Old Mossback

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Joined: 06/03/2010

Old Mossback
            My great grandfather’s 360 acre farm was located along the banks of the Outlet River of Lake Nocquebay. When he built up his farm in last days of the Nineteenth Century and early days of the Twentieth the river flowed wide and strong and many log runs had floated down to the mills as far as Peshtigo. There weren’t too many laws or rules for the use of waterways and it was a common practice for land owners to build docks and piers and boathouses along the river bank as well as out buildings such as ice houses for the ice harvested in the winter from the river. Great granddad, when he wasn’t farming, used the river for fishing, hunting, trapping and for ice which he used in his butcher shop and also sold as a commodity.
            My grandmother grew up on that farm and had helped her father run it until she married and had her daughters (my mother and my aunt) and when her mother passed away at an early age my grandmother assumed the double duty of caring for her family and also looking after her father in his later years. The death of her husband (my grandfather) forced her to work a full time job as well as care for both family and home and her father and the old farm. By the time I came on the scene my great grandfather was in his nineties and had deeded the farmstead to my grandmother although the farm was no longer a working farm just mostly a summer retreat. The lake had been dammed at the head of the Outlet and the once grand river was tamed into a smaller and shallower one than it had been and the only remaining sign of any river use was an occasional ‘deadhead’ in the channel and an old log and board pier that great granddad had built many years before.
            In the years between my fifth and fifteenth birthdays I spent most of my summers with my grandmother on her farm living in the small cottage house her dad had built because the original farmhouse had deteriorated and fallen into nothing but a worn out shell. The old barn still stood but its back was broken and the loft sat mostly on the ground along with all the old rusted equipment which had died years before. In the brush along the river bank stood what was once a log icehouse but we stayed away from that because of water snakes and skunks and the like. My brother and I often roamed around and in the old buildings that we were forbidden to go inside because everyone feared a total collapse of what little still stood but fortunately we survived unscathed. The old pier in the river was a different story. We fished and swam off the end and often thought we saw a strange presence in the murky water under the old logs that held the pier together; spooky stories of river monsters came to mind whenever we saw the shadow move slowly around in the dark water.
            One summer day while we were fishing off the pier a huge ugly head reared up out of the gloom and snatched a plump bluegill right off my line! I was horrified and ran to the house to tell my grandmother of the terrifying ordeal. She listened calmly until I finished my astonishing tale and then told me about the “Old Mossback” family of snapping turtles that haunted the waters under the pier. Evidently a whole line of mossbacks had lived under the pier for many years and when one became too troublesome it was harvested for an old fashioned turtle soup feast. We decided that this present personification was due for the pot and my brother and I were instructed on how to catch the monster. A strong wire line was fetched from the old shed by the house and a stout old cane pole of substantial size was rigged for me to use as a snapping turtle catcher. 
            A suitable bait of fish heads was attached to a large hook and I jigged it carefully down under the pier in the gloomiest water I could see. It wasn’t long before I had a tug and I waited to set the hook for a good strong pull. All hell broke loose when I jerked hard on the line and I was almost pulled into the water. My brother grabbed the line with me pulling and yelling for help and hoping to hold the pole without losing it to the big, old turtle hanging on the end of the line! We could barely hold on until my grandmother came to the rescue and tied a rope to the line so we could drag the prize back along the pier to the shore where we hoped to beach it. If you’ve never pulled against a two-foot size turtle that was wedging itself under the pier then you can’t imagine how tiring this was and the minutes dragged into over an hour before we managed to get the huge, green-backed snapper to the shoreline where we had to beach it without letting those powerful jaws nip a finger or toe in the process.
            We had an old piece of broomstick with a noose of wire rope nailed on to catch the head and stretch it out so we could behead the beast. With its head nestled tightly under its shell we positioned the noose in hopes of snagging it once I enticed it out to snap at a stick I brushed its nose with. Snapping turtles hiss and snap faster than you can blink and a shaky, skinny kid jumped just as fast each time that gnarled snout launched at my stick. No matter how safe I felt at the other end I still jumped at each joust with those jaws that sounded like steel traps snapping shut on that stick! We finally wore the old beast down and successfully removed his head from his body but it was a battle I would never forget.  Unfortunately we didn’t have cell phones or digital cameras back then and my little Kodak was back at home so I don’t have a picture of Old Mossback but he was a big one and he really had moss-like material growing on his shell! Old Mossback the umpteenth was destined for the soup pot and my first taste of what some consider a delicacy, turtle.
            Butchering the huge turtle was accomplished by first boiling the whole thing in a large tub to soften the shell enough to split it open with a hatchet and sharp knives along with some pliers. Once the meat quarters were out of the shell we boiled it to tenderize it along with herbs and spices, all of which I don’t remember (sixty years or more of memories!). The boiled meat was then cooled for a bit while the vegetable broth was made and then the meat was added and the soup or stew as it were was simmered. I am not an experienced turtle cook so consult a recipe if you want to make your own. The resulting “soup” was delicious and I have never tasted anything like it since. I ran across a few snappers in my later years but never felt the need to make them into soup or stew so my experience with the “Old Mossback” was my one great turtle cuisine delight.
            The “Farm” is long gone now existing only in my memories of those summer days I spent there and I don’t know where snapping turtles can be harvested now but if you ever get the chance to try turtle don’t pass it up because as my wise old grandmother said “You should try it at least once so you know what it’s like!”.