By Jennifer Gallus
HOWARD LAKE, MN - One Saturday afternoon in June, for the last 20-plus years, about 30 turtles volunteer their little reptilian legs for a good cause.
The cause is making the day of each child who picks it up to use for the turtle races that take place during Good Neighbor Days.
But where do all those turtles come from?
Matt and Darla Drusch of Howard Lake have been supplying the turtles for the races for at least 20 years now.
They practice catch and release, mostly around Dutch Lake.
The turtles are slowly collected about two weeks before Good Neighbor Days, and kept in five-gallon buckets.
“We go to Joe’s Sportshop and get minnows to feed them,” Darla said.
Within a half hour after the races are done, the turtles are released back into the Dutch Lake area.
“The turtles are brought right to the lake and are off on their way. We haven’t lost one yet,” Matt said in reference to the fact that not one turtle has given its life for the cause.
A neighbor of the Drusches got them started in supplying turtles for the races by asking them to “bring extras,” Matt said.
Over the years, the Drusch family began supplying the majority of turtles for race day.
Finding turtles depends upon the weather conditions before Good Neighbor Days.
“This year is cool so the turtles aren’t moving much yet. Finding them might be down to the wire this year,” Matt said.
When turtles are hard to find in cool years, Matt said that they have good luck taking boats out, and finding turtles that are sunning themselves on logs.
The Drusches find most of the turtles in the Dutch Lake area, but others come from people who call the family when they spot a turtle, or from people who drop off turtles at their home.
“Once in a while, we’ll bring some down from up north. Afterwards, we bring them back up north to release them,” Matt explained.
Those turtles are marked so the family knows were they came from.
Just about every kind of turtle has crossed the finish line at the races.
“I remember a snapping turtle was there one year, a long time ago,” laughed Howard Lake Drug pharmacist John Ringold.
“We’ve had a little bit of everything,” Matt laughed. “We’ve had a box turtle, a snapping turtle, a bottle nose turtle, and even a blandings turtle.”
Blandings turtles are threatened in Minnesota. Matt recognized what kind of turtle it was, unbeknownst to the person who brought it who found it on the side of the road, and called the DNR.
“They came out from the cities to get the turtle,” Matt said.
“It was the fastest turtle. It won every heat it was in,” Matt laughed, “so everyone was using it.”
The target number of turtles the Drusches like to provide is 30. Each heat consists of 10 turtles being raced from the inside of a circle to the outside.
Last year, 150 kids participated in the turtle races, according to race coordinator Sam Gruenhagen.
The number of kids participating each year depends on the weather. However, Gruenhagen said that even in rainy years, they’ve still had 75 to 100 kids participate.
“I remember when it first started,” Marilyn Ringold of Howard Lake Drug said, “there were only about a dozen kids.”
The Howard Lake Legion sponsors the race, and coordinating the event for the last 10-plus years, “isn’t work.” Gruenhagen said.
“It’s a fun deal. Just watching the kids, the real little ones, and the parents is fun,” he added.
The winner of each heat is awarded $5 in Howard Lake bucks. At the end, the winners of each heat compete in one last championship “turtle-off,” as Marilyn Ringold of Howard Lake Drug would say it.
That winner gets $10 or $15 in Howard Lake bucks.
Additionally, each participant, win or lose, gets a free soda at the burger stand, Gruenhagen explained.
“It’s something fun and unique,” said Howard Lake native Billie Estrem, “that most people say, ‘You do what?’ when we tell them that we race turtles.”
As of Thursday, the Drusches only had one turtle collected so far for this year’s event. But very soon, they will have enough turtles to turn every child’s mouth into a smile on race day.
Good Neighbor Days will run Thursday, June 25 through Sunday, June 28.
The turtle race is set for Saturday, June 27 at 2 p.m. at the fire station.
“The turtle races are a constant,” Matt said. “We’ve tried lots of things over the years, but we always have turtle races.”