In which Dave and I find an amphibious unicorn

Lost in the woods, we spotted a large metal lid set into the ground.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

We stood under a gang of towering firs on a shoulder of Mt. Hood, puzzled. Ferns slouched from their branches and loitered on the ground. In a place this strenuously green, it was easy to imagine we were the first humans, especially since we were lost. But in the middle of moss-drenched nowhere, we had come across a metal lid, three feet by four, and stared at it as though it had been dropped by aliens. 

We stared some more. 

“Well,” my husband, Dave, said finally, bending over, “ya gotta look.”

If a path is narrow enough, it’s not easy to tell if it’s meant for you, or shrews. The trail we were on, if it was one, was definitely not the one we were looking for. 

We had been thinking of turning back when we fetched up at the improbable metal lid. Dave pulled it up and tipped it back on its hinges, revealing a concrete box set into the ground, full of trembling water, and we peered into it until the reflections settled out. There was something at the bottom of the box. A trout. A big, robust, handsome trout. With legs.

Well, it might as well have been a unicorn. A Pacific giant salamander! I’d been looking for him for years. 

I should pause to note that, unlike (I suspect) many of you, I admire salamanders extravagantly. There were scads of them in the eastern deciduous forests of my childhood, but they’re harder to come by here in the Pacific Northwest, despite our legendary dampness. There’s a fine reliable newt that sashays through the fir duff in the springtime, and I’ve spotted a few other sorts, but mostly I’ve quit looking.

“He’s stuck in there, Dave,” I said. “We have to get him out.” Dave’s arm was long enough to reach the bottom, and after a couple of mad scrambles, he hoisted up a mottled brown package of magnificence for my admiration. It filled his fist! The legs pushed against his fingers with a muscularity I had never associated with its kin. 

Salamanders are not supposed to be strong. Salamanders are not supposed to be the size of my forearm. I whooped and hollered like a kid at Christmas as Dave set him down on the moss and he lumbered off.

Salamanders are not supposed to lumber.

The box he was in remains a mystery. It had an incoming and outgoing port. And it was beside a stream, so we speculated it was designed so fish fry could be placed in there to get some size, feasting on whatever floated through, before the water level rose enough to float them out. 

I went home and read everything I could find on Pacific giants. And one thing that was clear was that our strapping friend was clear off the charts for size. He was fine and fat and a solid 15 inches long. He was the Secretariat of salamanders. It occurred to us that we hadn’t done him any favors by hauling him out of his box. He had probably floated in on his own and then made the happy discovery that he was in a nice cozy room full of little fish that couldn’t get away. 

He was the amphibian equivalent of a man in a recliner being pelted with tater tots. When the water came up, he’d have been able to float on out, if he’d wanted to.

I kept reading. The Pacific giant salamander will cheerfully snack on rodents and is also known for his vocal abilities, another thing that distinguishes him from his small, noodle-armed relatives. Evidently, if surprised or upset, he barks like a dog. It was a good thing Dave had been in charge of the retrieval. If I’d had hold of him and he’d barked, we would have found out if unicorns can fly.

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