Partial to Home: A turtle swimming across the river


Birney Imes



Turtle has just one plan at a time, and every cell buys into it. 


-- Ted Kooser, poet 




It's not often you see a box turtle swimming across a river. At first glance, it appeared to be a snake engorged with prey it had just swallowed. When I pulled close and realized what it was, I turned the boat to watch. 


We were on the Sipsey, a swampy, winding stream that originates in Fayette and Marion counties in Alabama and after a 100 miles or so, flows into the Tombigbee at Vienna, south of Aliceville. 


It was a curious sight. A turtle with a shell about the size of a fist dog paddling across a flowing river. 


I wanted to shut out my thoughts and sit and watch this small drama play out, far away from news of a president picking a fight with Canada or the ongoing genocide against the Rohingya people in Myanmar, two troubling news items I heard on the way here to the river. 


No, just the turtle and me in my little plastic boat in this timeless setting, the two of us sharing the same river, both subject to its current, he making for the opposite bank and me watching and wondering what it was that induced this curious fellow to embark on such a long and perilous journey. 


I felt an odd kinship with the turtle, both of us at the same place on a glorious morning, both paddling under a cathedral-like canopy of cypress and oak trees and both subject to the inexorable flow of this brown river. 


The small drama was unfolding with slow-motion clarity. The turtle was making steady progress, though the current was moving him downstream at least as fast as his legs were propelling him across the river. 


We go to museums, travel to far off places to see wondrous things. More wondrous is the natural world all around us: the croaking of frogs, the incessant singing of songbirds, the great blue heron that had been escorting me downstream, the unwavering determination of a turtle to get across a river. 


The turtle, now vaguely aware of my presence, doubtless was less sanguine. He had no capacity for philosophizing, at least not now; for him this was survival. 


Finally, he reached the bank, a steep, thickly covered incline. Had the tortoise drifted downstream another six feet, he would have landed on a small sandy beach where coming ashore would have been a breeze. I resisted the urge to move him. 


The turtle, now motionless, looked up the incline. Whether he was catching his breath after the long swim, considering the impossible climb before him or cursing his luck, he didn't say. Then, after sitting motionless for five to 10-minutes, he began an ascent that looked no less arduous than his improbable crossing. 


The turtle was better equipped for climbing than swimming. After he had clawed his way two to three feet up the bank, I breathed in the setting once more, turned and continued downstream, no doubt paddling past other small, unseen miracles. 




About the Sipsey River 


The Sipsey flows generally north to south and intersects with Highway 82 about halfway between Gordo and Tuscaloosa. 


The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources describes the Sipsey or the Sipsey River Swamp as "one of the last wild, free flowing swamp streams in Alabama, and it is considered one of "Alabama's Ten Natural Wonders."  


"Wandering through Fayette, Tuscaloosa, Pickens and Greene counties, this 92-mile long river is estimated to contain approximately 50,000 acres of bottomland wetlands and swamps ... The vegetation and trees are diverse and varied, ranging from bald cypress swamps to tupelo gum trees, swamp cottonwood, southern red oak, American elm, sweetgum, yellow popular and American beech.  


"Besides the diverse mussel population, the Sipsey River provides refuge and habitat for about 102 species of freshwater fishes which include darters, gars, shad, shiners, and suckers. Several rare fish of the Sipsey River may eventually qualify for special conservation status, the southern walleye and America eel. Popular sportfish species include largemouth bass, spotted bass, catfish, crappie, pickerel, and various sunfish (bream)." 



Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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