Actually . . . it's a giant salamander. Cryptobrachus alleganiensis is its scientific name. That other, weirdish name comes from obscure origins. One explanation is that early settlers to the eastern foothills and mountains of the U.S., upon discovering the frightful-looking creature, looked to Biblical references for an appropriate appellation.
Full-grown Hellbenders can grow to over two feet long, head to tail, making it the largest salamander in North America and the third largest in the world (just behind the Chinese and Japanese Giant Salamanders).
Hellbenders are in that "extra-ordinary animal" category, which so fired-up my imagination as a kid. It shares the company in my mind with the likes of the newly discovered (thought to be extinct) prehistoric fish, the Coelacanth (See-la-canth), the Black Rhinoceros (relatively unchanged since Miocene times--a living prehistoric animal), and the rare, jungle-dwelling Okapi (in appearance, half-zebra/half-giraffe). The living Hellbenders today are relatively unchanged since they first evolved millions of years ago. They represent those transitional creatures, halfway between fish and mammal, when Life was just getting a foot on the ground...so to speak.
Three years ago, my wife and I bought a little property in Etowah, North Carolina, near the French Broad River. Etowah gets its name from the tribe of Native Americans who once lived and prospered in the southeastern United States. Each morning I get to watch my kids run up to catch the bus with lush, green mountains towering in the distance. On our little stretch we have a donkey farm, a cow pasture, and a meadow full of goats--a long, long way from Brooklyn.
But I have to admit, with all my talk of finally "living the good life," I was starting to get restless. I began to miss the excitement of New York and started to get depressed. Worse still, the recession hit and my new-found career in children's books took a huge hit. I lost a major contract. Seemingly, the rug was pulled out from under me overnight.
I wasn't so happy about the turn of events, but I tried to make the best of it. To bring in more income, I began teaching as an adjunct professor of drawing at Brevard College, a wonderful school near the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, of which Pisgah Forest is part. I also began teaching art at Blue Ridge Community College. With very little illustration work coming my way, I returned to my "first loves" of painting and sculpture, which brought some much needed relief.
One day in late summer, as feelings of boredom and depression started to creep back in, I listlessly went on the internet and began to research my newly adopted community. I came across our Etowah Chamber of Commerce page and found a little pdf document listing natural resources, land development proposals, etc. There, I came across a list of native animal species. Going down the list, I stopped short at one entry. I stared intensely at the computer screen . . .
Cryptobranchus Aleganiensis - Status: threatened species. Location: local streams. Common name: Hellbender.
I let out a holler of delight. Here was something I could hang my imagination on! Out there, right in my own new "backyard" in fact, was an extraordinary creature. I just needed to find it. I looked at local maps, trying to discern where in the environs of Etowah one would start looking. There were swampy sections on private land. How would I get to them?
I decided I would enlist the aid of a local naturalist. I called up the Western North Carolina Nature Center. Yes, there were indeed Hellbenders around, they informed me. It was illegal to catch one--if you were lucky enough to find one. Once in a while, local fly-fishermen hooked one accidentally. They called them "water dogs." They mistakenly think that Hellbenders are a threat to their fly-fishing--they aren't. The Nature Center had special permission to keep one in an aquarium at the center. I was welcome to come by and have a look at it. I passed on the offer.
I scoured the internet for more information on Hellbenders, getting a better idea of the type of environment they preferred. Rocky streams with clear running water were ideal. Hellbenders have lungs, but primarily breathe in oxygen through fleshy folds of skin that stick out from their sides. There were a lot of clear running streams in Pisgah Forest, just down the street from us.
As October arrived, I held an open studio, inviting new acquaintances and friends to view my latest paintings and sculpture. Talk went from discussing my artworks to the terrible economy, at which point I nudged it over to Hellbenders. To my surprise, a son of one of my neighbors had indeed seen one: "One summer we saw a couple of them, over by the fish hatchery." The fish hatchery, along the Davidson River, supplies all the brown and rainbow trout to the mountain streams for the local fly-fishing--considered some of the finest in North Carolina. It was October, but the cold weather had yet to hit us. And I had read in my research that Hellbenders could handle cold weather.
So one day in late October, Christopher, Sarah, and I hopped into the car and headed over to the fish hatchery. "We're going on a Hellbender hunt!" I declared with gusto.
Trampling through the undergrowth, we found a promising spot, stepped gingerly into the icy Davidson, and began our search. Because of their size, Hellbenders need big rocks, under which they make their home.
After carefully lifting a half dozen good-sized boulders, my back started to give out. This business of Hellbender hunting was not going to be easy. Through chattering teeth, I called off the search. I was forced to cough up a couple of hot chocolates for the lost time and frozen toes.
A couple more fruitless searches left me feeling quite discouraged. I began to give up hope of ever seeing one in the wild. Giving in at last, I headed over to the Nature Center to have a look at their specimen. In the small aquarium display was the object of my passion--hiding in an artificial log (Hellbenders are primarily nocturnal animals). Its long tail hung out limply, like a swollen, wagging tongue saying, "Nah, Nah, Nah, Nah--that's all you're gonna get!" I left . . . even more discouraged than before.
Winter came and I abandoned my search and thoughts of ever finding my fabled creature in the wilds of North Carolina. Besides, I had taken on four courses in two separate colleges--I was busy. The recession, seemingly, was just getting started, and was showing no signs of letting up. My wife and I were doing everything we could to keep our house. Others less fortunate were losing theirs.
Spring finally came, and visions of my kids splashing around in a local waterhole came to mind. During one of my drawing classes I asked some of the local students where the best waterholes were for swimming. One student, with the delightful name of Rainbow, had a secret spot that only the locals knew about. She gave me a description of how to get there: "And there's this big, wonderful cave to explore," she added. With images of new exploration in mind, thoughts of Hellbenders naturally rose up and I asked about them. "Oh sure, we've seen one there," Rainbow replied.
So with my wife and kids in tow, I resumed my Hellbender search. But I must have gotten my location info from Rainbow mixed up--no big cave, no Hellbenders, lots of climbing over rocks, more hot chocolates. Next class I clarified my "intel" with Rainbow. We went over the landmarks again, slowly this time. "Give it another try," she consoled.
This time, only Sarah and Christopher were game--probably eager for more hot chocolate. We found what looked like the spot along the river and trotted down through the undergrowth. This spot seemed to be different. There was a very nice feel about it. The steep rock walls coming down to the shallow Davidson were covered with a pleasing green moss. The water was crystal clear in parts, and a deep green where it went deeper. "This must be the water hole," I thought to myself. There was a magical feeling about the place.
"There it is, Daddy!" hollered Sarah as we walked along the river. On the opposite side of the river was a rocky precipice that jutted out like a natural arch, more at home in Utah's Arches National Park than the Blue Ridge Mountains. We took off our shoes and socks off and rolled up our pants. Holding hands, we made our way over the slick stones underneath us, in the swiftly running water of the stream. "I wouldn't call this a cave," I thought to myself, "but very impressive, Rainbow."
After exploring the arch and crossing back over, we examined the stones in the clear, shallow sections of the river. I looked long and hard--but no Hellbenders. Sure did seem like the ideal spot, though.
So the spring blossoms came out early this year, and I found myself feeling rejuvenated. "As rough as the past few years have been," I thought to myself, "I'm going to keep my spirits up and keep my positive attitude. God, I'm up for whatever you have to offer next."
I was showing my paintings and sculpture at Asheville Regional Airport and had been enjoying teaching. The school year was wrapping up nicely. I said my goodbyes to my students. I thanked Rainbow again for the waterhole tip.
This past Sunday afternoon it was just Christopher and myself at home. "Why don't we go out for a drive?" I offered. We headed out towards the Blue Ridge Parkway. I was really craving that "majestic view" feeling. Christopher, on the other hand, wanted to stomp around in the river. I shrugged off my "craving" and off we went to the river. By this time, the "secret spot" had become our chosen destination. We waded across, as usual, to the arch and sat in its stony crevice. We watched in wonder as all sorts of critters trooped up and down its mossy sides.
Stepping back into the river, Christopher's long pants had slipped down into the water. I implored him to keep them up, to no avail. He laughed with delight as step-by-step he became completely immersed in the cool waters of the mountain stream. Surprisingly, the water wasn't nearly as cold as one would have thought--it was overcast that day.
We decided to stay in the river a while longer, making our way back across the slippery stones. The water was only about a foot deep and was crystal clear. I looked back at Christopher as he dunked his head completely under water and lifted it back up with a spray of water and a yelp of delight. When I turned back to continue on, I caught something in the corner of my eye and froze in my tracks. There, directly in front of me, barely camouflaged amongst the stones at my feet, was a Hellbender. Like the old saying goes, "Just when you least expect it . . . "
I was mesmerized. I couldn't believe what I was looking at. For one brief but lasting moment, I was catapulted into another time and world. I imagine if I had stumbled across a living dinosaur, the feeling would have been the same. Its wrinkly skin-folds waved in the flow of the stream. The color of its skin was extraordinary, a golden ochre with greenish tint, speckled with brown. The creature was snuggled, form-fitted to the stones, unmoving. I made out large claws helping it cling to the stones. It was huge. I'd estimate about sixteen inches long (head to tail), and it was plumper than I had imagined--very sturdy looking.
"Chris! Come over quick!" I hollered. Now I had a witness--this wasn't a hallucination. Christopher gasped and stepped back. I told him not to be frightened, that the Hellbender was harmless. They have a toxic slime covering them, but that's about it. (I didn't realize until I checked my facts again that Hellbenders actually can inflict a painful bite!) It remained unmoving as the clear water glided over its skin-folds. I decided to give it a prompt . . .
Grabbing a stick nearby, I gave it a little nudge. That was all it took. The Hellbender began slowly moving across the stones, grabbing with its formidable claws and pulling itself along. Each time it settled, it blended right in with the rocks, having near-perfect camouflage. Its head could easily pass for a large stone. The long, fat tail, set in vertical alignment to its body, was a very efficient rudder. A Hellbender's diet consists mainly of crayfish, minnows, and aquatic insects which it hunts amongst the river stones. They live underwater all their lives.
For a number of minutes, we watched as our Hellbender slowly made its way to the deeper part of the river. Then came the moment when it pulled itself up into the swift current of the stream. Using its strong tail and undulating body, it hovered in mid-stream, directly in front of us. Then it relaxed its efforts and descended into the murkier depths. Chris and I looked at each other and smiled--mission accomplished.
As I described the experience to friends, I could see that same light start to sparkle in their eyes that I get from the young ones. We all agreed: a little something special is needed every once in a while to keep us young at heart. For some, it's seeing a shooting star. Others, like a good friend who's a meteorologist, it's chasing thunderstorms and tornadoes. For my father, the mere mention of the extremely rare (now considered extinct) Ivory-Billed Woodpecker lit up his eyes and set him to find one. Alas, he didn't live to make his discovery.
For me, one of the moments was my recent encounter with a rare, giant salamander, remnant of a bygone era. My Hellbender "set things right again" for me--renewing my faith in the wonders of this planet, making life an adventure and a pleasure.Portrait of a Hellbender
P.S. Like all amphibians, Hellbenders have been "the canary in the coal mine" for how pollution and chemical run-off affect our clear running streams. Fortunately, our Hellbender showed no tell-tale signs of deformity. Healthy Hellbender = healthy river. If you find a Hellbender, have a wonderful, gentle encounter with them, but then please leave them to their river world.
Posted by David Sheldon, author and illustrator of Into the Deep.