Volume 13, Issue 27 ~ July 7 - 13, - 2005

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Burton on The Bay
By Bill Burton

Surviving Snake Sightings
The snake stood up for evil in the Garden.
–The Ax-Helve, 1923: Robert Frost.
I’m afflicted with herpetophobia, the fear of snakes. As far as I’m concerned, just about anything to do with a snake is evil. I’m not one to go out of my way to kill one, but if I had my druthers, none would ever cross my path again.

The other morning up here on the banks of Stoney Creek in North County, I was scouting around for the last few blackberries of the year for my cereal when I had a handful of snake. It wasn’t intended to be that way — and I can guarantee it will never again be that way.

Blackberries prosper on steep inclines. They get more sun that way and ripen evenly. So to pick them it’s not unusual for me to don long trousers of material a bit heavier than normal for summer, and then bushwhack the hill. Bushwhacking isn’t cutting, it’s pushing through the thick stuff. And it takes a good weave of cotton to brush aside the thorns of blackberry bushes.

It also takes a balancing act to stay upright on the steep slope, bucket in one hand, picking with the other and somehow bracing myself with my legs and body against saplings and brush. But anyone who has tasted the sweetness of wild blackberries can appreciate that the effort to get them is worth anything. That is, anything but snakes.
Unexpected Company
I had about an inch of berries in the bucket, enough for a few breakfasts, when it came time to move back up the hill, this done by grasping vegetation to pull myself upward. I was nearing the top when the latest “branch” I was about to grasp started squirming. I could see it was a black snake of maybe three feet that, thankfully, wanted as much to do with me as I with it.

Somehow I kept my balance — and my blackberries — but I can argue with anyone who contends a snake is more afraid of one who disturbs it than the one who disturbs it is afraid of the snake. Snakes can’t hear, so its awareness of my presence was the same as mine of its when my left hand brushed against it. And it moved.

It was only a harmless black snake, probably a black racer that averages about four feet. I really didn’t get a good look at it, but it was plain black in coloration — and dangerous only to field mice and other small animals, frogs and other snakes. Black snakes also consume birds’ eggs. About 20 years ago, I encountered an unusually large one on the creek bank raiding the ground nest of a mourning dove.

I allowed it to make its escape; snakes that see me first and in plenty of time, I can abide with. It’s those that I don’t see — or that don’t see me until it’s up-close striking time — that bothers me. I think of the dilemma faced by one of my hunting companions 25 years ago in South Carolina.
More Than a Turkey
It was spring wild turkey season, and George Roberts lay flat and still on the ground, his eyes glued on a large, dark object cautiously coming toward him through the trees.

George knew he couldn’t move a muscle. The slightest twitch could spook the gobbler he had been “working on” with his call for about an hour. The fowl was still a tad out of sure-fire range, and George didn’t shoot at anything until he was certain he could make a clean kill. Spring turkey hunting has always been a waiting game.

He grew more tense as his bird edged closer, stopping every foot or two to check the surroundings and listen. It remained a bit too distant and not quite enough in the open for a clear and telling shot.

I was perhaps 70 feet away, facing off at an angle, but could see George and “his” gobbler. But I didn’t know the story that was unfolding in the deep woodlands of the plantation that morning. George told me about it at lunch.

As he crouched “frozen” waiting for the shot he wanted, he detected movement closer to him — a slight rustling amid the leaves and pine needles. Another turkey?

No such luck. Slithering his way was a big rattlesnake unaware of George’s presence. George, a woodsman all his life, knew rattlesnakes well, and he wasn’t frightened by them, though he granted them much respect.

He knew that to move would send the gobbler flying or running without the clean shot. He also knew to remain still posed the danger that the snake might come right up to him, possibly become so startled that it would strike. It was about 25 feet away, and longer than four feet between fang and rattle.

Had that been me, that turkey would have been home free, both barrels of my trusty old Marlin over-under shotgun would have been directed to the snake — and I wouldn’t have stuck around long enough to bid farewell to the startled gobbler.

But, George’s mind worked like a computer. He figured the turkey would be in range before he was in range of the timber rattler. And, it worked out that way; one shot had his bird, and he jumped up to let the snake know he was around. I didn’t see the snake, and to make sure I wouldn’t, I hunted elsewhere the next two mornings.
Snake Sense
Look, I admit to my herpetophobia, and the way I look at it, probably two out of every three outdoorsmen who travel snake country feel likewise whether they ’fess up to it or not. When I’m turkey hunting in the spring, or dove or squirrel hunting in late summer or early fall, I realize those are prime times and locations for rattlesnakes, possibly copperheads.

And somehow despite all that “they’re afraid of you, etc.” talk, I can’t accept the theory that behind those cold, lidless eyeballs are only thoughts of filling that elongated body and co-existing in peace. I spend my time trying to figure ways “co-existing” comes at a distance: the farther away the better.

So I have my own Burton Guide for Herpetophobiacs:

  1. When in snake country in warmer months, watch where you put hands and feet; check out where you sit. Beware of rotting logs and soft earth.
  2. Wear “snake resistant” clothing such as long trousers and boots when hiking through tall grass and brush.
  3. Avoid rock piles, ledges, stumps, stacks of wood or boards, old sawmills and outbuildings, also patches of brush in wooded areas, if possible. All are likely snake haunts
  4. Never handle what you assume is a dead snake. Many a bite has been inflicted by a “dead snake.”
  5. Leave live snakes alone. Why attempt to handle or capture them? A good question indeed.

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