Did you ever play that game when you were a kid that required you to pretend the floor was made of lava and the couches and other furniture were little islands impervious to being consumed by said lava? Now imagine being grown and having a similar situation while out observing wildlife, except now substitute lava for deadly pit vipers and the couch for loose crumbling boulders. Now that I have painted that beautiful picture, welcome to my most recent adventure.
After a late night phone call and Facebook chat with a good friend and snake mentor of mine I got invited to go observe some rattlesnake dens in an area I hadn’t been before. I jumped at the chance. My friend Zach Orr has been showing me the wonders of the serpent world for the last 15 years or so. I met him while in high school when he came and did a presentation on venomous snakes for our natural resources class. It was one of those presentations that stuck in my mind since I was already quite passionate about snakes. A few years later I linked up with Zach again at a reptile show and he gave me his contact info and we began a friendship that has been priceless to me. I have learned so much from his hands on experience and seen so many things in nature that I wouldn’t have had the chance without him. I held my first venomous snake (a large cottonmouth) with him behind the camera when I was 18 and fresh out of basic training. I saw my first pygmy rattlesnake with him and countless other snake firsts.
This adventure would be no different. This particular journey began rather early for me as I waited at a local Starbucks for him to pick me up since I live at the approximate halfway point to our destination north and west from where we normally hunt for snakes. After a dizzying ride through curves and back roads I stumbled out of the car wanting to vomit from motion sickness. We had arrived. I ambled up the steep incline to our destination taking many rest breaks along the way. Partially because I’m out of shape and partially because the mountain was so steep you almost had to climb and scramble upward and had it been any steeper ropes might have been necessary, just to give you an idea.
Once I finally reached the top, where Zach had been patiently waiting, I saw what looked like massive piles of rubble. The ridgeline we were on housed hundreds, maybe thousands of Timber Rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus). The piles of boulders ranged from gravel sized on up to car sized rocks. Weathering and erosion over time created this habitat that proved to be the perfect winter resting place for cold blooded serpents. I had been to rattlesnake dens before in other mountain ranges further south and east and this area’s topography was almost like an alien landscape to me.
The boulders, no matter how big or small, weren’t exactly stable to walk on. You really couldn’t tell whether the large rock you were standing on would support your weight or would slide and roll down the steep incline promoting a rockslide. It was quite deceptive and each step was calculated but sometimes even when you were cautious the rocks would slide. The terrifying part about this, aside from falling to an untimely death and being crushed by rocks, was that under most rocks contained a hiding viper. I stepped on several moving boulders only to be shaken to my core by the telltale sound of an alarmed rattlesnake. There were a few moments where the rock would shift, the snakes would rattle and I had to frantically deduce where the sound was coming from. Was the sound coming from beneath me, beside me, where I’m about t put my hands/feet?
After we had seen and heard approximately 25 rattlesnakes, which according to Zach was a “bad” day, I began to get quite nervous about this adventure. As I was looking up the hill at Zach and seeing the rattlesnakes coiled under the craggy rocks above me, my cooler sized boulder began to shift without warning. As the rock slid downhill I lost my balance and fell face first down the hill crashing chest first, then knees then hands into a pile of boulders. I didn’t even give my body a chance to register to pain before I was up, catlike, balancing on new boulders after my fall. My heart was pounding, my knees were shaking and I was praying, “Lord please don’t let me have landed on a viper.” Once I was able to catch my breath and dust myself off I saw that I only sustained a few scratches and bruises, thankfully there weren’t any snakes ready to defend themselves and in my eyes it was truly a miracle that I didn’t get hurt worse than I did.
Rattlesnakes will typically congregate in the fall in rocky outcroppings to den for the winter. They will often communally hibernate together in these areas and utilize this seemingly perfect spot together twice a year. You will see them out en mass in late fall as they are coming from miles away to find shelter and again in spring as they emerge from their wintry sleep. Although I ran the very real risk of being greeted by an angry bite from a pit viper this trip I couldn’t have blamed the snake. I was in his territory, his house and invading his space. It’s only natural for him to defend himself and even though the risk was great, seeing these amazingly beautiful animals in their natural habit trumped any threat involved. Rattlesnakes are a vital part of the ecosystem and their partnership with other predators in eating rats and mice carrying Lyme’s disease ridden ticks is vital to the health of an ecosystem. They are one of natures systems for checks and balances and if we can truly see their beauty and try to understand them then perhaps our children will have the benefit of seeing these amazing creatures. Remember that all created things were originally created good as it says in Genesis 1:31 and we shouldn’t villanize things we don’t understand. Snakes are great!