I walked off the plane at the Chibougamau airport and heard Paul Dixon’s familiar greeting: “Welcome to James Bay.”
But waiting in his truck was an unfamiliar sight… a turtle! The Dixons had found the little guy hitchhiking on Route 113 about 25 kilometres east of Senneterre.
“I could clearly see the turtle (on the road), but I couldn’t believe it. There was this huge turtle going across the highway. It was like winning the Loto 6/49,” said Paul.
With his keen trapper’s instincts, Paul knew this was no ordinary turtle. For one thing, the pet turtles common in Waswanipi are only a few inches long.
The turtle out for a stroll on the road was much bigger, 11 inches long and eight inches wide.
The animal was immediately welcomed into the family and the community of Waswanipi. “We just let it walk around the house. It was living like a king. Automatically it was part of the family,” said Paul.
The turtle was showered with all sorts of nicknames, but one that stuck was Whopper. “He reminded us of a burger,” explained Paul. “People would stop me on the road and ask when were we going to cook it. I was tempted when someone said there are seven kinds of meats inside a turtle,” he joked.
But there was no way anyone was going to eat the little cutie. Everyone was in love with him. People of all ages came by the house to check out Whopper. “It was like a zoo,” said Paul.
I asked if Whopper was allowed to meet some of his brother and sister turtles in the community. But this idea was nixed. There had been a previous bad experience when two turtles were introduced to each other and one bit the other on the head.
If dogs are a man’s best friend, Whopper’s best friend was the family dog. “Actually it was the dog that was the owner of the turtle. He loved it,” said Paul.
“When we came around, he would pull his head in. But he would let the dog flip him upside down, and he would leave his head out so the dog would lick his head,” he said.
One day Whopper had a close call. He was put in a box on the outside balcony. When no one was looking, he somehow climbed out, went to the stairs, tumbled down and landed on his back, righted himself and went for a walk in the grass.
“He started heading north,” said Paul. A neighbour spotted a commotion in the yard when a bunch of dogs surrounded the turtle and started barking excitedly. But Whopper kept his cool.
“If we had a race between him and a rabbit, for sure I’d bet my house on the turtle,” said Paul. “If he didn’t beat the rabbit, he would definitely have eaten it.”
The main question with Whopper was what to feed the little guy. The family got him three types of pet turtle food, including one jar that cost $22. He wouldn’t eat it. They tried goldfish food, walleye, worms, carrots, lettuce, too. No luck.
Whopper didn’t seem hungry, but he also kept up his excretions.
It dawned on Paul that the turtle was cleaning himself out in preparation for winter hibernation, like a bear. Paul wondered if Whopper was a lost pet, or if he should go back in the bush so he could hibernate.
After three weeks, Paul decided to take the turtle to the Chibougamau wildlife office to find out a little more about him.
A biologist there, Sylvie Beaudet, was very excited to see the animal. She conferred with colleagues in Quebec City and declared that it was extremely unusual to spot a turtle of Whopper’s kind in northern Quebec.
A small population of this rare species, known as the Blanding’s Turtle (Emydoidea blandingi for you Latin speakers), lives in the Hull area. Others are found around the Great Lakes, New England and Nova Scotia.
We also found out Whopper was a female, but her age wasn’t determined. Blanding’s Turtles can live to be over 70 years old. They live in lakes, ponds and wetlands with clean shallow water and mucky bottoms. Adults can reach two feet in length.
It was decided that the best course for Whopper was to put her back in the bush where she was found. A wildlife officer agreed to take her back to the highway near Senneterre.
“It was hard giving it away. Everyone got attached to it right away,” said Paul sadly. “But we had to put it back in a natural setting so it could hibernate.”
The Dixon family was given appreciation badges for its efforts to help the turtle.
The turtle’s visit left a deep impression on the Dixons. Interestingly, Paul said he had wanted to find a turtle for many years.
The day after they left it with the wildlife people, the Dixon family had the good fortune of shooting two moose near their hunting camp.
Paul saw the moose as a good sign: “I got the feeling the turtle will be fine after this gift we had.”