Paranoia makes each of my steps deliberate, making horse dancers proud of just how high my knees go on each step.
I want to make noise to alert them I am near, like you do in bear country. Last thing I need is to accidentally surprise one and make it attack out of fear.
Unfortunately, these aren’t bears. Bears I get. Bears I know a basic plan of how to avoid and what hypothetically works depending on whether it’s a black bear or a grizzly.
But this? The only hypotheticals are: A) Never corner one, and B) Don’t piss it off.
After that? C) Pray you don’t come across one.
The morning started off like any other: wake up, walk dog, drive to trailhead, make breakfast, dishes, gear prep, then go.
After a meal of camp breakfast burritos, Tory stood at the back of the van packing up our climbing gear while I put away food and dishes in our van. Our dog Amp lay panting on the side of the van, his least hooked onto the door frame.
We were parked at a trailhead in City of Rocks, a rock climbing area in southern Idaho. Large granite walls lay scattered across a high desert landscape: sagebrush, desert scrub. Lizards scurried along rocks and open roads while cicadas played their steady, shrill buzz in the summer heat.
While new to the area, the high desert was nothing new. Living, camping, climbing in Colorado and Wyoming meant we were in familiar territory.
Yet nothing felt familiar as I leaned forward to put the lid on the dish bin and heard that dreaded, ominous warning rattle.
Rattlesnakes are the only venomous snake in the western states. Other snakes exit in these states, but rattlers are the ones to really watch out for.
Tan and checkered with brown diamonds, rattlesnakes camouflage into their surroundings. Eyes peeled for movement in the shrubs can catch a rattler slithering by, but they’re easy to miss due to their evolutionary adaptations of blending in.
Each end is equipped with distinctive defense strategies.
On one side sits a rattle. The rattle is the snake’s first line of defense when threatened. A warning sound raised to alert anything around of its presence.
On its other end sits the snake’s second and last line of defense, its fangs. When necessary, it will defend itself by biting and releasing venom into whatever threatens it.
The venom released destroys tissue and is designed to help immobilize prey. Their bites are incredibly painful. Larger animals such as humans and dogs don’t necessarily die from bites, especially when able to receive treatment. However, it doesn’t sound like an experience you want anytime soon. Or ever.
At the sharp sound of the rattle, piercing through the calm of our morning, I looked up to see a two foot long rattlesnake curled just outside the door, rattle shaking vigorously.
The snake lay coiled under where the dog’s leash hooked into the door frame. From my angle inside the van, I couldn’t see where Amp was. But the fact was, the leash could only stretch so far.
“Tory! Snake! Get the dog!”
“Holy shit!” I heard from the outside of the van.
I would learn later that Amp was about three feet away from the rattler. Tory called Amp towards the back of the van, un-clipped the leash from his collar, and brought him behind the vehicle.
Its threat removed, the snake slithered backwards towards the front wheel. The whole time it felt like its eyes never left us, while ours never left him.
Educating yourself on the plants and animals in an area can make a huge impact when in the outdoors.
Making sound, talking or wearing bells, alerts most animals of your presence and give them time to go in a different direction. Yelling and waving your arms can scare lots of animals, causing them to leave you alone (Note: this works for many animals, but can cause others to attack! Know your animals. Educate yourself!)
Snakes however, can’t hear. They sense their prey through ground vibrations, smell and sensing heat.
Yelling won’t warn the snake you’re around the bend. Walking towards it, vibrations growing stronger, that will alert the snake you’re near.
Tory kept one eye of the snake in front of him, one on the dog at his feet. I scrambled to gather the last items needed to spend a day climbing so we could quickly head out.
All of us, dog and snake included, were safe for the moment. But all of us were on edge.
To make matters worse, the snake was no longer content at the front of our van and was once again on the move towards the brush at the back of the van.
I locked up the van and crawled through the back while Tory stomped on the ground to let the snake know where he was, muttering obscenities under his breath.
Throwing on our packs, we set off in one direction as the snake went his way into the brush.
Neither Tory nor I shake things off right away. Walking with tall grass on either side of the trail made us skittish. Our steps became overly cautious. We jumped at the sudden chatter of cicadas in the brush.
As far as we can tell, the snake followed a lizard out of the grass onto the parking lot gravel. It didn’t notice we were there. Tory was standing behind the van, Amp was laying on the ground, I sat inside. Very little motion from any of us.
Thinking back on it, we were graced by a string of good luck.
Luck #1 → The snake gave a warning rattle after it noticed Amp
Luck #2 → We have a timid dog who was instantly concerned by the strange animal making strange noises. Thank god he didn’t get curious enough to stick his nose closer to investigate.
Luck #3 → Tory was in a good spot to get Amp away from the snake
Luck #4 → Amp went towards Tory when called. Not something that always happens right away
Luck #5 → We have a long leash that meant the dog could get closer to Tory and Tory didn’t have to get close to the snake
For us, this was a reminder to always be aware of your surroundings even when there doesn’t seem like a need to be concerned.
Even in highly trafficked areas, like a parking lot, when in the outdoors you are in nature. On the animal’s turf. Their domain. You have to know how to both protect yourself while also preserving the space for them.
Do yourself a favor and educate yourself on how to coexist with animals. Ideally you won’t need to do much beyond the “Leave No Trace” practices, but if the need arises you’ll have the knowledge and confidence to be able to spring into action.