longer we looked, the more we saw. One could easily count 20, there were probably 50 in the near vicinity.
We knelt on the path by the entrance to the hibernaculum, we talked quietly and moved slowly. The biggest garter snakes were two and a half feet long, the smallest were a foot long. They all looked a little skinny after a winter without food. I was surprised that they moved back towards and into the hibernaculum. Sometimes one would get scared and dash inside. Other times they moved with slow curiosity in and out of the hibernaculum, a few feet away, then back to safety again; ten feet away, then back to the hibernaculum. I had assumed that when snakes left a hibernaculum, they dispersed immediately. I did not expect the hibernaculum to be a place to come and go from. This was my second mystery - how long would they come and go from the hibernaculum? Minutes? Hours? Weeks? Would they breed in there? And they were so curious and friendly - what's it like to wake up from hibernation? Is that why they were so friendly? Does this extend to other snakes? Other animals that hibernate?
Okay, I probably lost you at curious friendly, snakes, let's back up.
The three of us squatted within an (adult) arm’s reach of the hibernaculum entrance. At any given time 6-8 little snake heads poked up off the ground like tiny submarine periscopes, their little bodies tangled together, woven in and out of last autumn’s fallen leaves, at an entrance to the hibernaculum. A few more slowly slithered in and out of an entrance a few inches closer to us. The snakes slithered towards us, some coming up to our boots. It was slightly unnerving, even as a person who really likes snakes. I’m not used to being approached by wild snakes. Muffin said he was scared a few times, but gladly watched from his perch on my knee as I squatted. I reached out to touch them, gauge how they'd react to being picked up, and reorient myself to picking up a snake without hurting it. The first few times, I was a bit jumpy. A few of the snakes were too, a few didn't notice me.
A couple minutes later, I held a sweet little snake in my hand. The kids descended like someone just brought a kitten out of the back room. Now that I held the snake, Muffin showed no fear. Pie had never shown any fear. Both were eager to touch it. The snake was calm and curious. I held it high on its body, a few inches from its head, to give the kids ample space to touch it, but I did not hold it tightly or directly behind the head. It never made an aggressive movement towards me, even when Muffin tugged rhythmically and a bit roughly on its tail. We held it and talked to it quietly for a few minutes. I snapped a few awkward pictures that didn’t show much. Both kids were giddy, but too interested in the snake to look at me long enough for me to capture their glee in photograph. The second snake I caught thrashed violently trying to get away from me, but also did not make any aggressive move toward me. I put it down immediately - an opportunity to talk about respect, even consent. The third snake I picked up behaved much like the first. Suddenly we’d been there nearly an hour, and I made the maternal decision to head for lunch.
Realizing his hunger, Pie barely made it back to the nature center to wash up. The excitement and energy came back when he was able to recount his story to the staff, despite the fact that the only thing he could think to share with Dad was that there had been a pile of rocks by the parking lot because the nature center is under construction. Such are adventures with kids.