Snakes on the Trail- Rattlesnake Safety

The other day, I was finishing up a grueling trail run and heading back to the parking lot. It was a long trail, really exhausting, so when I started getting closer to civilization I got pretty excited. I pulled out my phone to see if I had any reception; I didn’t. I put my phone away. I did just in time because directly in my path, resting in a groove on the path, was a coiled up rattlesnake.

IMG_20150627_114236159
Sup.

The snake was light in color and it blended in with the dirt path. It was also completely still and it didn’t look like it was breathing. I wasn’t sure if it was alive or dead. I only knew for sure that it wasn’t there when I began my journey up the trail a few hours earlier or I would have seen it, “wouldn’t I?”

There were thick bushes on both sides of the trail giving me a little over a foot of space directly in front of the snake (where I did not want to step) or behind the snake (where I also did not want to step). I stood still at a safe distance until I could think of what to do.

I didn’t want to walk back up the trail. I was already tired and the trail went back 11 miles with a climb of over 4000ft to get to the other side. Plus, I was so close to the parking lot.

I briefly thought about jumping over the snake but pictured it striking up and biting me on the ankle.

So what did I do? I had read somewhere that snakes are more afraid of people than people are of them, and that if they see us coming, they’ll get out of the way. Meanwhile, I’m standing just a few feet away from this guy and he won’t budge.

I tried shoo-ing him, “Hey! Hey You! Get out of the way! GO! GO!”

Nothing.

I rolled my water bottle softly towards him hoping he’d move. My bottle came to a stop two feet away from him.

Nothing.

I picked up a handful of stones. I thought “maybe if I throw stones in front of him, he’ll move and I’ll know he’s alive.” I also thought, “don’t hit him because if you don’t kill him you’ll just piss him off and then you’re really in trouble.”

I threw the first stone and it landed softly in front of his face.

Nothing.

I threw a second stone and it landed in the same place.

Nothing.

I crouched down and looked into its eyes. He was looking right at me.

I could tell what he was thinking:  “go ahead. Throw another stone. See what happens.”

I put my stones down and briefly contemplated jumping over him again. By this time I had spent almost ten minutes negotiating with this guy who still had not made a single move.

I yelled out, “get out of the way!”

Nothing.

Finally, I said to myself, “ok, enough’s enough. He must be dead. I’m walking behind it.”

I got as far to the edge as I could behind the snake and brushed my hand against the bushes, making noise, to let it know that I was approaching.

I began to move slowly forward.

I got about a foot away from it. The snake quickly uncoiled and lunged forward into the bush, shaking its rattle loudly behind it.

I jumped back five feet.

It parked itself in the bush. I could not see it but I could hear it.

The rattle got quieter and slower.

I walked forward.

The closer I got, the louder and faster the rattling got.

I jumped back and pleaded, “Come on, man! Let me pass!”

SILENCE.

I moved forward again, it rattled again.

Finally, I moved as far as I could to the opposite side. I ran and quickly jumped over the snakes former resting place. The rattling was so loud that the whole bush was shaking and my heart was pounding. I hit the ground and just took off running, laughing the whole way down the path; happy that I had survived my first rattler encounter.

Next time. Next time.
“Next time. Next time.” (Stock photo from Pixabay)

I’ve been replaying that experience in my head all week. I wondered if I handled the situation correctly, or if I was just lucky to be alive? I’ve done a lot of trail running this year but this was the first time I have ever come across a rattlesnake. This makes sense because the weather has been pretty cold the times that I have gone running. But now summer is here, and with the hot weather, there will be more snakes out on the trails. Summertime, in addition to being the snakes favorite time of the year, is also the time that more and more people hit the hiking trails with their families. That is why it is important to know what to do if a snake is encountered while out on the trail.

I found this information on the California Department of Fish & Wildlife website:

  1. Rattlesnakes are venomous, so keep your distance. (Rattlesnakes can cause serious injury, even death. There are over 800 reported bites per year, with 1 or 2 deaths).
  2. Rattlesnakes like warm days, especially summer nights when the sun starts going down. If you’re night hiking or running, always carry a flashlight and watch where you step. (Most bites occur between April and October when humans are more active outdoors).
  3. Rattlesnakes are usually hiding under rocks, and bushes, but on sunny days can be sitting out in the open warming themselves (like the one I encountered).
  4. Rattlesnakes often lie still and do not rattle to avoid detection. (This is why this guy wouldn’t move at all.)
  5. When in rattlesnake country, always pay attention to where you step (put away the cellphone) because nothing ticks a snake off more than being stepped on. (As stated above, the snakes lie still waiting for prey to come walking by. As the saying goes, “if it had been a snake, it would have bitten me.”)
  6. Do not throw stones, poke at it with sticks, jump and yell in front of it, or do anything that would otherwise provoke the snake. An angry snake is a dangerous snake. If you hurt the snake, and don’t kill it, you have now become the snake’s enemy. (My instinct was correct in not wanting to make the snake angry. 25% of bites are “dry,” meaning no venom was injected. Angering a snake only increases the chances of the snake using venom, and it may increase the dosage.)
  7. Never, EVER, under any circumstances try to grab the snake. A rattlesnake can strike faster than the human eye can travel and a snake can strike up to 2/3’s it’s length from the coiled position.
  8. Rattlesnakes are not usually aggressive. The best thing that you can possibly do if you encounter a snake is to back away, give the snake plenty of space, and let it slither away and out of your path. (Most snakebites occur when someone accidentally touches or steps on a snake while hiking or climbing, or when someone tries to grab a snake. Just leave it alone.)
  9. The most important thing is to never travel alone on the trails, especially when in an area where cellphones don’t work and you’re miles away from where anybody can hear you. If you get bitten by a snake, it will be of the highest importance that somebody is around to help or get help.

snake sign

In closing, I did do one thing right: I gave the snake the distance and respect it deserved. I recognized it as a dangerous creature and I stood back. I looked around to make sure that there weren’t any other snakes around. I thought the situation through and came up with different outcomes to what might happen if I tried jumping over or walking behind it. When I finally approached it, I moved slowly and made a lot of noise hoping to let it know that I was just passing through. That last part is what I would have changed. I got pretty lucky that the snake uncoiled forward instead of attempting to bite me. Maybe, it wasn’t luck. The snakes aren’t usually aggressive, and it probably didn’t want any trouble just like I didn’t want any trouble. It rattled like crazy, which I took to mean that I ticked it off. But, it was just letting me know, “hey, back off.” In the future, if I encounter a snake again, I will make sure to not throw anything at or towards it, I will not yell or make shoo-ing motions at it, and I will not get closer to it in an attempt to walk around it. I also won’t hike alone. I hope you won’t either.