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It’s not every day that the Rolling Thunder Express can take credit for thwarting what could have been a mass exodus away from one of the last pristine coldwater lakes in the region, but we’ve done our job, braved the storm and things are nearly back to normal.
It all started with a weekend call to All Outdoors central. Lorraine Kramer, soon-to-be wife of Steve Wintle of Dexter, who owns a camp on Lake Wassookeag, called to report that her fiancé had caught a “monster” while angling for lake trout and salmon. Word got out that Wintle had caught something really weird and folks began to flock to the camp to see the odd-looking creature, which was being kept (temporarily) in a tub until a positive identification could be made.
Until the call came in, no one had ever seen or heard of such a creature being in the lake, which serves as the water supply for the town. The “monster” was about 18 inches long, with a snake’s tail, leathery skin, four legs and “ears” attached to a broad, flat head. Guesses as to what the thing was ranged from the notorious snakehead fish (not!) to an eel, a deformed cusk (also not) to a deformed prehistoric monster that would poison the water, eat all the fish in the lake and devour a few children along the way.
Lorraine was worried that the presence of the ugly creature in the lake would scare people away and cause the value of shoreline camps to drop precipitously, but I was able to reassure her about that, too. (In fact, I joked that I would buy her beautiful, remodeled cottage for “20 bucks” if she wanted to sell before word got out about the Wassookeag Monster!)
Well, as luck would have it, I was able to calm things down by guessing that the critter was either a hellbender or a mudpuppy, basically very large specimens of salamanders that are perfectly harmless to humans and actually good indicators of clean water, fresh water.
The scientific description of the hellbender doesn’t sound especially appealing, so looking at one can’t be a pleasant experience: “Length: to 27 inches. Head broad, flat; snout rounded; eyes, nostrils small; one pair of gill slits; legs short, stout; tail flattened sideways. Color: Brownish, sometimes with darker blotches.”
These generally nocturnal amphibians usually inhabit running water (large streams and rivers) and are bottom crawlers, not swimmers. Though not considered common in Maine, experts suggest “it is doubtful whether any marked change in the habits of these animals has occurred for millions of years.”
Also a potential suspect, the mudpuppy is also long (about 17 inches) and stout, with a flat head, dark colored smooth skin and a compressed, keeled tail. However, the mudpuppy prefers muddy water (not likely at Wassookeag) and thrives in stagnant drainage ditches, reservoirs and canals.
The hellbender (our most likely suspect) eats small invertebrates, their eggs and young, but is one of the few salamanders that will also eat larger stuff, which is why the Dexter “monster” ended up at the end of Steve Wintle’s line.
These creatures are harmless to humans and some variation of them has been around for around 275,000,000 years (don’t ask me how they know this!). The last record I could find suggested that the oldest hellbender on record lived to be 29 years old – that’s a long time to live under water!
A recent study conducted in Pennsylvania found that hellbenders can be active down to 18 feet of water, and their home range was estimated at 120 square yards – not a big area to spend 29 years! At night, hellbenders leave their dens and forage on the bottom among the boulder, stones and submerged logs. They feed on aquatic insects, crayfish, worms, snails, small fish and the like. Fishermen (even Steve Wintle!) occasionally catch hellbenders when angling for bottom-dwelling species like cusk or togue, but the best thing to do is just release the giant salamander (after taking a picture so people will believe what you caught!). They are harmless creatures that have little effect on the stuff that matters most to humans (clean water, game fish, etc.). Now, if they were considered “harmful” (like the coyote) we could come up with a campaign to wipe them out (as if that’s been working), but there’s no need to panic on this one.
Actually, clean water (like Wassookeag) is so important to hellbenders that dams, water pollution, silt and industrial effluents have been instrumental in the decline of these creatures because these events kill off crayfish populations, and, as we’ve seen, hellbenders feed heavily on those crustaceans.
Consider the hellbender as akin to the porcupine in some ways. Studies have revealed that American Indians ate these giant salamanders. This means a hellbender might make a good emergency snack for someone lost in the wilds along the Shore Road, for example. I sincerely doubt that Lorraine or Steve (or their brood of beautiful daughters) are going to put their hellbender in the skillet when this is all over, but it would certainly make an interesting centerpiece for their next Wassookeag shore dinner!
Actually, back in the early 1970s I pulled my first freshwater cusk out of the ice on Schoodic Lake and, at that time, thought that this had to be the ugliest creature known to inland man (some critters in the ocean are even worse!). But, I have seen a hellbender or two and have to admit that, inch for inch, the big, slimy salamander makes the cusk look like a beauty queen. I’m only guessing that cusk make a better chowder (I don’t know anyone who’s currently living on hellbender meat), but I do know that, for all my looking of late, I can’t find a recipe for hellbender anywhere!
The bottom line to this (mostly) tongue-in-cheek event is that hellbenders do exist in central Maine (though they’re not considered common here), they are harmless salamanders that won’t bite or eat you, and there is absolutely no reason to sell out and move away if you catch one. If nothing else, a hellbender in your lake or pond means the water is very close to pure, and that’s a good thing.
I think there is room for a makeover here, but, like anything else, I’m sure the average hellbender looks pretty good to another hellbender, and we should just leave it at that!
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