When my wife and I built a new home on the upper Mississippi River east of Bemidji, we had not counted on the turtles. Big ones. Snapping turtles, though more than a few painted turtles as well.
Our first encounter came when digging the foundation. The Caterpillar driver suddenly powered down, and climbed off his machine to examine something in the fragrant, fresh gravel: a cluster of ping pong balls. "Damn," he said.
I knelt with him by the scattered nest of turtle eggs. I held one up to the light but could see nothing through the tough, white shell.
"They say if you move them, they won't hatch," the driver said.
"I've heard that, too," I said. I counted close to 20 eggs.
"Too bad," the man said, and climbed back onto the excavator.
I filled my shovel with the eggs, and put them in a bucket of sand but none ever hatched.
The house project went well, and we moved in before the snows came. In June, my wife looked up from the breakfast table. I heard it, too - an odd thudding and scratching on the front door. I opened it to a huge female snapper; she was bumbling along the edge of the house.
"There's another one, too!" my wife said, pointing to the yard. In fact there were several. All had come up from the river on the same day - which over the years we have charted to fall on or close to June 21, the longest day of the year. We had as many as a dozen big turtles crawling about the yard, digging up the new lawn as they tried to find their former nesting sites.
We felt like intruders. Like we had built our house upon sacred ground. The next few days we watched the turtles lay their eggs. They hunched backwards, scraping away dirt with their rear claws, urinating to soften the crust of gravel until they were half-way underground. Afterward, sometimes the same night, predators - crows, skunks, raccoons - dug up the nests and ate the eggs. We felt helpless.
Finally, in a gesture to the turtles, I covered one nest with chicken wire and stones. That fall, a couple of miniature snapping turtles - each no bigger than a 50-cent piece - appeared in the driveway. It was October and they were stiff with cold, barely moving. I took both down to the river and left them inches from the water.
It was the least I could do.