I’ve never heard a rattlesnake rattle. Yeah, I’ll say it. I’ve wore the tread off two pairs of hiking boots and a pair of trail runners, mostly in warm southern weather, but I only know what a rattler sounds like from TV. (No longer true, as I pissed one off last year on the Pinhoti). I’ve come across more rattlesnakes than I can count and stepped over a few of those slippery-tube-dudes blissfully unaware. Oh, plus one cottonmouth and a few copperheads. Ironically, I’m more scared of non-venomous black racers.
“Why, Steve, are you more scared of a non-venomous snake?”
Glad you asked. Black racers darts across the trail when I get near. One moment I’m bebopping…beboping…be-bopping?…(didn’t know that isn’t a real word) walking down the trail with a bounce in my step, then AH! A black streak darts across the trail and I’m patting myself down checking for bites. Okay, I played that up a little, but there’s a kernel of truth. Black racers move when hikers approach, often startling me…which is funny for onlookers. 250lb 6ft hiker dude jumping at a little snake. I swear it just startled me! Don’t poke fun 🙁
Rattlesnakes don’t typically do that, though. Step near a rattlesnake and you may never know it. I don’t! That’s why I’m not terribly worried about them. I typically find out I stepped over a snake because someone behind me spots it. I’m not the only person with snake-blindness either. I’ve talked to other hikers who experience the same phenomenon. Still, some other hikers have snake-dar, seeming to be able to spot them on a topo map. “Yep, right there where the trail drops into that saddle. Copperhead.”
So, the snakes are there, on and off the trail, and some of us (especially me) are getting way to close. Why aren’t we all dead? I talked to some folks and I think this boils down to two major factors.
First of all, hikers don’t tend to do things that get us bit. According to this article, which I recommend reading, “The vast majority of snake bites happen when somebody is trying to pick up a snake or they’re trying to kill it,” per Water Sciences Research Scientist Matt Erickson. Hikers tend to lean a little more towards “let nature be,” which I’m sure comes with a healthy habit on not handling danger-noodles. If we see a snake, we stop and let it (or coax it to) leave. What about those of us who don’t see them? After talking to other snake-stepper-overers, I think our eyes see a snake, but our brains see a stick or odd rock. We already avoid stepping on those by habit to avoid twisting ankles.
“But, Steve…my mom and uncle and science teacher in 8th grade Mrs Brown told me poisonous snakes will bite you!”
True…mine did too. So where’s the missing link? I mean, I’ve had my boot-print pointed out to me inches from a rattlesnake’s head. Why aren’t we getting bit every time we get on the trail during the warm season? I know a thing or two about snakes, but I studied frogs and these days I work more with computers, so I reached out to a college buddy to answer that one…though, if you want to talk about Leopard Frogs or Cricket Frogs, I’m your guy!
University of GA grad and herpetologist Mr. *name withheld bc he asked me too. What’s the deal with that, dude?* says, “…they don’t want to bite if they can avoid it.” That’s the second factor. To sum our conversation, he explained to me it’s in the snakes advantage to go unnoticed. Rattlesnakes that announce themselves are often killed out of fear or for sport. If bitten, were told to try to kill the snake and bring it in for identification to assist in antivenom selection. With that in mind, if you unintentionally step near a venomous snake, the snake has nothing to gain and everything to lose by biting you immediately. Half a second later, you’re gone bebooping down the trail…unaware of your near death experience.
So what does Mister Anonymity say to do if you spot a snake on the trail? “Go around.” Give the snake a wide berth. He recommends at least twice the length of the snake. Further, this article (which is a great read) says snakes can only strike at max the distance equal to half their body length. “Steve the snake is all coiled up and I don’t handle fractions well!” Fine…give the snake few two to three times your trekking pole length…like 10 feet. Can’t go around due to obstacles? Try harder. Still failed? Fine. From a safe distance, toss dirt or sticks near the snake to scare it off. Avoid throwing rocks. You don’t want to kill this badass animal. Snake doesn’t leave? Wait. It will. Eventually.
“Steve, I wanted to pet the snake and I got bit. What do I do?”
I can’t handle you anymore. Here’s Cleveland Clinics recommendations for treating a snakebite. Now get out before you hurt yourself more.
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