Letter from the Lake: Another summer at Wrighter Lake in northeastern Pennsylvania, somewhere between Scranton, PA, and Binghamton, NY. We got an early start this year, opening up the cottage in late April, and had the good fortune to add another aviary friend to our informal list of birds sighted on the lakefront property: Our new addition is a woodcock, strutting around the front of the cottage with his elongated beak. Welcome.
Oddly enough, one species I had never seen before at the lake is the common turtle. Yet just a few weeks ago, on the lakefront side of the cottage not far from where we saw that woodcock, we spotted a ruffling of grass. There was a turtle, probably six inches in diameter, laboriously digging into the waterlogged soil with her hind legs.
What could else could it be other than a mother turtle, preparing a place to lay her eggs? A Google search confirmed that, and also prepared us for the reality that the next day there would not be a trace of where the turtle had been digging so energetically. According to the experts, the eggs may take up to two months to hatch.
Then the baby turtles have to reverse the work of the now-absent mother. It may take them three to seven days to scratch their way to the surface. Of course, the turtle god has a plan for that: the hatchlings are born with embryonic egg sacs that provide all the food they need for those long days and nights of digging.
Google also shed light on the debate over the term “turtle.” We used it to describe the hard-shelled, slow moving, but determined digger we saw in the yard. But others insist that the “turtle” is really a “tortoise,” one who lives on and in the land, as opposed to one who lives in the water — that would be a turtle.
Turtles, tortoises, and terrapins are closely related reptiles of the order Testudines. But technically turtles dwell both in water (either saltwater or freshwater, depending on the species) and on land, terrapins dwell both in freshwater and on land, and tortoises are land-dwellers. But some experts seem to have given up on the distinction and refer to water-based turtles, as opposed to land-dwelling turtles.
A few days later I got to appreciate the difference. Floating across the lake on a paddle board, enjoying the view from standing above the water and looking down, I spotted the unmistakable markings of a turtle shell shuffling about on the floor of the lake. It looked to me that it was close to two feet in diameter. And neighbors later said they had heard of sightings of large turtles elsewhere in the lake. At that size it had to be a snapping turtle.
Tortoise or turtle, in a few days I found myself in the same league with the creature we saw digging in the front yard. I was in the back yard, attempting to dig through the Pennsylvania clay to create a drywell under a downspout on the back of the new cottage.
The new cottage did not originally come with any downspouts. In fact it had no gutters. I am not sure exactly why the architect, Gene Beautz of Binghamton, planned it this way. But I do know that he had seen the old cottage, in obvious disrepair, with gutters filled with years’ worth of leaves and sediment — so much so that wild flowers were cheerfully blooming along the edge of the roof.
“Hanging gardens of Babylon,” I would tell people paddling past in kayaks.
So the new cottage was completed — more or less — two years ago, with steeply sloped roofs and no gutters to become clogged with autumn leaves. That worked well except in one spot, where two dormers created a V-shaped trough that funneled water into a single stream that raced against the middle of a kitchen window.
That was annoying in the summer. In the winter it turned into a maintenance failure. In the ice age winter of 2014-’15, the water in the V froze, ultimately forming an ice dam two feet thick and about ten feet up the V. The pressure of the dam forced water — as it melted — to flow uphill, over the ice shields under the roof shingles, and drip by drip back down through the interior insulation, the sheet rock, and onto the new oak kitchen counter.
But Beautz had a solution: A three-foot-long copper scupper that would rest like a gutter immediately beneath the V in the roof, collect the water, and drop it through the downspout to the lawn below. It was installed at the end of this winter, and it works well.
To be even safer in the winter, we had electric heat tape installed on the V in the roof, and then continue down through the gutter and the downspout. For a few dollars a month in electricity charges we could keep the water flowing off the roof and down to the ground. Sounds great.
But for me, operating like the turtle on some instinctive wariness of winters, especially in northeastern Pennsylvania, great didn’t sound good enough.
I thought back to the winter before last, when a neighbor’s septic tank froze, when another neighbor’s underground water line froze for the first time that anyone could remember, when the antifreeze in the toilet at my place froze. What if — during a similarly harsh winter — the ground around the downspout all froze? What if the water, once it flowed several inches from the heat tape at the bottom of the downspout, formed an ice dam on the ground, causing the water coming down from the roof to back up into the scupper, and then onto the roof? At some point the pervasive cold would overwhelm the heat tape, and we would have another ice dam and similar damages.
So I decided to give the water a place to go, down into a drywell, deep enough so that it wouldn’t freeze. My plan was to dig a pit three feet by three feet by four feet deep, centered under the downspout. I would create some hollow spaces using upside down spackle buckets, drilled with holes to let water flow in and out easily, and have a hollow space directly under the downspout leading to the deepest part of the pit. During the winter the water melted by the heat tape would drop below the frost line — and from there seep into the ground. I’d fill the remaining cavity with three and four-inch rocks, creating plenty of crevices for water to go.
About six inches below the surface I would cover the stone with soil fabric and then put dirt over that. I would plant that with grass seed. In the end, the only visible portion would be a drain cover directly under the down spout and that four-foot deep hole.
That was the plan. I dug for a few hours here, and a few hours there. At the end of the first three-day weekend, I had a pit that was no more than three feet by two feet and barely two feet deep. The hard-pan clay soil was hard as rock. Rocks were thick as thieves.
On the Fourth of July weekend I got smarter. I borrowed a Bosch electric jackhammer. While neighbors entertained me with lawn mowers, motorboats, ATVs, and fireworks, I returned the favor with some joyous jackhammer riffs.
The joy was short-lived. After a weekend of jackhammering away, I had managed only to get to the three-feet level of depth. I figured the drywell would still work if I could at least get to four feet in the very center, directly under the downspout. I attacked that spot with the jackhammer and hit another layer of stone. I gave up for the day. That night it rained, and the water in that spot just sat there, not draining an inch in the first day. After another day I tried again. Even with the jackhammer I only made a few inches of progress. It rained again, and again it didn’t drain.
OK: I’ve hit rock bottom and I give up.
Maybe the baby turtles in the front yard, preparing to dig out of a mass of soil that must be 10 times or more their body height, can show me a better way.