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'The Turtle Keeper': Where Perham's racing turtles go when they're not being raced

The painted turtles used in Perham's International Turtle Races are kept in large bins and cared for by volunteers during the races. When the races are over, the turtles go back to their summer "home," Palubicki Farms, where they're treated like the little celebrities they are, with fresh food and water every day plus regular treats such as minnows, leafy greens and insects. Perham Focus file photo1 / 3
Turtle Races are held every Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. at Turtle Park in downtown Perham. Perham Focus file photo2 / 3
Sandy Palubicki, a.k.a. 'The Turtle Keeper,' with a few of the turtles that will be used in this year's turtle races in Perham. She is pictured with three of her "turtle helpers," Jack, Sullivan and Briggs Hendrickson, on Palubicki Farms near Perham. Submitted photo3 / 3

Sandy Palubicki is sometimes called by another name in the summers: "The Turtle Keeper."

If you've ever wondered who takes care of the turtles used in Perham's International Turtle Races, Sandy's the answer.

Every year around mid-April, she takes in about 30 painted turtles, caring for them throughout the season at her home, Palubicki Farms near Perham.

They stay in a large, outdoor enclosure, half-shaded, half-sunny, with a basking rock and small swimming pool with a ramp.

"They're pretty happy," Sandy says. "When I go to feed them, they get really excited, like they recognize me and know what's coming."

The turtles are fed nutritional pellets every day, thanks to donations from All Creatures Veterinary Hospital, and then, about once a week, they get an extra special treat—slippery little minnows, donated by Gene's Sport Shop.

"They love minnows," says Sandy with a smile. "They just slurp 'em up like a noodle."

She also regularly feeds them green, leafy vegetables and any insects that get zapped in traps on her farm. She keeps the turtles' water clean, and watches them closely to make sure they're all acting normal and healthy. Her family and friends help out with some of these duties from time to time, but Sandy's the main caregiver.

She keeps herself plenty busy all summer long, between the turtle care, chores around the family farm and her job in town. Locals and tourists alike may recognize her as the Perham Area Chamber of Commerce's information and visitor coordinator.

Before the races every week, Sandy loads the turtles up into bins and brings them into town, where they get separated and put into buckets—one turtle per bucket—for kids to use during the races.

Perham's International Turtle Races

Once the turtles are on site, that's when their work begins—and that's when they really shine.

The humble little pond dwellers become instant celebrities, with hundreds of visitors cheering them on.

The races are held every Wednesday in June, July and August at Turtle Park at 10:30 a.m., with registration starting at 10. The park is located right next to the Perham Area Chamber of Commerce office, on Main Street.

Every week, large crowds gather to watch as racers form a circle in the center of the park and then, at the blow of a whistle, release their turtles from the buckets. Racers bang those empty buckets on the ground to keep the turtles moving—a strategy that sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. The turtles make their way to an outer circle, and the first turtle to reach the outside ring wins.

Heat winners stick around to race again, until the top three winners have been determined. Winners get prizes and have their pictures taken. New this year, all first, second and third place winners throughout the season will get their names entered into a drawing to win a one-of-a-kind, hand-carved wood turtle made by award-winning carver Harley Ragan.

Valued at $1,000, the turtle is a 2017 national wood carving competition winner. A drawing for the carved turtle will be held after the last turtle race of the season on Aug. 30.

People of all ages are encouraged to participate in the races, and volunteers are available to help those who are unable (or too scared) to hold onto the turtles.

There is no cost to race, although a $1 donation per racer is appreciated to help cover the cost of turtle care.

Where they come from, where they go

The turtles are rounded up every spring from local swamps, ponds, lakes and streams.

The majority are collected by a volunteer trapper (who prefers to remain anonymous), while a few others are brought to Sandy by people who have found them in roads or other places that are potentially dangerous to them. Sandy refers to these as her "rescue turtles."

After the racing season is over, in early September, Sandy releases the turtles back into the wild, dispersing a few here and there into waterways and wetlands near Perham. If a turtle happens to get injured during the season, it is always released back into the wild right away.

Sandy says she's learned a lot about turtles since becoming "The Turtle Keeper." She's learned that females are larger than males, for example, and that the painted turtle is the most colorful variety of turtle found in the Lakes Area. They can live to be 50 years old.

"I enjoy it," she says of caring for the turtles. "They're pretty fascinating. And they're quiet—they don't sass back!"

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune as a reporter and magazine editor in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in Detroit Lakes with her husband, Dan, their 3-year-old son and baby daughter, and their yellow Lab.

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