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Why did the Nova Scotia turtle cross the road? And why did Mary help it?


Mary MacPhie started Monday morning with a head full of the week to come like pretty well everyone driving Highway 337 into Antigonish.

She differed in that she stopped for the big snapping turtle watching all the busy people from the gravel shoulder.

“They’re not in a hurry, it’s all of us that are,” she said, picking up the turtle to carry it across the road.

Unexpected things get placed along the roads of our lives.

It’s up to us whether we stop for them and if so how we act.

For Mary MacPhie, it’s been turtles.

They’ve just been there.

She figures she was 17 when she found her first turtle.

 Mary MacPhie of Antigonish carries a large snapping turtle across Highway 337 on Monday morning. - Aaron Beswick
Mary MacPhie of Antigonish carries a large snapping turtle across Highway 337 on Monday morning. - Aaron Beswick

Originally from Cape George, she’d moved to Country Harbour and was driving home along the Number 7 Highway when there it was.

She stared at it for a while before making the call that it probably wouldn’t survive the narrow expanse of two-lane highway.

Over the decades since there’s been at least a dozen turtles to interrupt her commutes around Antigonish, Pictou and Guysborough Counties.

“You just pick them up and get them out of the road,” said MacPhie.

What she didn’t know on Monday morning was what wildlife biologist Bob Bancroft could tell by looking at a photo.

The female snapping turtle she helped across Highway 337 was looking for a spot to lay eggs.

And due to the size of it, this turtle could have been a half century old.

The reptile would have spent the winter burrowed into the mud bottom of one of the brooks or ponds feeding into Antigonish Harbour breathing through capilleries near the skin.

“No one understands quite how it all works but essentially they hibernate,” said Bancroft, who lives just across the water in Pomquet.

As winter slowly gave up its grasp on the land her body would have warmed with the surrounding water and she would have prowled just below the surface using her strong legs to lurch at unwary fish.

Like us, snapping turtles are omnivores and will eat pretty well anything – be it plant or animal.

And they have a longer neck than you’d think inside the shell – so if you’re going to move it pick it up by the shell down near the tail.

They are called snapping turtles for a reason.

Wildlife biologist Bob Bancroft says the snapping turtle  Mary MacPhie recently helped across the road could be as much as 50 years old. - Aaron Beswick
Wildlife biologist Bob Bancroft says the snapping turtle Mary MacPhie recently helped across the road could be as much as 50 years old. - Aaron Beswick

This one would have found a man on her travels and paired off with him in a slow dance that sees the two facing turtles sweep their heads from side to side and end with a long stare straight into each other’s eyes.

The only reason for this turtle to expose herself to such danger on a Monday morning in mid-June was that she, like other female turtles, was looking for a place to the lay the 10 to 20 eggs resulting from her spring courtship.

The gravel bank of a roadside, as it turns out, closely mimics what she’d look for in the natural world.

“(The eggs) can do well as long as the raccoons or the skunks don’t smell them,” said Bancroft.

What the turtle may have been looking for on Monday morning was the sunny side of the road, where they would be incubated by the heat.

MacPhie sighed when after placing it down, the turtle stopped and turned back to the road.

She didn’t have all morning to be moving this creature back and forth. So MacPhie got back in her car to continue on her way and left the turtle to figure out its own.

That’s the catch in stopping for the unexpected things life places in our way.

We can know the quality of our intentions.

But not necessarily what an old reptile is looking for on the side of an Antigonish County highway on a Monday morning.

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