Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Where's Jeff Corwin When You Need Him?

This morning’s hike took me into Bear Canyon, probably the most beautiful canyon on the mountain. The single-track trail follows the creek for awhile, meandering deep into the canyon which is shaded by huge oak trees. Eventually as it winds up a few switchbacks, there is a short section where bright green ferns grow to the edge of the trail. This is just south of Bear Flat, a wide, beautiful open meadow, which is the habitat of many different kinds of birds.

On my way up, I kept my head down most of the way, my eyes scanning the trail back and forth, back and forth, making sure there were no rattlie-snakes enjoying the cool of the shadowy trail, so I almost missed seeing a Cooper’s hawk. It must’ve been munching on something on the ground—probably a snake—as I heard a sudden flutter of wings and looked up in time to watch the hawk swoop up into a tree nearby. I stopped to admire him, telling him aloud how beautiful he was, and then I saw a second one a few yards away. I stood there chatting for a few minutes, then finally turned to continue up the trail, which is when I saw the hiker and his brown and white, freckly faced dog coming down the trail.

“Didja see a bobcat or somethin’?” he asked.

“Oh no,” I replied, “just a couple of Cooper’s hawks,” and he looked at me as if I might have been in need of medical aid for heat stroke. Yeah, I get that a lot. Still, he allowed me to admire and pet his dog, and then he was off again.

When I reached Bear Flat, I sat for awhile, eating a granola bar and watching the mountain bluebirds (not to be confused with jays—these are little), wrens and nuthatches flitting in and out of the spring that bubbles up there. Then I headed back.

I’d only gone fifty yards or so when I heard a commotion; jays were squawking loudly and some bird whose distress call I didn’t recognize was screaming over and over. Whatever dire event was unfolding, it was happening far below me on another section of trail. I started to quicken my pace to try to get down there. But that’s when I saw the snake.

It was a handsome rattlesnake, all coiled nicely around himself on the side of the trail, his head raised just slightly. Oh dear. I had stopped within a foot of him. I backed up slowly, then stomped my feet to imitate some mastodon-sized creature coming down the trail. The snake turned his head to stare at me with his left eye, flicking his tongue out to taste the air.

“I’m a huge predator!” I told him, to no avail. I knew he couldn’t hear me anyway. So I moved carefully back up the trail, looking for a very, very long stick. I probably could have gotten past him, but I didn’t want to leave him there for the next hikers coming up the trail to find. I found a stick, and walked toward him. Then the commotion below began anew and I glanced over the side as I heard something very big in the underbrush down there. I couldn’t see it through the trees, but I could tell by the sound that it was large. On the way up, I’d seen deer pellets, but it was more likely some predator, creeping in to take advantage of whatever nasty circumstance had befallen the screaming bird. It was while I was looking over the side that the snake uncoiled and began moving.

Thank goodness he was moving away from me, not toward me, because I had not been paying attention, and he’d gone a couple feet down the trail, and a couple of feet in my direction would have put him right at my shoes by the time I looked. He was about two feet long, with an inch-long rattle, I noted, just for those who will ask.

As he moved off the trail and into the dense fallen leaves, I skirted past (as he gave me one lethargic half-rattle) and headed home. A few hikers passed me on their way up, and I warned them of the snake, most thanking me, though one man laughed loudly as if I’d told him a joke. All in all, it was quite a lovely walk.


  1. Well told. I have lived and hiked in southwest deserts these past 25 years and have come up close to rattlers only about a dozen times -- and each time I consider it a gift.

    My (sad) snake story: Once, driving home from work, I saw a rattlesnake in the road and drove around it. The truck behind me stopped and two men got out. I looked in my rearview mirror and wondered why they had stopped. Too late, I realized that they had stopped to kill the snake. I wish so much that I had just stopped my car and waved them around me so that they would not have even see it. I feel like an (inadvertent) accomplice to that snake's unnecesary death. Now I carry a long stick in my trunk so I can rouse a snake out of the road before someone coming after me can stop and kill it.

  2. Funny you should mention that, JP; this week, I've been working on a more formal essay about my encounters with snakes last summer. I understand more than I can say about the feeling of being an accomplice.... (That story is in the essay, which will be submitted somewhere--maybe The Sun--when it's finished.)