I spent countless hours, when I was young, exploring the creek that ran through our woods. I found crawdads and snails, snakes and minnows, darters and stream lamprey. I also found an amazing variety of small, slippery salamanders, the kind that lived in every creek in the county. But I never found a hellbender.
I didn’t know hellbenders existed until one of my classmates brought one to school. I was fascinated, but I was also jealous. So jealous that I didn’t want to look too closely at the giant salamander, which I remember as a vague, slimy shadow, curled up and completely covering the bottom of a five-gallon bucket. Instead of participating in the general excitement over the hellbender, I hung near the back of the crowd, wishing the bell would ring so that I could go home and catch one of my own.
(As with all of my memories, it’s possible this story isn’t true. The past is treacherously malleable, changing as I change, fading as I age. It’s possible that I stared at the hellbender for hours. I might have reached in and touched it. There might have been some other creature in the bucket, or there might not have been a bucket at all.)
I never did find a hellbender of my own. Not in my creek (I realized later it had always been too small and shallow for hellbenders) and not in any of the other creeks I visited. But I never quit looking.
I now live in eastern Virginia, where there are no hellbenders. My childhood creek belongs to someone else, and hellbenders are increasingly rare, even in suitable creeks. At this point, my chances of finding a hellbender are roughly equal to my chances of finding a dragon. But the story isn’t over. There is hope for the future, for hellbenders and for me. Conservation efforts are making progress, so perhaps hellbenders won’t disappear altogether. And the next time someone shows up with a bucket full of wonder, I won’t be too jealous to look.