An Unexpected Encounter in Acadia National Park

by Sydney Kahl / Feb 27, 2013 / 0 comments

An Unexpected Encounter


Turtle, Eagle Lake, Maine



A Not So Very Shy Turtle


Spotting a snapping turtle in a lake has always been an exciting event even though most my sightings, all of them in Maine where we have a camp on a lake, have been very brief. The head pops up and almost before you can positively identify what you are seeing, or can point out the location to anyone nearby, the turtle disappears. Only on rare occasions have I been able to look down and see the silhouette of one moving through the water, before the shape disappeared. Even less frequently have I seen one sunning itself on a rock, as I pass by in a kayak, but always the turtle dives into the water quickly when it notices me. I certainly have never seen a turtle climb out of the water, until my unexpected encounter on the shores of Eagle Lake, the second largest body of fresh water in Acadia National Park, ME.  


My mom and I decided to bicycle around Eagle Lake, a distance of about 6 miles, which takes about an hour if you don’t stop. The road has views through the woods to the lake most of the way. The path of crushed stone is part of the 45 miles of historic carriage roads on Mt. Desert Island built by John D. Rockefeller Jr. from 1913 to 1940. Plenty of people use the carriage paths; we saw couples walking and riding tandem bicycles, parents pulling kids in carts, a small dog in a cage on the rack of a bike, and a man in a wheelchair pushing himself with his arms. Although there were many others enjoying the carriage paths, we still found ourselves alone on certain stretches. Like the bike path alongside the Pemigewasset River in Franconia Notch near my hometown, the ride is so enjoyable because there are no cars. 


Eagle Lake, about 400 acres in size, is rectangular, with the long axis oriented north and south, similar to most of the water bodies on Mt. Desert Island. The lakes were deepened by a lobe of a continental glacier moving over the land, coming from the northwest and pushing out to sea. The water in the lake is clear, and since Eagle Lake is a source of drinking water for the nearby town of Bar Harbor, swimming is not allowed. However, fishing is allowed with a Maine license and there is a boat launch for watercraft with engines of less than 10 horsepower. The only critters I saw in the lake were a very curious snapping turtle and its buddy.


My mom and I stopped to have our lunch on a large flat rock on the shores of Eagle Lake. As we began eating, I noticed a turtle’s head pop up in the water a few yards in front of me. I told my mom to grab the camera. Instead of disappearing as I expected, to my amazement, the turtle swam toward us. We stood up to get a good look. As the turtle got closer, we could see its shell was the size of a dinner plate.  Its long snake like head poked out of the water again. I recognized why the Latin name “Chelydra serpentine,” which means serpent turtle, is so appropriate. The turtle’s head followed our motions, the small, beady eyes blinked at us. I also noticed the turtle’s long claws which are used to tear apart its prey. As we watched the turtle swim right up next to the flat boulder we were standing on, another turtle, about the same size, emerged from underneath the rock as if to greet the first turtle. This “new” turtle hardly moved from its original position, but still seemed to check us out.


Turtles, Acadia National Park, Maine



Two Curious Turtles in Eagle Lake


What happened next surprised us even more.  My mom decided to take a photo of me reading the Record Enterprise with the lake as a backdrop so I could share this story. As I was posing, I heard a noise to my right and looked down. I jumped and squawked, as the snapping turtle had climbed out of the water up on to the rock next to me. I must have heard the claws scratching on the rock as the turtle scrambled out of the water. I quickly backed away. Fortunately, the turtle stood its ground as we took photos, and then the turtle reentered the water.   


Upon returning home, I researched how to tell the age of a snapping turtle. I knew they started out the size of a quarter because I’d seen babies in the late fall, after they emerged from their nest, in the gravel on my neighbors’ lake front property (surprisingly, the babies did not head to the water but trekked inland). According to one source, turtles grow more than 20 mm per year, and many sources suggested snapping turtles can live more than 70 years; however, the bigger they get, the slower they grow. The snapping turtles we saw in Eagle Lake could have been around 25 years old, as they seemed about a foot in diameter. In addition to estimating the age from their size, turtles have rings on their outer shell, sort of like annual growth rings on trees, but the number only roughly corresponds to their age. Who wants to get close enough to an animal that snaps to count rings? A census study on amphibians and reptiles was done in Acadia in 1991, and no snapping turtles were captured or sighted in Eagle Lake (p. 96). Maybe the snapping turtles we saw weren’t born when the study was conducted, but where were the parents? 


Turtles are evolutionarily old critters and were around when the dinosaurs roamed the earth. The snapping turtle we encountered this August certainly wasn’t shy - I wonder if any of the dinosaurs were as curious as the individual we encountered?




Sydney Kahl is a member of the Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program.


Photos courtesy and copyright Sydney Kahl