Sunday, July 29, 2012

PSA: Snakes are Scary

I mentioned something about a rattlesnake and a park ranger in my last post, so here it is: the full story.  Just a note: I'm not usually nearly as pathetic as this story implies.

Last week, my whole family went on vacation together to the Great Smokey Mountains.  Being a nature-lover with no nature-loving friends, I was, of course, excited.  I would have people to hike with (the Texas part of the family loves hiking) and finally have a reason that my husband, who had never hiked before, couldn't avoid to drag him into the woods and make him like it, gosh darn it.

So I took my husband out to the Porter's Creek Trail, a 7.6 mile out-and-back hike, which conveniently turned out to not be overrun with tourists.  So there we were, hiking along.  He was getting tired, having a body better built for bursts of speed than endurance (the exact opposite of me).  As the trail climbed and he realized that hiking is a lot slower than walking, especially the way I do it, we agreed to go another 30 minutes and then turn back.  This was around noon.

Immediately after, the trail turned and became a rocky ledge, with a steep incline to the left and a steep decline to the right.  In the lead, I stepped onto a particularly sunny patch and looked down.  All I saw was snake.  I screamed and ran forward.  My husband screamed and ran back.  Having put a good distance between ourselves and the snake, we turned around.

"That's a rattlesnake," I said.

"How do you know?" he asked.

"It's rattling."

Sure enough, there was a giant, coiled-up rattlesnake rattling between me and my husband, me and the trailhead, me and civilization.  I hadn't noticed at the time, but later my husband said he saw it lunge for me when I strolled up next to it, literally inches from its coils.  Being an American, I got out my camera and began to line up a picture.  But that snake was still rattling, and before I could snap the picture, I realized I had to get away from it.  Seeing that there was no safe way around the snake, I made a decision.

"Go back to the bridge," I said, referencing the narrow bridge that spanned Porter's Creek.  "I'll go on ahead and find a side trail that leads back to the creek and meet you there."  It seemed reasonable at the time - there had been side trails leading to the creek throughout the hike, so why not now?

After parting ways, I hiked on another fifteen minutes, contemplating how much my suburban husband must be panicking, while I stayed calm at the thought, despite being alone in the woods except for a giant rattlesnake.  However, my confident self couldn't help noticing that not only had the side trails come to an end, but the trail was continuing to climb.  Finally, I landed at a spot where the decline became clearer and a little less steep, and I could see some downed trees leading to the creek which seemed closer.  I tossed some rocks down and nothing stirred.  Knowing that my old camp counselors would be disappointed in me, I stepped off the trail and left my calm behind.

As I steadied my descent on saplings and skinny branches, and slipped down the decline, I felt myself fighting every reasonable instinct as I moved downwards.  But even as I asked myself if I would be able to get back up if I had to, I kept going, and picked my way over to the fallen tree.  Every sound made me jump as I imagined more snakes appearing out of the shadows.  I reached the fallen tree, and found that not only was it soft, making it a poor balance beam, the creek was also farther away than I thought.  Maybe the snake's gone by now, I thought.  So I turned back, which was probably the best decision I'd made up to that point.  As is often the case, it was actually easier to climb back up the trail than it had been to descend, and I headed back.

It took longer than I thought it would to reach that sunny bend in the trail, but when I got back, the snake was still there, just as fat around as I'd remembered.  I backed off 50 feet, picked up a rock, and decided to wait it out.

It must have been an hour that I stood there, increasingly panicked, and wishing that I could trade that snake for a bear.  I realized suddenly how ridiculous it was that all my life I've been told what to do if I encounter a bear in the woods, by camp counselors, park rangers, trail guides, everything, but nobody had ever said a word about snakes except to go around them, which wasn't really an option on that narrow ledge.  I considered trying to find a long stick to flip the snake off the trail, but there were none on the trail and visions of the snake using the stick to launch itself at my face kept me from looking too hard.  Between regular check-ups on the snake, periodically shouting my husband's name, chanting om, and occasionally sobbing, I passed the time, deciding as I did that I would never hike again.

Suddenly, I saw a movement from the snake's direction.  The snake was moving down the path.  In my direction.

There's something about the movement of a snake that is far more terrifying than the simple presence of it, the rattle of its tail, the venom in its jaws.  We see it on TV and in zoos, but nothing really prepares you for the effortless movement of a snake in your direction, the way it moves without visible effort, like smoke on the wind.  Okay, that's Voldemort, but still.

I have calmly yelled down bears and skirted snakes, but always in the company of others and in a setting where I had options.  When the snake was bearing down on me alone, I lost it.  I backed off quickly, ran around a bend in the path, and came across the first people I'd seen since stupidly sending my husband away over an hour before.

"Oh my god!  Stop, stop!" I yelled hysterically.  "There's a rattlesnake coming right at us!"

They looked at me, surprised but calm, a young mother and her pre-adolescent son.  "How do you know it's a rattlesnake?" she asked.

"I saw and heard its rattle!"

The mother calmly told her son to get behind her and discussed the possibility of moving the snake off of the trail with a stick.  Then she decided that she wanted a look.  Calmed by her cool, we went back around the bend.  She asked where it was, and I pointed to where I had last seen the snake but couldn't tell if it was still there.  Had it gone?  Would they think I was a crazy person?

No.  It was ten feet away, all four to five feet of it, having moved quickly in my absence.  And the women just stood there snapping pictures as the snake came closer and I cowered behind, wondering if I should warn her off.  But it came closer and closer and she gave little ground, and it moved off the path.  We went around, and suddenly I was free of the thing that had really had me trapped for nearly two hours: my fear.  I hiked down the trail with my two companions, suddenly calm again.  We learned from some other hikers that my husband had been telling people that there was a rattlesnake afoot and a wife missing, and had run off to the ranger station to get help.

We passed a giant rock near our designated meeting point where he had scrawled a note, rock on rock, to tell me he'd gone for help.  Farther along, when the trail became a service road used by park rangers, we encountered the SUV holding my husband and a ranger, come to save me.

Just a note: my husband and I both went on some much less eventful hikes after this and while my nature-free resolution has dissolved, I don't think my husband's going to don a pack and hike the AT with me any time soon.  Which is really quite ridiculous, because can it really get any worse that a five foot rattlesnake??  It's amazing how scary something with a brain the size of a walnut can be.

Since nobody else seems to think that knowing how to avoid or address a rattlesnake bite is particularly important knowledge, here's some info from Wikipedia on how to stay safe:

Rattlesnakes tend to avoid wide open spaces where they cannot hide from predators, and will generally avoid humans if they are aware of their approach.  Rattlesnakes rarely bite unless they feel threatened or provoked. A large majority of victims (~ 72%) are males, often young and intoxicated. Approximately half of bites occur in cases where the victim saw the snake, yet made no effort to move away.
Hikers and campers should avoid contact with rattlesnakes by remaining observant and not approaching the animals. Hikers are advised to be particularly careful when negotiating fallen logs or boulders and when near rocky outcroppings and ledges where rattlesnakes may be hiding or sunning themselves - however, snakes will occasionally sun themselves in the middle of an open trail, so such areas are not the only places where they are encountered. When encountering a rattlesnake on a trail, hikers are advised to keep their distance and allow the snake room to retreat.
Caution is advised even when snakes are believed to be dead; rattlesnake heads can see, flick the tongue, and inflict venomous bites for up to an hour after being severed from the body...

Data on the effectiveness of first aid techniques for rattlesnake bites is limited.  However, general recommendations for first aid in the field are as follows:
  1. Remain calm, and retreat from the snake at least 10–15 feet. Arrange to have the victim transported to a medical facility as soon as possible.
  2. Remove restrictive clothing items (rings, bracelets, watches, buttoned shirts, etc.) from the victim.
  3. Splint or otherwise immobilize any bitten limbs, and keep them below heart level.  If (and only if) the victim is more than 1–2 hours away from a medical facility, it is recommended to place a lightly constricting band (that admits one finger beneath it) above the bitten area to prevent the systemic spread of the venom.
  4. Keep victims calm; put them at rest; keep them warm and give them comfort and reassurance (which will lower their heart rate, slowing the spread of the venom). However, keeping a victim's heart rate down should never interfere with getting him or her to a medical facility.
In no case should tourniquets be used, nor should any incisions or suction be applied to the wound.


  1. This sounds like exactly what I would do if I ran into a snake. Since I could barely breath the whole time I read this post, maybe I too should reconsider my dream of hiking the AT.

  2. O. M. G. I hate snakes, and up here in MN we don't really have any poisonous ones (except for a few timber rattlers in the far southern part of the state). I think I'd collapse when placed in the vicinity of a rattlesnake. You did far better than I would have.

  3. Gah I would have freaked out and probably spent the whole time cowering and hiding from the snake

  4. Oh. My. Gosh. Between your story and the knowledge that the head can still bite up to AN HOUR after it's been severed, I am relinquishing any nature girl instincts I have previously had. Freaky.