“Holy Sh**!!!” Adrenaline surged through my body as I danced five steps backwards, “Snake!” My first impulse when I saw the giant snake in the trail was to go backwards, but the only part of the snake I’d actually seen was the tail. From my new vantage point I realized that by going backwards I’d actually brought myself closer to the snakes head. “Holy sh**” I definitely didn’t want to do anything that would bring me closer to the head of a rattler!! I took a deep breath and tried to calm down. It hadn’t rattled at me, maybe it was just one of those snakes that imitated a rattlers patterning to confuse it’s prey?
The snake was stretched out diagonally across the trail with it’s head partly obscured by some oak leaves. It was so incredibly big that I couldn’t take in both the head and the tail of the snake in the same glance, so I slowly scanned the snake from head to tail. “Wow!” It seemed even bigger now that I really looked at it, and it was Definitely a rattlesnake… And not a young one either, it had a full set of rattles… I counted at least 10!
Rattler. Rattler. Rattler! I had expected to run across bears on this stretch of trail, but not rattlers. Sure I knew that there were rattlers in Northern California, but I was in a shady pine and oak forest (mile 1473), not the sunny, rocky, exposed terrain where I expected to see rattlers.
Not only was this the first rattler I’d seen in 1000 miles (the first one since the Mojave desert), it was also the biggest rattler that I’ve seen! I was standing three or four feet away from it as I went through these contemplations. It still hadn’t moved, it still hadn’t rattled, and it was still in the middle of the trail. I was going to have to go around it, and now that I thought about it, I decided that I’d really like to be a little further away from it right now!
Since the rattler was splayed across the trail with it’s head pointed towards the southeast, I stepped off of the trail and went a few paces down the steep incline to the left (in a northwesterly direction).
Since I was a little further away now (and felt safer), I took a moment to admire the rattler and snap some pictures. It was different than the rattlers I’d seen in the desert. It looked greener than the Mojave Greens, and the black and white stripes on its tail extended from the rattles across at least a third of its body, , which was much further than the diamondbacks of the desert.. It was Absolutely gorgeous, as long as I was a good, safe distance from it.
“No, na, na, na, na, NO!” The snake had finally decided to move and it was moving the wrong way! It was supposed to continue moving to the southeast, the way that it was pointing, but that wasn’t what it decided to do. It decided to move towards me instead! It’s cold, golden eyes staring at me as it moved.
Suddenly I was feeling a lot less safe! Without breaking eye contact with the rattler I started to take a step backwards. As soon as I began moving the rattler gave one curt shake of its rattle, “bzzzzt!” Even though I’d seen lots of rattlers on the AT in Pennsylvania and in Southern California, this was the first one that had actually rattled at me! I got the message loud and clear. I wasn’t supposed to move while the rattler was moving.
I stood there watching it, transfixed, as it’s body curled over itself and it headed to the westside of the trail where it stopped and coiled itself next to a log less than a foot from the trail. *sigh* This meant that I was going to have to try to go around it again.
After making sure it was all settled in and not moving I tentatively climbed back up to the trail. It watched me as I moved, but didn’t rattle this time. How was I going to go around him? I decided that hiking around him in an arc on the uphill side of the slope was the way to go.
As I started to hike around him he pulled out his rattle and gave it another curt shake. “Bzzzzt!” Ok, it was communicating with me clearly and efficiently… I was too close. I took a step back and made a broader arc up the hillside. This was apparently acceptable since he didn’t rattle at me anymore, though I was still unnerved as his head tracked my every step.
I made it back down to the trail and glanced back at the rattler. It was still there, watching me. I was reluctant to turn my back on it, but I had to… I took a deep breath, turned, and briskly walked away.
As I continued hiking towards McCloud River I was in a state of shock and disbelief… That was a HUGE rattler I’d just seen. Would there be more? I didn’t know. Though I’m not a parselmouth like Harry Potter, I congratulated myself for surviving my encounter with the rattler, and for understanding what it was trying to communicate to me.
“BZZZZZZZZZT!” Another rattler! Was I being punished for my hubris? Clearly it was too soon to be congratulating myself for handling rattler encounters well. “Bzzzzzt!! Bzzzzt! bzzzzt” This rattler wasn’t stationary or quiet. It was making lots of noise, and it was on the move. I’ve never seen a snake move so fast before in my life! It came flying down the hill above me, and then, when it got to the trail, it turned and headed towards me, still moving incredibly fast. “Bzzzzzzt!”
“Aaaaaaaaaaa!!!!” I screamed. Not the scream of a child, not a scream of pain, but a scream of pure adrenaline-fueled terror. The adrenaline surge from the last rattler encounter hadn’t dispelled yet and here was a second rattler less than an hour later (mile 1475). What do you do when a rattler is speeding down the trail towards you (other than scream)?
From my last rattler encounter it seemed like a bad idea for both the rattler and the human to be moving at the same time, so I decided to stay put, right where I was. I was pretty sure that the rattler wasn’t coming for me, but I wasn’t sure where it was headed and I didn’t want to accidentally get in it’s way. If I stayed perfectly still it would just go around me and continue on its way, right?!
“Bzzzzzzzzzzzt!!” Here I was, playing chicken with a rattler. I didn’t like this game, I didn’t like it one bit! But I didn’t know what else to do.
“Bzzzzt!!” It continued rattling and coming towards me. Thankfully, at the last minute, it made a sharp righthand turn off of the trail and down the hill into the brush. “Bzzzzzzzzzt!!!!” It continued rattling until it was thoroughly ensconced in the bushes 10 feet below the trail.
“Phew!” It hadn’t been coming after me. I took a deep breath and realized that I’d been holding my breath ever since the rattler turned towards me. I watched it as it moved through the brush, slithering over or under branches at will. I’d never really watched a rattler navigate through complicated terrain before… It was fascinating. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. It was another big rattler (10ish rattles), but this one seemed to be more golden colored than the previous one. As I watched, the snake finally arrived at its destination, a hollowed-out log. It lifted its head up, looked inside, and then completely disappeared into the log.
Suddenly I understood why it was in such a hurry, and why it was so grumpy. It was hungry, and I’d gotten between it and the meal it had spied in that log. I could relate since I get cranky if something gets between me and my dinner too!
Despite feeling like I might have some understanding (post facto) of the rattlers behavior, I was still feeling really shaken up. 2 rattlers in under an hour? Would my day continue this way? I wasn’t sure how many rattlers I could handle in one day without melting down. For the first time since Glen Pass I really wished that I wasn’t hiking solo… I didn’t want to be alone, and I didn’t want to be on this stretch of trail anymore. 2 rattlers in under an hour?! Why? What was different? Was this what Northern California was going to be like? Suddenly the trail felt like a scary place… My trail… My home… It wasn’t supposed to be scary!
I took a deep breath… I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to continue seeing rattlers at a rate of 2 per hour… I’d seen rattlers before, I’d probably see them again, but this was unusual. Also, I’d survived both rattler encounters without being bitten… Chances were pretty good I’d be able to avoid getting bitten in the future too. Besides, I was almost down to the river where I could take a nice long lunch break and collect myself.
I continued hiking (it’s what I do!) and made it the rest of the way to the river without encountering anymore rattlers! Instead, what I found were 3 fellow thru-hikers (Blue Skies, Freckles, and Jawbone) and some amazing trail magic! After a quick dip in the river to cool off, Freckles’ aunt and her friend handed me a plate full of fresh, home-cooked food and a margarita! The food was amazing, and a margarita and good company was just what I needed to calm my nerves and regroup. After spending a few hours with my new friends at the river I was ready to face the trail again. Sure, there were rattlers out there, but there were also amazing people and views and new adventures awaiting me!
I was still a little bit jumpy as I headed up the trail, but my focus had shifted, there was poison oak everywhere… Since I was wearing a short skirt I was paying very close attention to all of the green plants by the side of the trail… Even though I’m not sure if I’m allergic to poison oak today definitely wasn’t the day I wanted to find out.
“BzzzzZzzzzzzzzt… Bzzzzt… Bzzzzzt!” Another rattler!
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I hear you! I’m working on it!” I replied. My first rattler encounter I’d remained silent, the second rattler encounter I’d screamed, for the third rattler encounter I’d decided that if they were going to try to communicate with me, I would return the favor!
“Bzzzzzt…. Bzzzzt” I thanked the rattler for letting me know where he was. He was right, I hadn’t seen him until he started rattling. He’d been in the trail ahead of me, but covered by poison oak and other greenery (mile 1483). As soon as I head the rattling I took a couple of steps in the opposite direction and then turned to figure out where the rattler was. He was half coiled on the slope right above the trail. I don’t know rattlesnake physics, but it seemed like he’d have a pretty good striking distance with the mechanics of his position. He was slightly smaller (7 rattles) than the other two had been, and seemed slightly darker in color.
To get around this one I stepped down into the ditch below the trail, carefully avoiding the poison oak, and didn’t return to the trail until I was well past him. He was still watching me, and I him, but we both seemed rather bored with the interaction, so I turned and headed back up the trail.
I was exhausted and it was getting late, so I checked my maps and started looking for a place to camp. The next campsite sounded perfect (mile 1487.0)! It was up the hill and around the corner from where I was, and it wouldn’t take me long to get there.
About a quarter mile from the campsite I heard some rustling in the bushes and the sound of branches breaking. I was either closer to the campsite than I thought, and there was a person in the woods, or there was a bear between me and my long-awaited campsite…
I rounded the corner and sure enough… Bear (mile 1486.73)! “You’ve got to be kidding me, 3 rattlers and a bear, all in the same day!” It was unreal. I watched the bear with it’s golden fur as it ripped apart a fallen log searching for grubs. He knew exactly where I was… He’d turned to look at me when I rounded the corner, and after a moment of slow and thoughtful consideration decided that the grubs were far more interesting and returned to his log. I watched him for a minute before he tired of the grubs too and ambled down the hill, across the trail, and into the bushes on the other side. He was still making lots of noise as he foraged for grubs, but at least he wasn’t on the trail in front of me anymore, so I was able to keep hiking.
When I finally got to my campsite I could still hear the bear in the distance. I sighed. Even though it had been a long day, I couldn’t camp here… Not with a bear so close… I just wouldn’t be able to sleep. There was another campsite a little over a mile away, so I decided to push on… I could be there in 20 minutes or so… That wasn’t too bad.
Dusk was approaching and I was getting tired as I slowly and carefully picked my way through the poison oak encroaching on the trail. After about 10 minutes of picking my way through the poison oak you’ll never guess what I spotted in the trail a few feet ahead of me…
I stopped short. “Really, really?! Another rattler (mile 1487.22)?” I marveled at the absurdity of my day, 4 rattlers and a bear… I couldn’t believe it. In response to my utterances of disbelief the rattler finally figured out that I was there. It lifted up it’s head to look at me and lifted it’s tail to start rattling at me, “bzzz…”
I cut him off mid-rattle, “oh come on, why bother rattling at me? I saw you first, way before you had any clue that I was here… Is that really necessary?” I’m sure that the rattler had no idea that I was chastising it, but maybe it figured no one could hear it rattle with me chattering on, so it tucked its rattle away and slithered out of the trail… Wow! It was another really big snake. I counted 13 rattles before it coiled up and tucked it’s rattle underneath itself.
“Dammit!” The stupid rattler had decided to coil itself up about 6 inches from the trail! I couldn’t safely pass it on trail, and the hillside was really steep both above and below the trail making it really hard to go off trail to avoid it. I stared at the rattler grumpily. I’ve heard lots of other people say that they’ve just flicked the rattlers away with their trekking poles… I looked at the massive rattler, and I looked at my trekking pole… Then I looked at the poison oak covered embankment. Hmmm… None of the options looked good, but to get enough leverage to flick the rattler down the hill with my trekking pole I’d have to get a lot closer to it than I felt comfortable with.
Hmmm…. I looked back over at the embankment… There were tracks where a bear had gone up to a tree above me, if I used it’s tracks I could avoid the poison oak and get around the rattler… If I slipped on that dang embankment I would end up covered in poison oak and less than a foot away from the rattler… There was only one solution… No slipping.
I grumbled at the rattler as I climbed up the embankment, went around the tree, and descended back down to the trail on the other side. I begrudgingly glanced back at it one more time before once again setting off for my campsite.
As I hiked the last little bit to my campsite I decided that if there was a rattler in my campsite I was going to kill it, cook it, and eat it for dinner… I was done with rattlers for the day! I was going to camp at the next tent site no matter what. I’d already had enough adventures for one day!!
When I finally got to my campsite it was beautiful. The sun was setting and the moon was rising, all amidst bright pink clouds… And do you want to know what was even better? There was neither sight nor sound of rattlers or bears anywhere! I pitched my tent, curled up inside, and went to sleep. What a day!
Rattler mile 1473.07
Rattler mile 1475.20
Rattler mile 1483.20
Bear mile 1486.73
Rattler mile 1487.22
Bear mile 1494.63
Bear cub mile 1504.6
For more information about California’s Rattlers click here!
Extra Credit (rattlesnake physics): What is the spring constant for rattlesnakes? Does the stiffness of the rattle contribute to the mechanics of it’s striking distance? What are the advantages/disadvantages of fully coiling versus coiling in an ‘s’ shape? How are striking distances modified on steep embankments?
Extra Credit (cooking): Do you have any advice for cooking or preparing rattlesnake for dinner? Favorite rattler recipes? If you are on private property in California is it legal to have the rattler in your campsite for dinner? How about Oregon?