Posted by: floridanature | December 28, 2008

A Journey of Turtle Eggs, ‘Dillos, and So Much More

Today, we’re looking for some natural waterscape to shoot scenic B roll for Michelle’s documentary, and so we head east from Sanford on SR 46 through the low and subtle tropical “valley” of the St. Johns River. We pass over the old causeway that jams up Lake Jesup, aiming for a track of land just beyond the bridge spanning the channel between Lakes Harney and Puzzle.

I park at an inconspicuous trailhead for the “Buck Lake Conservation Area” managed by the regional Water Management District. No one’s around. A sign here warns “Equestrians” to avoid the trails during the winter hunting seasons. I wonder why only horseback riders matter in such affairs, wonder if it’s okay to accidentally shoot a hiker or two.

I shoulder Michelle’s pack with her camera gear, she grabs the tripod, and we set out across the hard packed trail into the sprawling tract of marsh and pine flatwoods, a preserve bordered to the east by a narrow ridge of scrub. The noise of road traffic soon fades, replaced first by a call of a hawk overhead, and then by the braying of hunting dogs in the distance. The trail crosses several creeks linking wetlands on both sides of us, sheet flows of rainwater creeping across the oceanic memory of this odd Florida landscape, wildflowers bursting out along the way.

A hundred thousand years ago, we would be on the sea bottom, moving across shoals on the sandy substrate. Add a few intermittent ice ages, and— viola!—terraces and scarps are birthed. Today, the big mother river of the St. Johns flows north as a result of these permutations. But around us, marshes and shallow lakes flow ever which way—to the east, puddling up to form Six Mile Creek and leaking southward to Salt Lake. Or, settling in to create Buck Lake to our west, just behind the rim of sabal palms and myrtle and saw grass that edges the trail.
We take the first chance we can get to reach the lake, veering off onto a trail atop a berm likely created to dike wetland flow when this 9,300 acre tract was privately used for cattle and logging. Loblolly and slash pines appear, their canopies of needles crisp against the cerulean Florida winter sky. After stuffing myself over the last few days with holiday cheer, it feels good to get back outdoors, to stretch my legs and inhale the sweet essence of a real natural place.

A mile later, the trail deadends into the marshy Buck Lake, a miniature Puzzle Lake, out here all by itself. During my first visit several years ago, my friend Mary and I watched in awe as a female turtle came out of the lake, lumbered past us on the trail, begin to dig two holes with her rear legs, and then deposited over 40 alabaster colored eggs into them. Each hole was then carefully packed and covered, and the mama turtle, finally satisfied that all was right with the universe, turned and lumbered back past us and returned to the water as if we never even existed.

I thought then of the great primal energy that sometimes pushes us toward our own destinies, thought of how it can be at once so pervasive and so unconscious, leading us across a terrain fraught with dangers that we don’t even care to see. In that world, reality is a landscape that only holds the promise of determination and of light.

A two story wooden observation tower has been built since my last hike here, and we climb to the top and set up Michelle’s tripod. She shoots the great sprawling lake and its marsh and the wrinkles of fish at the surface, and off in the flat, flat distance, a golden hump that is a cypress bayhead. She walks down the tower and out to a soggy point of land, and I sway the camera on the tripod so that it follows her. It’s an intimation of all the moments of decision she faced during her recent solo paddle of the larger St. Johns river system, a courageous effort made with only a compass and a map.

Unlike so many paddlers who obsessively rely on electronic gadgetry and satellite fixes for security, her trip was truly of the sort that the great mythologist Joseph Campbell once described as a “heroic journey”, one driven by the deep, silent mystery of determination and passion—one that gifts the returning traveler’s community with a shared vision, rather than a souvenir. I think of a few sad people I know who insist on “distancing” themselves from the possibility of failure or of pain, and I wish them the courage to do otherwise.

We pack to leave, taking one last look at the marshy prairie that defines the character of this face of the river system, a remote place as geologically young as it is wild, so far off the radar of most Floridians that it is seldom fully seen. The late afternoon sun is low now, and the pine and palms, ferns and sawgrass around us are soft in the light.

At the side of the trail, we see the curled, empty shells of turtle eggs, dug fresh from a nest. Raccoons are the culprits, I figure, although I’ve never seen the plunder take place. Over a year ago, I once stepped into such a hole when barreling across a dike clogged with high grass near Blue Cypress Lake, and my knee is just now healing from it.

For now, we are content, feeling good to be alive on such a glorious Florida winter day. And then Michelle spots an armadillo digging away just a few feet from us at the edge of the trail. We stop, but he hears us, and does a bizarre leap straight up into the air like some cartoon animal, and then scampers off into the brush. We look on in quiet amazement, and soon, the little shelled animal crunches his way back to his dig, sniffing the air like a small pig. There, he finds the soft, upturned soil and buries his head back into it, letting out with muffled snorts as he does.

This is a strange creature, tiny pinkish porcine nose, shell like prehistoric armor, possum tail, feet like claws, hair bristling from under its shell, and a set of dull eyes no bigger than pinheads. It looks as if is were glued together from left-over parts of a make-the-animal kit.

Michelle carefully unpacks her mini-DVD hi definition camera and slowly moves towards the rooting ‘dillo. I do the same with my digital. Soon, we see what has drawn this strange non-native exotic back to its hole. Inside are not tubers or nuts, but turtle eggs. The “snorts” were actually slurping sounds it made as it sucked the yolk from the new eggs. Discarded shells and yolk residue now comes into focus for us. The reptile was likely a local river turtle—a peninsula cooter, a Florida redbelly, etc.
We shoot some more footage, getting right atop the carnage. I’m conflicted, knowing that another 30 seconds or so of footage means another turtle egg. Finally, we abandon all pretense of stealth and the animal looks up once, leaps into the air, and bolts down the edge of the berm, across the water in a low swale, and into the thick underbrush beyond.

I carefully pick out the still-whole shells closest to the surface, and we pack them gently in dirt from the hole inside a soft blue jacket Michelle pulls from the backpack. I figure they’ll have little chance of surviving with the dillo still at large. Maybe I can incubate them in a hole next to the pond in my own backyard, later gathering them for a return trip to their home lake.

There are yet more eggs undisturbed and deeper in the ground, and I let those be. I then remove all the loose shells, and cover what is left of the nest back up, patting it at the surface as I had once seen a mother turtle do years ago. Before we leave, I cover the packed nest with shards of weeds and dead palm fronds.

Back on SR 46, we drive across the river valley, watching the sun dip into the broad marsh to the south, teetering atop a pine canopy as if uncertain about which way to go. By the time we pull in my driveway, it is dark and I turn on a little lantern and we make our way into the enfenced back yard. There I dig a hole with a garden trowel, close to where my good dog Shep is buried, a few feet from the little pond and its waterfall. Michelle gently takes each tiny egg from her jacket and hands it to me, and I place it into the new hole. “Egg,” she says, and then sprinkling earth from her jacket into the hole, “mother’s dirt”.

And so it goes, for nine turtle eggs being buried into a human-dug hole in the darkness of the Florida night. Our determination is resolute, focused. As if there is nothing else around us to thwart our destiny; no obstruction or danger that is real enough to even be seen.

There is simply hope and it is embedded deeply in the landscape, buried as deeply and surely as it is buried in our own human souls. It is a hope that has led us individually across river systems on far continents, below the ocean onto the reefs of night, inside of tropical jungles infused with wonder, all of it rich with the redemptive prospect of the unknown.



  1. Now that’s a big adventure, and one well worth the while. I commend your efforts!

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