Snake Wise

The first snake that I see in the spring is a sign of winter’s passing. I’ve always been crazy about snakes.

I don’t know everything that contributed to this abiding affection I hold for reptiles. When most people head for the big cats or the elephants at the zoo, I look on the map and find the snake house so I can ramble big-eyed among the odd representatives of the earth’s serpentine fauna.

When I was in college at Wofford back in the 70’s one of my best friends was a legendary snake man named David Scott. David was a budding herpetologist (a scientist who studies reptiles) and I was his English major sidekick. We’d spend afternoons out at an old stone quarry near Pacolet looking for coachwhips, those rare black & tan, two-tone snakes with large scales. We’d catch these speedy beasts sunning on the rock ledges left behind after mining. Coachwhips are nervous snakes. Sometimes they’d bite us and we’d wear our wounds like soldiers returned from the war. They weren’t poisonous, so a little peroxide would clean us up.

We called this extracurricular activity “snake hunting,” though we never killed anything. We were collectors, in it for pure joy, and alos to build David’s slide file of every species of snake he could find.

On some spring evenings we’d drive all the way to Landrum in David’s Toyota Landcruiser and ride Highway 11 up on the mountain front looking for snakes warming on the asphalt. Once we saw a big timber rattlesnake just run over by truck, but often the snakes were alive and we’d stop on the shoulder, seize our wildlife prizes-mostly black snakes and king snakes– and haul them back to Wofford for David’s photo shoots.

David went on to become a scientist with a degree in ecology. He’s caught snakes all over the world and published scientific papers about some of their habits. He’s known just as well for his photographs of snakes, salamanders and lizards that have appeared in dozens of books and magazines all over the country. I’m still in English, though one of my many side hobbies is keeping up with my love for snakes.

So yesterday my Alaska friend Venable Vermont was in town, and we took the afternoon to go to Glendale Shoals and put boats on the water. It’s been cold and windy, and it’s looked more like winter was trying to knock the door down on last time. It wasn’t exactly snake weather, so I wasn’t even thinking about seeing one.

There were lots of people fishing at the shoals. They watched us slipping back and forth across the fast current in our canoe and kayak, just “messing about in boats” as they say in THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS.

We didn’t feel like dunking in the cold water, so we decided to walk around the big rapid at Glendale we call “Lawson’s Dawg” because it looks so much like a famous falls on the Chattooga called “Sock’em Dog.” It’s a seven-foot ledge of rock, a kayaker’s dream on a warmer day. As we were wading through the shallows to portage a local acquaintance greeted us, out walking along the creek.

“Look out!” he said, jumping back just as he approached the creek’s edge. “A cotton mouth water moccasin!” I waded over and there was a large water snake coiled in the grass. It didn’t move.

Ah, spring was here. My first snake of the year was right at my feet.

I looked closely, and I knew that it likely wasn’t a poisonous cottonmouth. It was more likely the common Northern Water Snake of our region. I’ve always trusted that the range maps in field guides as accurate and the closest population of poisonous water snakes is considerably east of Glendale, closer to Columbia. The locals though are convinced this isn’t true. “Water Moccasin” describes any serpent along our waterways. David Scott’s spent much of his career trying to correct this misconception, and I knew I wouldn’t make much progress on this cool March afternoon.

I noticed my friend Venable doesn’t like snakes, and so he was keeping his distance. I talked on for a few minutes, disagreeing about the nature of the snake at our feet. I tried to quote the field guide, chapter and verse. I brought up range maps. “They’re here,” my Glendale acquaintance, said. “You open that snake’s mouth and it’s white as cotton inside.”

As we talked the snake slid safely away into the cold river, escaping our discussion of which name to call it by. It’s encouraging to me to know that humans settled this land, and there’s still discussion as to what else inhabits it. I moved downstream with Venable into the spring with one snake already under my belt.

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