Shell Game

A snapping turtle, freshly plucked from Lake Thoreau, hissed at Nate “Coyote” Peterson. She launched her face at him, punching her reptilian head toward his fingers before snapping her head back under her shell. She stretched her jaw wide, even when Coyote was not in range, daring him to touch her tongue.

Coyote was unfazed.

He was preoccupied with getting ready for his photo shoot with this algae-lined creature of the lake. He swiped a spider out of his ear and splashed some water on his legs and chest. He hunkered down near the bank and clapped his hands, sending globs of mud onto his face. This was his makeup routine, and this metro park was his stage.

Peterson produces his own nature series online and, on this particular evening, the snapping turtle was his guest star. He is living his dream – and Discovery Networks just endorsed it.

Nate Peterson was eight years old and fascinated by horned lizards when he earned the name Coyote. He said he spent family vacations in Arizona trying to catch these lizards and noticed that roadrunners were trying to do the same. Following the birds to their mutual target, Peterson reminded his mother of the classic Looney Tunes character, Wile E. Coyote.

The nickname stuck with him, as did his curiosity for wild animals.

For those who have not seen his web show, Breaking Trail, imagine the spirit of Steve Irwin trapped inside Indiana Jones.

Coyote rocks a five-o-clock shadow, wears a brimmed hat, and ties “survival straps” around his wrists. He tells tales of being held hostage at gunpoint in Costa Rica, when someone mistook him for a crocodile poacher. He survived a tsunami and the bite of a 300-pound alligator. He has traveled by airboat.

And this was all in the first season.

The Coyote Peterson brand, as Peterson refers to it, is made possible by colleagues Mark Laivins, producer and cameraman; D. Chance Ross, director of photography; and Melissa Feldner, producer and photographer; as well as 25 to 30 other creative contributors.

Peterson, Laivins, and Ross met in film school at The Ohio State University and have been using their degrees to drive their enthusiasm for independent filmmaking and Peterson’s passion for wildlife.

For five years, his crew has been striving toward a goal they officially reached this spring: signing a contract with Discovery Digital Networks, the online video equivalent of the Discovery Channel.

This new branch of Discovery represents a merging of television with the digital content now available online.

The show Breaking Trail begins airing this fall on DDN’s new channel Animalist, which aims to be the digital equivalent of Animal Planet.

Laivins said that while the crew is proud to be working with Discovery, the real perk is being able to continue using local creative talent.

“The coolest thing, if you had to put your finger on it, is we’re getting to produce this from top to bottom,” Laivins said.  “We get to use our own crew; we get to do our own posts; we get to choose everything from the graphics guys to the sound engineers. Everybody who is working on this is local, from Columbus. So I’m really excited to show the Silicon Valley guys what we’re made of.”

The days leading up to this career milestone seemed as nerve-wracking as wrangling an 83-pound alligator snapping turtle (which Coyote did in the first episode of Breaking Trail, by the way).

If the Discovery deal didn’t pan out, Peterson said the Coyote brand could have been dead in the water.

“When you are that close to achieving your goal, I think you’re the most afraid,” he said. “If they had said no and didn’t want to pick up the show, we kind of felt like, ‘Well where else can we go?’”

“The dream from day one was to be a part of the Discovery family,” he added.

And that dream took shape last month as they began shooting the first season of Breaking Trail. While the show will be filmed throughout the country – primarily Arizona, Florida, and Montana – there will likely be some landscapes Central Ohioans will recognize.

For example, Blendon Woods Metro Park is one of Peterson’s go-to places for snagging snapping turtles. The park’s Lake Thoreau is home to about 30 of them – including Cornelius, one of the largest living common snapping turtles on record in the United States. While most usually weigh 10 to 35 pounds, Cornelius weighs a whopping 50.

Finding this particular swamp monster was the crew’s goal but, on that particular day, the reptilian king of Lake Thoreau remained elusive. Heavy rains the night before had made the water unusually murky – too muddy to see turtles.

On the next outing, however, Coyote caught a turtle in less than 20 minutes. It was a female turtle, which meant she was small; Peterson’s disappointment was obvious.

He said this was the type of turtle he would have let bite him for the show, as if her flesh-hungry eyes and gaping mouth meant nothing to him. Coyote has worked with close to 60 species of animals thus far (many of which were reptiles, amphibians, and insects), some of which have managed to get a bite out of him during the encounters. The bite of a snapping turtle, he said without hesitation, was the worst pain he had ever experienced.

“It’s like someone has your finger in pruning sheers and they’re not letting go until your finger comes off,” Peterson said.

He does not encourage viewers to interact with animals but to admire them from a safe distance, respect their environments, and respect the animals. His motto: “Be brave. Stay wild!”

“A lot of what we do takes a certain amount of courage – from the business dealings, to submerging in the environments, and the animal encounters,” he said. “Being brave is a huge part of achieving anything in life.”


Check out
for a short video of
Coyote on the hunt.
For more about
Breaking Trail and
Peterson’s team visit