BRACEBRIDGE, ON – Turtles are a vital part of the Muskoka ecosystem and with all the local species at risk, a local group is spreading awareness to keep them alive.

This Saturday is the second annual Turtle Walk in Bracebridge, which is being put on by the Turtle Guardians.

The organization promotes turtle awareness in what it calls The Land Between, which is the area from the coast of Georgian Bay all the way to the Ottawa Valley. The stretch contains one-third of Ontario’s turtles.

Leora Berman is with Turtle Guardians and explained why ensuring the animal’s survival is so pivotal.

“Turtles are the best cleaners of our waters,” Berman said. “They are the cleaning crew for all our lakes. They are the underpinnings of our entire ecosystem. No other wildlife would survive in our lakes without turtles.”

Berman added it takes 60 to 100 years to replace a single turtle when they die of unnatural causes.

“When we lose turtles on roads, we’ve lost that turtle forever. The populations are declining rapidly which means eventually it will be a problem for all wildlife and ourselves.”

Berman said turtles tend to nest during the Strawberry Moon which occurs at the end of May and beginning of June. It is also the time when they are most active as they always travel to the same spot to nest.

She added people should never turn a turtle around if they see the animal crossing a road because it will head right back in the same direction. It is information like that the Turtle Guardians are trying to instill in kids and adults with the Turtle Walk.

“First of all you want to be very safe because your safety is more important than the turtle’s,” Berman said. “Make sure you look both ways and pull over carefully before helping the turtle cross the road. Snapping turtles are very afraid when they are on land but are very gentle in the water.”

Berman said when it comes to snappers, their heads can’t reach their back legs and belly. That means they can be picked up from the sides of the shell like a pizza box.

“You can also grab the back legs and drag the turtle off the road. They have really thick skin so they will be fine,” Berman said. “If you are really afraid of them, you can take your car mat and shovel them off the road that way.”

The Turtle Walk itself is geared towards kids, but adults are more than welcome to join the educational trip. The event acts as a fundraiser as well, where kids are encouraged to register before the walk and raise pledges to help turtle conservation.

Berman encouraged kids to dress up in “turtley cool” costumes or plaid in accordance with the Tartan Turtle theme this year. She added there will be prizes for best costumes along with face painting and crafts.

Berman said the walk will be accompanied by live turtles.

“So it is a chance for people to encounter turtles who maybe never have to help face a fear of turtles if they have one.”

On top of all that kids can become Turtle Guardians themselves.

“Well really, anyone can become a Turtle Guardian,” Berman said. “To become one you register online for free. To become a level one guardian and get your I.D. card, you have to correctly identify all eight Ontario turtle species.”

She says once someone becomes a level one guardian they can start correctly reporting turtle sightings and eventually move on to doing “turtle science” with the organization.

The walk starts at 10 a.m. at Kelvin Grove Park in Bracebridge. Berman said people usually show up a half hour early and the walk should only take about 2 hours.