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Sunday, August 7, 2011

Old Man Ritter vs. Wildlife

A walk at Ritter Springs Park will never be the same now that we’ve met “Old Man Ritter.” My wife saw him first. He sat on his golf-cart-like mower with a little canopy over the seat, looking at the lake in the middle of the park. I assumed he was just enjoying a quiet moment on a break from mowing, which seemed fresh around much of the park.

We came down the gravel road, and I stepped over a fat caterpillar the size of my ring finger. I stopped to take a picture of it, thus activating the old groundskeeper. Possibly to seem more official, he started his mower and drove it the 40 feet it took to reach us. I imagined him pulling up and parking right on the worm, but he stopped beside the road and stepped up, saying, “What is it?”

superstar larva

“Oh, just a big caterpillar,” I said.

“You should pick her up.” I sensed him thinking that I was too squeamish to touch it, but I got my picture and then picked it up, setting it off the road on the other side. “That’s a big one,” he said. Then our grand tour of the lake ecosystem began. He pointed out lots of turtles and carp, most of the time making yardstick hands to show their size, and guessing their weight. He had been watching one turtle in particular, when we walked up. I think it was a snapping turtle, but he also kept mentioning “soft shells.” This one was about 30 pounds, and had been burrowing into the opposite shore. He pointed out maybe halfway across the lake to a turtle floating near the surface. “See that old guy there? Man, he’s slick!”

Apparently, burrowing turtles are key to the power struggle between man and nature in Ritter Springs. He took us on a little tour of the banks, which were lumpy and collapsed. He said the turtles kept destroying the banks, which were once straight and generally a couple of feet above the water. “I used to drive my Grasshopper (the covered mower) all along this bank, but now I can’t get over it.” He walked us along a finger of land that was pretty dramatically eroding. He also said there was a muskrat that had just moved in to the area, and that the water was higher now since they adjusted the dam to raise it. He pointed out a hole which he said was an air hole going down to a turtle den like a chimney, so they could breathe better.

As we turned back, he saw some kind of shadow and kept looking for what made it. Then his stories started getting crazier, and he started sounding more like a turtle-obsessed version of Bill Murray in “Caddyshack.” He said the biggest snapper in the lake (50 pounds? I forget what he said) was real ornery, and it charged up out of the water at him when he was trimming on the other side of the lake. “I just spanked him with my weed-eater, I spanked him real good till he gave up and turned around.” Then I think he said he grabbed it by the tail and flipped it into the lake.

Pointing to some other distant point, he said, “When they dug in a water line over there, they went down about 8 feet with a bucket about as big as two pickup trucks, and when they lifted that bucket, there was more turtles and turtle eggs in there than you ever saw—it was just all turtles and eggs, so we dumped it out over there on the bank and just (lowering his arm in a crushing motion) mashed them all up.”

He also said something about geese, and he was trying to kill the muskrat—“That’s all we need around here, a muskrat”— and a story about kids at the day camp feeding bread to a turtle that came right up to them. My wife later pointed out that this story didn’t jive with his tales of battling the aggressive snappers, but maybe he meant the soft-shells.

“What do they do at the camp?” I asked.

“Oh, they fish, they cook out, they play games, all kinds of stuff. Their parents pay about 80 bucks a week for the camp. I just love all them kids.” Then he said the kids play over by the bridge, and he saw some copperheads over there under it, so he took rocks up on the bridge and threw them down to kill those copperheads. While I’m sure copperheads have appeared in the park, his tales seemed taller by the minute. I don’t think they gather by the water, and I doubted he could hit them and kill them with rocks dropped from the bridge. But anything is possible, for Old Man Ritter.

On the rail of the bridge
After our 10-minute tour, we parted ways. He got back on his Grasshopper and drove away. I immediately started calling him “Old Man Ritter.” We agreed that he was like an anti-park-ranger whose mission was not only mowing, but protecting the park from as much wildlife as possible.

1 comment:

Brad said...

Awesome! Ritter's me old stomping grounds! Never met a snapper that a little weed-wacker spanking wouldn't straighten out. "...just mashed em all up..." HA! That guy probably pees on alligators at the zoo.