It was a Sisyphean task. Between each of the 30-odd races, the Turtle Wranglers rushed to the center of the circular track in the parking lot to collect 20 tired reptiles, then haul replacements out in buckets for the next heat.
By the time they finished refilling the starters’ buckets with enough water for the turtles to splash around in, the next race was already over, and it was back to the track to swap them out.
Turns out, turtles aren’t that slow.
“The end of the day, it’s exhausting,” said Zach Iverson, a 14-year-old volunteer who has been lugging turtles to and from the starting line for the past five years. Iverson, of Pequot Lakes, Minn., is one of dozens of locals who toil on the hot asphalt of the Nisswa Chamber of Commerce parking lot every summer to put on the storied event for tourists to the Brainerd Lakes Area.
For 53 years, resort visitors and cabin owners have been lured into downtown Nisswa to spend their money along the town’s Main Street. The bait that gets them there: turtle racing.
It is an exercise in futility for participants, as much as it is an exercise in meandering for those wiggly green legs. There’s no way to practice, little in the way of strategy, and it’s impossible to predict which turtle will stroll across the finish line and which will stop or turn back. And yet, it’s an enduring tradition that’s brought generations to the track while enriching local businesses weekly.
“From an economic standpoint, it would be almost impossible to replace something at this level,” said Shawn Hansen, president of the Nisswa Chamber of Commerce.
The event, which is broadcast over loudspeakers reverberating all over town, is a bit of a curiosity to locals.
“You’d hear about the turtle races, and to be honest, I didn’t realize it was such a big deal,” said Mark Ulm, an opinion he shared with a lot of locals. But when Ulm started running a store in Nisswa 20 years ago, “then you realize how big a deal it is,” he said.
Now the races are an indelible part of his life. Ulm has been the emcee (aka the Turtlemaster) for a decade.
“When people ask me why I do this, my answer is this is small-town America at its best right here,” he said.
For the races, Ulm asks a few Minnesota trivia questions and runs through the ground rules, then provides a running commentary for more than an hour of racing. Anywhere between 500 and 800 participants turn out for each of the 12 racing Wednesdays between June and mid-August.
For a $4 registration fee, the young racers get to stand in the center of two circles and pick a turtle from one of the buckets. When the Turtlemaster yells “Go!” they place their turtle on the inner circle and try to encourage it to make its way to the edge of the outer circle. Some splash the turtle with water to urge it forward, some bang the bucket on the ground, some shout “Go, turtle, go!” and some just stand there and weep.
“It just went a little bit straight, turned back and then went a little bit further,” said 6-year-old Vivien West of Anoka. By the time another turtle had crossed the finish line, hers had gone only about a foot from where she was standing.
Lethargy was common.
“Mine was like, ‘OK, I’m done!’ ” said 5-year-old Alexa White from Blaine. “It would not move.”
But Matthew Leary, a 5-year-old from Baxter, Minn., had a turtle on the move. He won his first heat, the semifinals, and ultimately the finals, beating out a kid from Massachusetts. He nicknamed his turtle Noah, he said as he held up his medal.
Matthew’s mom, Kathi, was a turtle racer in her childhood, too.
Living in the area, she felt some pride in the spectacle, which on the week of July 4th attracted about 800 racers.
“It’s a great opportunity for visitors to learn what the Nisswa community has to offer,” Leary said.
The entry fees go to the Chamber and to the Mounted Eagles, an organization that provides therapeutic horsemanship for kids with disabilities, covering about 10 percent of the organization’s budget.
Developing a bond
A local bait shop traps the indigenous painted turtles when they come out of hibernation in the spring. Mounted Eagles Executive Director Lynn Fairbanks cares for the painted turtles throughout the summer in a pond she installed just for them at her home a few miles from the racetrack. There, she feeds the turtles minnows every two days.
At the end of the summer, Fairbanks releases them back into the wild. She keeps the weaker ones a little longer until they’ve bulked up enough to fend for themselves. But she admits that not all of them make it.
“We have lost turtles here,” she said. “Some kids put them in their backpacks. Some adults think they should not be doing this,” and set them free.
Every couple of years, said Hansen, the races here and in other Minnesota communities draw the ire of animal rights organizations.
Because of the potential for injury as well as the spread of viruses, the Humane Society of the United States opposes turtle racing, as does People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
“In the wild, turtles meander through forested areas and spend their time in the mud and basking in the sun,” said Katie Arth, a spokeswoman for PETA. “To be used in races, these highly sensitive animals are torn away from their natural homes, crammed into tiny boxes, and handled by strangers amid screaming crowds.”
This year an annual turtle derby in Maryland was canceled because of a new law banning the use of amphibians and reptiles in competition.
But Fairbanks, a Nisswa native, keeps a watchful eye on the health of the turtles, especially on race day, benching any that seem distressed. Fairbanks, who has been Chief Wrangler for five years, has even formed a bond with the hand-sized turtles known for their smooth shells and colorful stripes.
“I never thought that I would want to watch 100 turtles swimming around,” she said. But she does. “They’re kind of curious creatures.”
Most wranglers, like Fairbanks, wear hot pink T-shirts. But Iverson, her nephew, was dressed head-to-knee in camouflage. Between hauling buckets back and forth, he stood at the edge of the lot and brushed his shoulder-length black hair away from his sunglasses.
What did he think of the scene, of all these vacationers descending on Nisswa to cheer at pinstriped reptiles walking across a parking lot, over and over again?
“It’s … ” he trailed off while shrugging his shoulders and grinning. “It’s a lot of people.”