A handful of youngsters gathered around the table, holding their breath, hands carefully poised above their racers.
When the “Ready, set, race!” command was issued, the children lifted their cupped palms and squealed encouraging words at the contestants: five small slugs on the racing circles.
Mike McCaffrey, the judge for the annual slug races at SlugFest, kept a close eye on the slimy thoroughbreds, some barely inching along, others moving with the speed of, well, slugs to the outer edge of the rings.
An early favorite to win the race, Thomas Rosado of Burke sadly saw his slug come in second place in the race.
“It feels pretty good” to come so close to winning, Thomas said, playing with the two glow-in-the-dark frogs he received as a consolation prize. “I saw him really moving in the case, I could tell he was going to be fast.”
For the 16th year, Hidden Pond Nature Center in Springfield was the place to be on Sunday, Oct. 1 for the annual celebration of all things slug-related.
For Lisa Adler, it was the first time bringing her children out to the slimy, fun-filled afternoon.
“I came here for the curiosity,” said Adler, who lives in Fairfax and said she brings her children to Hidden Pond frequently. “I didn’t have any idea what to think before we came here, but I know they’re creature-friendly.”
Adler said she didn’t think she’d see one of the park’s volunteers putting slugs on his tongue. “Then again, I’m not very surprised,” she laughed.
Adler and her children spent some time in their backyard, gathering slugs for Slugfest. One of their critters from home was not looking so good for the races, so they decided to use one of the gray, slick crawlers provided by Hidden Pond.
Of course, no SlugFest would be complete without an appearance by Captain Salty, who decried the use of slugs and urged anyone who would listen to pour salt and beer on the squishy creatures.
“Slugs are bad! They hypnotize kids to do bad things, like attack me,” said Captain Salty, played this year by Cody Henson.
Quick to defend his slimy friends, Radcliff, otherwise known as Stephen Wolford, urged Captain Salty to have a change of heart.
“They’re food for some people. They’re good for plants,” he said.
Captain Salty, however, was not easily swayed.
“They ate all my plants,” he countered.
“But begonias aren’t manly flowers,” Radcliff replied.
FROM SLUG fortune-telling and a slug-themed play to slugs made of clay and nuts and the chance to throw slime (clear gelatin) at Captain Salty’s face, slug-lovers could choose from a plethora of ways to have fun.
The afternoon included educational focus too, with Prof. Clarissa McSnail giving a brief biology lesson on slugs.
Prof. McSnail, better known as Clara Ailes, pointed out that slugs have two kinds of slime: a thin type used for moving over potential foods, and a thicker kind, which absorbs water, that allows slugs to climb up trees.
“The gray garden slugs you see in your garden are originally from Europe,” she told an audience of mostly toddlers, their attention attached squarely to her. “The tawny slugs, a small orange kind, are the second most common. Those are native to the area. They don’t eat plants, though, they eat decaying things.”
After discussing some of the finer points of a slug’s diet, including dead animals to dog droppings, Prof. McSnail said that slugs are often used in science experiments because of their simplistic brains.
“Slugs are good for tests on sight and smell,” she said. “The way slugs find their food at night is because of their good sense of smell.”
While their son, Craig, was having his fortune read by the slug’s path made on his hand, Anne and Mike Schichtel said they’ve been coming to SlugFest for years.
“It’s a tradition now,” Anne Schichtel said. “Boys like bugs. They know about salt and how it’s bad for [slugs], but mostly it’s about having fun.”
Before leaving to see Craig’s turn at the races, Mike Schichtel said it was important to keep slugs level and not make any sudden movements before racing, in order to keep the slug calm.
“You shouldn’t put racing stripes or flames on slugs,” he advised other racers. “Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t help them go any faster. Or so we’ve heard,” he laughed.