Friday, March 18, 2011

Snakes In The Grass

So the other day all the CSU grads are sitting in the office chitchatting about reptiles. The reason we're doing this is that one of us (not me) has a bearded dragon that's supposed to come in to be seen for lethargy.

"Supposedly going to come in," said that doc darkly.
"What; they usually don't?" I said.
"No. Usually they waited too long and it dies before they get here," he said.

Hmm. Bummer, man. But I guess I can see it might be harder to determine if your lizard (which spends 80% of its time basking or lying still) is lethargic, as compared to, say, your Border collie, which spends 80% of its time trying to force you (or anyone with an opposable thumb) to play ball, drive to the stock pens, or throw a frisbee. The other 20% of its time is, of course, spent trying to force the cat to lie absolutely still by force of liberal application of the BC Eye.

Now, this is a little embarrassing to admit, but I didn't actually know off the top of my head what a bearded dragon looks like. Turns out they look lind of a lot like horned toad lizards, one of which we used to have when I was little. Not identical, by any means, but there is a sort of general resemblance in a spiky sort of way. So then we got to talking about Lizards We Have Known And Loved, (some of which were unfortunately suffocated by having a 13# cat sit on them when they escaped from their cages). This led naturally to a discussion of various Snakes We Have Known And Loved Or Possibly Just Been Really Really Scared Of.

On the "scared of" side, we have the rattlesnake. Or at least, I have the rattlesnake. I grew up in an area where it was not at all unreasonable to find Western diamondbacks. When I was in vet school, for instance, I used to love to hike a trail that skirted the foothills for miles. There were numerous places where the trail climbed up into the hog-back ridges that formed the leading edge of the Rockies. There were others where the trail ran along the base of the first ridge, or in the cleft between that ridge and the next, or up along the second ridge. You could choose any of the three - or all, since the trails intersected frequently as they serpentined along miles of Front Range.

One time, I took my little Merrik dog along the trail between the ridges, hiking with a girlfriend of mine. Back in the day, that was an off-leash area, an outside-city-limits trail that had no leash law. I always took a leash for just-in-case, but I'd never needed one.

We'd gone 3 miles out and one back, returning to our start-point. The trail ran through a fairly large prairie dog town near the our start-point, and a small one about two miles later. Merrik was a prairie dog fan in a big way, but so long as we were moving, she could not be bothered to go into the towns, so we'd passed the big town once and were passing the little town for the second time without her showing the slightest interest.

Suddenly Merrik veered toward the nearest prairie dog mound. I frowned; not her usual move. Squinting, I could see she was staring intently at something on the ground, her nose stretched out and sniffing, but I could not see what had so caught her attention.

And then I heard the rattle.

It's an unmistakable sound, and chilling. All the more so when you see the muscular dust-brown body beginning to gather and coil, and your little 20# dog mere inches from the arrowhead wedge of the snake's face.

"Merrik!" I called, my heart taking a leap and beginning to race. She twitched an ear back at me, but withdrew her questing snout not one inch. "Merrik, come!" I yelled sternly. I was afraid to move, lest I upset the delicate balance between dog and snake and encourage a strike, but the pitch and intensity of the rattle was rising, and my anxiety along with it. "Merrik! You get over here right now!" I screamed, heart in my throat. Fear had drawn my vocal cords tight as a bow-string, and my voice hit some peculiar register I'd never heard before. Even to my own ears I sounded strange, tense and pitchy, throttled by terror.

My mind is darting ahead, shuffling through options. If Merrik gets snake-bitten, how long can I run, carrying her, along the trail? Some of it is rocky, some is level; can I run two miles in hiking boots with a 20# dog in my arms? But while my mind is leaping forward, my feet are rooted to the ground, my knees locked against the urge to either run forward to help my dog, or buckle entirely. I try to calm my voice, which right now is so strange and anxious that Merrik is uncertain if she should come to me - or move away, which would take her closer to the meancing coils of the snake.

"Merrik," I say, trying for steady, trying for calm, "you come here, now. Right now. Come."

Merrik glances at me, her head cocked; she knows something is very wrong, and the strangled tension in my voice is not reassuring her. The snake is rattling fast, an ominous buzz. I can see it still coiled, thick and muscular, on the prairie dog mound. A rattler can strike about a third of its length, and Merrik is no more than six inches away, well inside the fatal strike zone; based on its girth I estimate the snake to be at least 4 feet long. I can see its head weaving slightly, as if in indecision; perhaps it's making testing feints, to see which way its target will leap. I force myself to stand absolutely still, vibrating with tension but afraid to move.

"Merrik!" I call sharply, aiming for command, and thank you God, she backs off a step, two steps. "Good girl! Come!" I say, my voice starting to shake, but dropping into a more normal register. Merrik hears the relief in it. She gives me a tentative wag and turns tail on the snake, trotting to my feet.

"Good girl, good little dog," I praise her, kneeling in the dirt of the trail and scooping her to my chest, corralling her while I grope through her fur for her collar. "Shit. Shit. That was way too close," I say breathlessly as I fumble with her leash, my fingers clumsy with reaction. Finally I snap it onto her collar and get shakily to my feet.

"Wow," my friend says. "That could have sucked."
"Yeah," I agree, snuggling my dog and petting her, praising her, rewarding her with voice and hand for coming when I asked her to, despite the fascination of the snake. "I don't ever want to get that close again. I like snakes okay, but I like diamondbacks best from a distance. Like a mile."

A year or two later I was hiking with Merrik along a different stretch of the same trail, about 3 miles north of that spot. It was early, shortly after six. The day smelled glorious, sweet pine and sage and fresh air; the scent of the morning before it is sullied by the dust of the day. The air was cool and soft on my skin. I was hiking switchbacks, climbing the flank of the foothills. I was on a northbound stretch, the early sun lighting the right side of me, casting sharp shadows on the slope to my left. I'd hit my stride and was going along steadily, but of course nowhere near as fast as agile little Merrik. She'd trot along ahead of me, turning to look back every thirty of forty feet; if she lost me around a switchback, she'd back-trail until she saw me, pause 'til I caught up a little, and then trot on.

By then my legs were starting to feel warm and limber, and I was starting to breathe harder with the effort of the slope. The back of my neck was just starting to feel damp under the hank of my ponytail, but in the cool of the day that was delicious, soothing, entirely lovely. It was a clear morning; I could look up the front range for miles, until the hog-back ridges faded into the blue haze of distance. Every twig and blade of grass was outlined with razor-edged clarity. By then it was just on a quarter to seven and I had the trail to myself.

Ahead of me Merrik trotted, her tail waving jauntily above her back. I saw her look down to her right, the down-slope side, for a few steps. Whatever it was didn't hold her interest; she didn't even break stride. But I wondered what she was looking at, so when I caught up to that part of the trail, I looked too.

Below me, laid out straight alongside the trail and less than a foot off it, was a dusty brown column as thick as my arm. A microsecond later I saw the diamond pattern decorating its length, saw the scales shift as the rattler drew a breath. Too cold yet to coil, it hissed, a long sinister sound of warning.

Suddenly I am flying up the trail, taking long bounding leaps with no effort at all. My leg muscles are abruptly full of power, driving me up the slope like I'm Carl Lewis getting ready to do a world-record long-jump. I round the switch-back, leaping up a ragged stairway of exposed rock, fully aware that the next arm of the switchback is only yards from the snake - and that the snake is getting warmer with each passing second. Merrik is runing ahead of me, surprised at my pace, but perfectly happy to gallop up the trail.

When I feel I've put enough distance between myself and the diamondback I slow to a shaky walk. Merrik and I are both panting - but she is grinning happily, and I'm feeling a bit white around the lips. I scan the trail ahead carefully; the snake had been laying at the sedgey verge of the trail, in vegetation no more than 8 inches tall. Ahead I have pinyon pine, ponderosas, wild rose, sage and prairie grasses; the trail is shadier and the vegetation higher. I might be wrong, but it's been my expereince that rattlers prefer rocky or open areas, and certainly they'll warm up faster in the sun than in the shade. My racing heart starts to slow. I draw in a deeper breath, feeling the jangle of adrenaline start to smooth out.

Ahead is an open benchy rock with no good snake hidey-holes, shaded by a large ponderosa. I call Merrik to me, check carefully for lurking rattlers, and sit. I pour water into a baggie for her and hold it open so she can drink. I sit in shade, letting the cool of the stone seep through my Levi's and into my flesh, and I take out my journal and my camera. The town is spread below me. The trail is still deserted. Merrik perches at watch beside me, her little raspberry pink tongue hanging out as she pants happily. She surveys the landscape with her one remaining eye bright and shining through the silky silver waves of her bangs. I scribble in my journal, drink, try (and fail) to catch a photo of a red-tailed hawk gliding overhead.

Call me crazy, but I decide to find an alternative route back down to my car. I decide I'll hike along the trail that runs just below the ridge, hike south past the parking area, then descend and pick up the lower trail and loop back north to the parking area. There. That won't take me anywhere near the giant rattler.

It will, however, take us right on past his younger, smaller and much more lively cousin. Which unfortunate fact I discover right about the time I walk abeam of him as he suns himself on a ledge about level with my shoulder. Oh, goodie. I'm nearly face-to-face with a pissed-off diamondback. Thank God I didn't use that handy ledge to set my camera on whilst doffing my pullover.

After discovering that I can, indeed, do the Carl Lewis impersonation on a downhill slope - and without crashing face-first amongst the rocks or ripping out both my cruciate ligaments, much to my surprise - I am starting to feel a little demoralized. I mean, how is this fair? I've gone to all the trouble of getting up at the thin edge of the day so I can have a nice, peaceful hike, maybe an all-morning ramble through the foothills with my little dog. And here it's been only two hours and I've encountered two rattlesnakes. What's up with that? And since this seems my day to be a diamondback magnet, how many more do I feel like meeting up close and personal?

I park my rump on a carefully-inspected rock standing at a trail fork to ponder this question. Maybe there aren't aany more up here. Maybe I've just been unlucky. Maybe it's becuase I was the first one out and about, rousting snakes. Maybe there is a benefit to going later in the day; the trails are more populated, but (no doubt as a consequence) have fewer snakes. I glance up. Case in point: here come some hikers now. They nod cheerfully at me, a young woman and two young men.

"How's it going?" one of them says. Before I can reply he waves at his back-trail. "We just saw a rattler that way, so you might want to go another way."
Crap. "I just saw one up there on that rock ledge," I say, pointing.
"Daaaaaang," says the girl, drawing it out. "We were going to hike over the ridge to the reservoir." She sounds disappointed. I shrug.
"Might be gone by now," I say.
"Do you think so?" she asks hopefully. I make a face.
"Not really," I say.

They look at each other. Without another word they take the only remaining trail option, leading down the ridge. I give them a few minutes out of politeness and then follow. They intersect with another trail and veer back up, taking the longer (but hopefully less snakey) way around. I decide I've had enough of the adrenaline squeezes for the day and continue on down the trail and back to my car. We can hike another day, a day when I am not such a magnet for pit vipers.

Apart from the venomous aspect, I actually find snakes rather appealing. The smoothly laquered feel of their scales is rather pleasant, as is their intricate overlap, a pattern similar to that of bird feathers. Some of them come in absolutely gorgeous colors or snappy-looking patterns. I have a particular fondness for the whip-slender, vividly green insect-eating snakes you can find in northern Colorado - partly because they eat insects (cool by me) and partly because they are so vibrantly, brilliantly green. Parakeet green. New-leaf green.

I happened to see one of these one morning on a hike (with a different girlfriend this time). It was relatively early ans still cool. I was hiking in point and saw the slender drape of the snake ribboned gracefully over the branches of a shrub by the trail.

"Oooh, look! Pretty!" I said, pointing it out to my friend, who promptly screamed and jumped off the trail. I turned to look at her in bemusement. She's a level-headed, competent, cheerful sort, and this was most unexpected.

"Sorry," I say, rather contritely. "I didn't realize you were afraid of snakes."
"I'm not," she says, shaking her head and laughing a little at herself as she climbs back onto the trail. "I just wasn't expecting it, that's all."

"Oh, okay" I say. "I won't make you look next time." We pass the snake - still drowsing in the cool morning, waiting for the sun to warm him for another day of hunting crickets and grasshoppers. We resume our hike, chatting sometimes and others not. It's a pretty morning, warm and peaceful, and I'm enjoying myself, the hike, the morning, the companionship. It's twenty minutes later that I see another green snake, this one laying in a bare patch a few feet from trailside.

I won't say anything this time, I resolve, not wanting to startle my hiking buddy. I stride right on by - and she screams and jumps off the trail.

I turn to look at her, trying hard to keep from grinning, but my eyebrows can't be stopped from climbing my forehead in inquiry. Well? I am asking her. I didn't say a thing this time, and you still screamed. What's the right move here? Point them out, or don't point them out? I am pressing my lips together to keep from laughing, but it's a wasted effort. She's laughing at herself.

"Okay, I know," she says, shaking her head. "Just point 'em out, I guess, and I'll deal with it."

It may - or may not - be worthy of note that Merrik barely even glanced at the green snakes. Evidently snakes are only interesting if they might actually, you know, kill you.

I don't know. It's no doubt cowardly - and perhaps embarrasing, that I am less bold that a 12-year-old, one-eyed, twenty-pound poodle cross - but I'm going to have to say that when it comes to face-to-face encounters with reptiles on the trail... I think I'll go with the boring ones, thanks.


MaskedMan said...

Yeah, well I fondly remember Miss Snake - she was quite lovely, and rather fun.

Then there was the rattler Big Mike brought home from his research trip... That was one MEAN snake, even by rattler standards.

Oddly, as much as I wandered those same foothills without adult supervision, I never once had an unplanned snake encounter out there. Maybe you ARE a snake magnet..?

I like snakes, but will hapily stick to

Samantha said...

The idea of spotting several rattlers in one I need something stronger than my coffee.
Supposedly we have copperheads and eastern timber rattlesnakes here in northern WV, but I haven't seen either in years.

Dragon43 said...

Great stories......

I met a big cottonmouth up close & personal once as a young boy of 10 or 12 or there abouts. Made an lasting impression on me.

Glad you did not let that put you off.

AKDD said...

@MM: THat rattler was freaking SCARY. I remeber it striking over and over at the aquarium glass, that hard knocking thump, and wondering if it could break through. I also felt kind of bad for the snake - it didn't seem at all happy in there. I was pretty glad when he decided to let it go. As for the foothills... I don't know how many hundreds of hikes I made up there without seing any snakes whatsoever, but evidently I had my days!

(And, to be fair, there are population variations, and the place where I saw the two and the other people saw the one was probably further north than you used to go; I was north of LaPorte street, near the foothills research station of the University. That area is rockier and more arid, and it's the only place locally I saw jackrabbits, so possibly the prey base was better.)

@Samantha: I know! How fair is THAT, getting all inundated with venomous snakes?!? I ask you.

@Dragon: THose hikes used to keep me sane (well, that and racquetball) in vet school. I hiked some part of that trail nearly every day for three years. Less often in senior year, the scheduling being what it was, but I srsly NEEDED those hikes. OTOH, if I'd seen rattlers EVERY day, I might have thought better of it.

houndvet said...

I also hiked in the area for 4 years... in vet school... hrum... anyway, and never saw a snake. Although I was starting out from Horsetooth Road. I did one day see a stick that was unhelpfully identified by my hiking friend as a snake.

AKDD said...

@Houndvet, I used to live off of Horsetooth (Goodell Lane, actually, near the corner of Horsetooth and Taft Hill Rd - the house I grew up in.) When we were little we used to walk about a mile(ish) south and then go up to the mountains by going west. In vet school I mainly went to a place we called Dixon Reservoir (which may or may not have been its real name); a large pond between the first and second hogback ridges. We got there by going west on Mulberry to Overland, then south a little way and then west again, IIRC. That was where I saw the two green snakes; about two miles south is where I saw the solitary rattler. The super-snakey area was north of LaPorte street.

But what I want to know is why *I* get to see all the snakes, and no one else does? Except for my two friends who I scared half to death.

It cracks me up that your hiking buddy identified a stick as a snake. Maybe I should have tried that with my snake phobic friend, only the other way around. Let's see, how would that go...?

Me: Look at that pretty green stick!
Her: AAACK! A snake! ::: jumps off trail:::

Okay, I guess that wouldn't work, either. :p

AKPonyGirl said...

I had my fill of snakes when I lived in FL. No snakes in AK!

AKDD said...

@AkPonyGirl: Yeah, but FL has a lot of really *dangerous* snakes. IIRC, there are Eastern diamondbacks, copperheads, cottonmouths... really venomous and potentially lethal species. I don't blame you for having had your fill!