Don’t get rattled: It’s always best to stay calm around snakes

The latest issue of Outdoor News reported that the recent Cross Fork organized rattlesnake hunt drew thousands of participants.

I attended and went along on the Morris-organized snake hunts for many years and truly enjoyed learning the proper way to corral a rattlesnake. My son, who I dragged along with me one year, did not find it so enjoyable. That’s probably because he ended up “holding the bag” literally. He was assigned to hold the bag into which rattlesnakes were deposited when caught. I thought it was quite funny. He did not.

I should be dead of a rattlesnake bite 30 years ago. Thanks only, I am sure, to my ever-present squadron of guardian angels, am I still among the living. I have jumped over rattlers, stepped down beside them, stepped over them, stepped on them and yet not one has made any attempt to strike me.

This should be a summer particularly to their liking: moist, humid but not scorching. Vegetation is high, and calling them a “snake in the grass” is pretty correct.

Most people have an instinctive fear of snakes and so run from or attempt to kill any snake they see. Yet snakes are beneficial to the ecosystem, experts tell us, and we should simply try to avoid them rather than eliminating every one we see. They really do feed on mice and rats, so they keep that population down. But keeping a couple rattlers around a populated area just to keep the mice population under control does not appeal to most folks.

Many people cannot identify whether a snake is venomous or not when they spot one. There are about 20 species of snakes in Pennsylvania, and only two or three are dangerous. Once you have a close encounter with a rattlesnake, you will not forget what they look like. The most common rattler and the most dangerous in this state is the Timber Rattlesnake, which comes in two color phases: black and yellow. The color does not denote which gender it is despite many tales to the opposite. And they live about 20 years.

All three of the rattlesnake species that live in our state are called pit vipers. They have vertical pupils (as cats do), and their heads are heart-shaped. The small sacs at each side of the head are where their venom is stored. Non-poisonous snake’s heads are an oval shape although that is hard to determine if a snake is racing by you.

The rattles on the end of the snake’s tail are its most distinguishing feature, and the sound of them in action will chill your blood. However, they do not always rattle when you are near, only when they feel threatened. I have several times stepped down within inches of a rattlesnake that never shook its rattles.

Medical science recommends that if you are bitten by a poisonous snake, it is essential to remain calm. Then immobolize the area (usually an arm or leg) and stay quiet as possible to keep the poison from spreading through the body.

Of course, if you have a cellphone (and most of my adventures with rattlers were long before the days of cellphones) and you have service, call quickly for help and calmly wait for the help to arrive. Keep the bitten area at or below the level of the heart. Cleanse the wound and cover it with something clean.

Apply a splint to reduce movement of the affected area, but keep it loose so as not to reduce blood flow. Do not use a tourniquet. Do not apply ice.

So, if you are going to hike around the woods this year, scouting for deer or photographing, you are apt to run into a rattlesnake almost anywhere. Wear leather chaps or rubber boots that come to the knee for protection. I’d carry a plastic sandwich bag with a clean dressing in it. I always carry a long stick that I use to part the grass or weeds in front of me.

Old fruit orchards are favorite places for snakes to hang out because rodents and birds come there to get the fruit.

The Game Commission’s research project I would have shunned completely was the “Rattlesnake Study Group,” in which the Commission tagged rattlesnakes and some poor researcher had to follow them around in the woods and record data gathered by telemetry. The Game Commission and Department of Natural Resources have all conducted in-depth studies on rattlesnakes. The results were that rules were implemented on how many snakes you could take on a regulation snake hunt or individually, if you happened upon one in the forest.

In the days before that was the rule, we would skin them and fry them for supper. I confess I have never been hungry enough to skin a rattler but I have eaten a lot of it, and it really is good. I offer no recipes for rattlesnake.