Oh snap! Massive turtle surfaces in Brainerd, sets social networks atwitter

Beast surfaced in the Mississippi River; DNR says not to worry

A large turtle in a river
Shala Holm of Buffalo, Minn., took this photo of a large turtle from her kayak on the Mississippi River in July, while she was staying at Niemeyer’s Rugged River Resort near Brainerd, Minn.
Courtesy photo

Shala Holm never expected the photo she snapped of a huge snapping turtle months ago suddenly to get so much attention.

The eerie photo shows the creature’s dinosaur-like head and outstretched forearms with claws extended toward a basket of fish.

Holm, of Buffalo, Minn., was with her family on their annual vacation at Niemeyer’s Rugged River Resort near Brainerd in July when she captured the startling image. She and her daughter were in a tandem kayak on the Mississippi River, fishing for crappies.

“My daughter all of a sudden said, ‘Mom, be quiet. I can hear something breathing,’” Holm recounted.

Holm looked toward the shore, expected to see a deer or beaver. Then suddenly, she saw a nose in the water. The turtle swam up to the fish basket hanging off the side of the kayak.

“He kind of clawed onto it,” she said. “He was so big, and we were so startled.”

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Holm lifted the basket and shook it, and the reptile swam away. The next day, the two decided to return to the same spot to see if they could see it again.

Sure enough, after they had caught a few fish, the turtle returned. That time, she was able to snap a couple of photos.

“When you're in a kayak, the beauty of it is you're really close to the water,” Holm said. “So we were really quite close.”

Holm isn’t sure exactly how large the creature was, but estimates that its front legs were the same size as her wrists. She believes it was a snapping turtle, which is Minnesota’s largest turtle species.

According to the state Department of Natural Resources, adult snapping turtles average 8 to 14 inches long and weigh from 10 to 35 pounds. The largest known individual in Minnesota weighed a whopping 65 pounds.

Holm sent her photo to the DNR, where she said a staff person estimated that the turtle was at least 15 years old, but possibly as old as 30.

Sheila Niemeyer owns the resort with her husband, Corby. While cleaning out her email earlier this week, she decided to post the photo on the resort’s Facebook page.

The post generated nearly 1,000 comments, was shared thousands of times and reposted on other sites. Niemeyer has been contacted by several media organizations interested in the photo.

 “Most of them are like, is this really real?” she said. “It really is.”

Niemeyer said the resort is located on a quiet, slow-moving stretch of the Mississippi north of Brainerd, with plenty of nooks and bends that attract wildlife.

“Every June, we get a lot of turtles coming up on shore and they're laying their eggs,” she said. “It’s one of our things we love is watching the turtles. So this was pretty crazy to see a big one like that.”

Many commenters on the Facebook post said they’d never enter waters where such large creatures might be lurking.

“Remind me to never swim in the river,” one wrote.

But snapping turtles are common throughout Minnesota, and they spend most of their time in the water, including ponds, lakes, rivers and creeks.

Niemeyer said their resort doesn’t have a beach, but people frequently jump in the river to swim.

“I think if you were to really look at any lake or river, you're going to find all kinds of things you never thought of,” she said. “They leave you alone. They don't want to be by you.”

Since the photo was posted, the resort has attracted new social media followers. Niemeyer hopes the attention will be positive for the resort.

“I'm hoping it won't be something negative because they think. ‘Oh my gosh, I'll never go there. I don't want to swim with that,’” she said. “For the most part, I don't think you need to worry about that. But seeing the wildlife is just amazing.”

Common snapping turtles often get a bad rap, because their looks and sometimes defensive behavior when frightened can make people nervous, Erica Hoaglund, regional nongame wildlife specialist with the Minnesota DNR, wrote in an email. However, they are not dangerous, she said.

Snapping turtles are usually docile in the water. On land, where they are most vulnerable, their defensive posture is to look big and scary until the threat goes away, Hoaglund said Like most creatures, they will try to defend themselves if they are threatened or very frightened, but they do not attack, she said.

“They really just want to avoid being encountered, and will hide and flee if given half a chance,” Hoaglund said.

Snapping turtles play a crucial role in the ecosystem and provide many benefits, including helping to keep lakes and rivers healthy by consuming decaying matter, said Andrew Herberg, another DNR nongame wildlife specialist. They face numerous threats, including habitat loss, commercial harvest and being struck by vehicles, he said.

The turtle’s presence certainly won’t deter Holm, who said she plans to return to the same resort on the Mississippi River next summer.

“I'm going to go back to that spot next year and see if he or she is still around,” she said.