School’s out and now the science lesson begins for country kids

Tuesday was the last day of school for New London public school students, including my daughter, Kalispell. She spent a grueling day on a 7th grade field trip to Appleton’s Fox River Mall, where she dined on Panda Express Chinese cuisine, then went to a bowling alley for three games.

Then it was off to a good friend’s house for a last-day-of-school party with six other screaming, texting and sugar-eating girls.

Thankfully, I missed it all because I was at work. OK, I did give her a ride to school after a stop at her favorite breakfast spot, Kwik Trip.

Now that she’s home for the summer, I can tell you what will happen on our little Google Maps section of Wisconsin. Our little 2-acre homestead on a sand-covered, pine-ringed paradise surrounded by Wolf River backwaters is teeming with every manner of reptile and amphibian.

A kid’s first instinct when encountering a critter is to make it a pet. My brother and I were the same way a few centuries ago when we grew up in a small Illinois town near the banks of the Mississippi River. We’d grab the painted or snapping turtle crawling through the yard, recite the summer mantra, “Mom, can I keep him?” and either drop the turtle in a galvanized metal wash tub for a day or two until we got bored (painted turtle) or immediately let the turtle go after teasing it with a yellow No. 2 pencil until a buddy almost lost the tip of his index finger (snapping turtle).

We’ve had both species in our Wisconsin yard almost every year, and in fact Kali caught a silver dollar-sized painted turtle May 26. She dug a 2-gallon fish tank out of the garage, quickly put some decorative stones in the bottom, added some rain water from the dog’s kiddie pool and plopped the turtle in.

As my daughter grows older, I’ve observed that she wants to keep found critters for ever-shorter periods of time (perhaps realizing that any pet means work, and summer is not the time for labor if you can avoid it by letting the darn animal go). She shocked me by announcing within an hour of finding “Franklin” that it was time to take him across the road to the slough, which we did.

Kali discovered the more exciting potential pet on Sunday when we were attempting to drain the rain water and leaves out of the bottom of our discount store swimming pool. My wife set the pool up to get it out of the garage for a yard sale, and, in an effort to burn up my precious weekend spare time, asked me to help her lift up the lining and slide plastic lawn chairs underneath so the pool would drain. I asked her if it would have been easier to leave the liner flat on the ground and hose it off, rather than putting it inside the pool frame, but since I’m not an engineer, I couldn’t possibly comprehend why that would never work.

As we lifted the tarp below the pool, a big snake crawled out, eliciting a healthy scream or two from Kali. If it’s one thing 13-year-old girls have down, it’s screaming.

“Dad! Come over heeeere! It’s a cobra!”

A co-worker had recently picked my brain about a similar experience with a hood-flaring snake, and I suggested it was probably a hognose. These harmless snakes flare their heads, rattle their tails in the leaves and even play dead in an effort to fool predators and 13-year-old girls. They will even strike, but almost never open their mouths. I had a hognose for a pet when I was a kid and he was great.

Sure enough. A large Eastern hognose snake was rearing up and spreading its head like a hood! I told her it would be easy to grab it behind the head and lift it up, but its aggressive stance scared me enough to back down. Kali corralled it briefly into a clear plastic shoe box before it slithered off into the brush. It left behind some nasty black poo that made Kali gag.

She briefly wanted to keep the hognose, too, but I reminded her that any wild animal should be left alone so it can stay wild and free.

She’ll pass the summer catching dragonflies in the backyard prairie grass, rounding up leopard frogs and tree frogs and American toads, chasing red admiral and question mark butterflies with her net before begging me to take her fishing for bluegills and sunfish at the fishing hole on the end of our road.

For a kid blessed enough to live in the country, summer doesn’t get any better than that.

Ross Bielema is a freelance writer from New London and owner of Wolf River Concealed Carry LLC. Contact him at