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Judgment Day

I was enjoying an afternoon of bird watching from my kayak, an especially efficient means of closing the distance on shore birds and other critters by using my telephoto lenses on my self-stabilizing camera. The waterway was a reed-lined slough, parallel to the main channel of the mighty Mississippi.

Paddle... Glide... Spot...Shoot ­ I maintained a relaxing forward motion in the fluid grace and solid stability of my sea kayak. Earlier I had come upon a foraging sora, a new bird for my growing "life list" of sightings. I was retracing the outline of the shore to see if my luck could be doubled with yet another new sighting.

Cutting wide around a shallow mudflat, I spotted a lone coot frantically splashing amid a few logs protruding out along the outer edge of the shallows. My thoughts went quickly from it feigning a broken wing decoy against this ominous approaching danger to it possibly being caught in a muskrat trap left over from the previous winter. My seasoned distaste for trapping swelled up into my throat like a case of heartburn after a night of jalapeņo poppers. It was my duty, I felt, to free this pitiful duck from its watery and painful entrapment. I uttered a few expletives at the imagined trapper and gave a stout pull on my paddle. As I approached the coot, it continued to splash frantically.

I glided slowly but steadily up to the coot, now too tired to flap its wings. I reached over to carefully cradle its body in my cupped hand.

"Ouch!" I yelped as I tossed the coot back down into the water. The ungrateful beast took a chunk of flesh out of my knuckle with its beak. I grabbed my neoprene gloves from under a deck bungi, and once again tried to release the pigeon-size bird from the rotten mud beneath the surface.

I slowly reached under the bird until I found its thigh. I pressed my thumb and index finger tip loosely around the top of its leg and slowly guided my hand down towards its foot as I gently raised the bird up as high as I dared. From the murk below, the yellowish, scaled stem of its leg became more and more visible. Keeping the pressure steady I continued to pull up on the coot's body.

Soon a black, gooey blob appeared beneath the coot. "There you are you..."I thought and I continued to lower my hand down as I eased the duck upward. Suddenly, from within that mass of black, silty ooze there appeared a huge yellow reptilian eye, a turtle's eye, a snapping turtle's eye!

In an instant, a mass of wet, black feathers exploded in my face as the ugly head of a huge snapping turtle thrusted forward as I snatched my hand back out from under that bird. The quickness by which I shifted my weight, tilted the kayak dangerously close to the starboard gunwale. A quick hand brace and I was again upright and steady. Mud and duckweed coated my right arm from shoulder to wrist.

The coot, practically catapulted into lower stratosphere, was halfway to the next county. That snapper, surprised by all the commotion, had opened its mouth to lunge at me. The only telltale sign of the commotion was a swirl of tiny duckweed leaves floating on water the color and luster of liquid obsidian. The disgruntled snapper had sunk back down into the black ooze of the slough and I had experienced a first-hand disruption of the natural cycle. I had saved a coot's life.

It then dawned on me that I had perhaps done greater disservice to the snapper! It's a turtle-eat-coot world out there. Who was I to upset the natural rhythm of things. My grudge was against an assumed trapper, not some instinctively-motivated and ugly reptile. Imagine the anticipation of having a meal swim by? Think of that morsel of coot drumstick dangling just above its ugly, vice-grip beak? Who was I to rip the balance tray from the scale of nature like that?

Maybe justice will come when my soul spends its eternity in a muddy wading pond in the bowels of hell. Then again, I might glide eternally across an endless heavenly marsh surrounded by a floating flock of cooing coots. Quite the extreme of options to ponder, something to think about the next time I decide to interfere with nature's tried and true selection process.

Submitted by Tom Watson - Appleton, MN

For more great stories: See the Archive!

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