Snakes and the Southern Appalachian Highlands
Snakes! Snakes. Snakes. Why do we take really cool and useful things and turn them into expletives, illegal words for common use, and then let others slip by as perfectly ok. Like snakes. I think from now on when I am tempted to shout some profanity I will resort to my grandpa’s exclamation, “Snakes alive!”
I understand how people can really be fascinated with snakes. They have a certain beauty, they emit a powerful, transfixing gaze, and display predatory prowess that all martial artists can and should learn from. From ancient biblical texts to modern studies suggesting that snake-like images actually cause the brain to emit certain chemicals triggering immediate “fight or flight” sensations in people, snakes have a revered and respected status among creatures that roam the Earth. In North Carolina folks are keenly aware of their presence.
My walk with this legless brother began many years ago on my grandpa’s tobacco farm. We were pulling rocks up in a field. One rock loosed an intertwined cluster of baby copperheads that shot in all directions. I was saved by a quick thinking father who grabbed me up by the shoulders just as the critters reached my feet. How many snake stories can you think of? I have many. Some are passed down, more than a couple are first-hand accounts. The scariest one by far, however, was my Dad’s lake skiing trip in high school. A girl let go at the outside of a turn and slid into the water a safe distance from the shore. When the boat got back around to her riddled body it was clear that she had invaded a populous nest of excited moccasins which were not visible to the fast moving boat on the surface. Oh my. Then there is the family whose embellished story got me a trip to the school counselor in 7th grade after my horrified English teacher turned in the paper to school administrators. A winter fire in their new cabin awoke a large nest of pit vipers, all of which crawled onto the floor, killing the heroic husband who carried his wife out safely only to die on the front step. And just as shivering more than one frontiersmen of the old day shacked up with rattlesnakes, cold and slow, dormant in their winter hideouts, to ride out a rough storm in Appalachian backcountry. North Carolina has the ominous distinction of holding the national top spot for venomous snake bites. And with our variety of terrain it’s no surprise. We have water moccassins, coral snakes along the coast, a few rattlesnake specimens, and of course copperheads. Combine that with a large rural population, continued development, a number of clueless tourists and huge outdoor recreation industry and you get – snake bites. This year is what I call a snake year, meaning the numbers are high and the critters are on the move. I am particularly motivated to give this topic literary attention since my best little buddy, Gee Lee (“Dog” in Cherokee), is suffering a terrible post-bite period at this very moment and seems to be on the verge of death. Personally I think Cold Mountain, NC, should be renamed Rattlesnake Lair. They grow larger than a man’s leg in girth and even meaner in attitude.
Now before my stories convince you to remain in your locked car for the rest of summer vacation (snakes get in cars too), I will say that there is another creature more dangerous as far as deaths go – that’s the yellow jacket. Allergic reactions from stings kill more people than snake bites by far and the reaction can happen to anyone at any stage of life even if you have never been allergic before. Rattlesnakes are kind enough to emit a loud “buzzzzzzzzzzzzz” from rattles, when they have them and are given enough time and space to react. Copperheads, while deadly silent and camouflaged better than most modern ninjas could dream about (and heat seeking, fast, and at times aggressive AWESOME!) will often strike first as a threat and not waste valuable venom on something it doesn’t plan to eat. You. The brown little babies don’t know the difference which is why some folks talk about them. So generally, unless you are bitten in the neck and your airway swells shut, snake bites are not life threatening. Of course the pain and potentially rotting tissue falling off of your leg might make you prefer the quick exit. I’ve heard of timber rattlers hitting so hard they break bones.
The number one thing we can do to avoid the problem of dealing with snake bites is practice awareness. Moving through the forest with keen senses, recognizing likely habitats and learning what those are, not being careless in places we can’t see and learning mild self-hypnosis for pattern recognition are all tools used by natives of this area. By native I don’t mean skin color, I mean folks who hunt and hike these woods and have for generations. Self-hypnosis can be as simple as saying to one’s self, “When I see a single angled pattern similar to ones found on snake skin, my brain will alert me”, and then visualize the pattern, the eye of a snake, and a little tail tip. It’s likely that only a partial visual will be available and most people self-program to see whole animals and therefore miss much in the forest. With kids there are a series of things that are fun and effective in teaching them to spot and recognize dangerous snakes (snake bites are much more serious for small people who are lower to the ground and a lower body weight).
I like to print out unlabeled sheets with various local and regional animals on them, in color. Kids work in teams to identify the critters with corrections available, and the test is repeated on another day until everyone scores perfect. In addition, little rubber snakes like they sell at Dollar General or the grocery make great spotting aides. Placed around camp or the home (outside) at random with only partial shapes visible, kids earn a reward by spotting them and bringing it to the attention of parents or counselors. Above all, young ones are taught to not taunt or otherwise molest snakes. Most snake bites are not sniper-viper attacks but occur when some fool tries to pick up a snake, chases it into its safe zone, or thinks it’s a harmless variety. Even non-poisonous snakes can bite, leaving painful, embedded teeth in your hand. Eustace’s advice? “When a black snake strikes at you don’t move.” LOL! Ok, whatever you say E man. I have no doubt he would have such control but the young man he was counseling jerked away taking the snakes teeth with him. Speaking of Eustace, one time he opened the door to the hay loft at the Crow’s Nest and a large copperhead reared up waist high and he beheaded it with a single stroke from his Old Hickory sheath knife, on the draw. I crap you not.
I had a group of young boys once, 7-11 years old, out along the base of Dugger Mountain back in about 2000 or 2001. A kid ran up screaming, “I stepped on a copperhead!” I was used to hearing about werewolves and various other invisible ghosts of the woods from this group so I kind of rolled my eyes. The kid was barefoot and not 15 feet from me getting water from a spring we had just dug out. Sure enough he was right. The snake was quite forgiving of the boy. We were not. We ate it. I’ve told the story many times but you must hear it; when I began to cut the belly of the hanging snake, pinned to a dead tree with a knife, the HEADLESS neck curled up and struck my hand. Dude. The snake’s heart continued to beat for over an hour, alone, on a rock next to the creek. The skin, placed in water acted as a powerful crayfish attractant pulling in a dozen mountain lobsters which we added to the feast. Our nettle, crayfish, copperhead meal was fine topped off with a few chips ahoy cookies. Rattlesnakes are great too but beware, pit vipers store poison in their heads. Coral snakes, however, circulate in through the body and are NOT edible. No really I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Like I’m going to eat snake”, but it is very empowering to eat the thing you so feared. And for survival skills it’s a rich source of protein and energy. I am a simple woods cook, preferring a light searing and slow coal cook on a flat rock or in a pan with some olive oil. A stick will work. Pull the meat off sideways, curling along the ribcage with your teeth. Skins make beautiful additions to bows, tools, sheaths, belts, headbands, and should be saved if only for a teaching tool to show others. A quick mount can be made by wrapping the skin around a stick and throwing some fibers around it. The head of a snake can still be a hazard, especially if a dog pulls it out of a shallow grave or if someone steps on it. If you plan on using the head to scare someone make sure the mouth is closed.
Just last week at sail camp I was giving a student a hard time for losing his light and reluctantly passed him mine, or Nina’s. He took about two steps toward his pee target and said, “There’s a snake”. Right where John Paul and I had been doing escrima drills in the dark. “What color?” I asked. “The camouflaged kind”, said the 8 year old. Uh oh. Sure enough it was the biggest copperhead I’ve seen, and it took up residence under the rock and tree where my hammock was anchored. The dark and rain and general lay of the land convinced me to stay put but throughout the night I’d wake up and look over the edge of my ENO, shining the light around, just sure the thing would want to climb out the line and get warm with ol Two Dogs. I wondered if he might mistake my warm butt for a rabbit and bite me right through the hammock. He was mellow and chill, and cold. Many copperheads are patient and prefer to avoid any human contact whatsoever. I’ve had snakes crawl over my chest in Dark Valley, and once had one wrap around my leg while swimming naked in the Rocky Broad down near Lake Lure. The reason I now mostly camp in hammocks is a.) I can sleep on a rocky hill if it has trees and b.) SNAKES.
There are a few guerilla tactics using snake parts that are entertaining if not useful in some harrowing, last resort situation. In asia people have used snakes to deter trespass and in times of war. Many drug storage building have employed a hanging viper, strung by the tail with head at human neck and face height, to harass anyone trying to move through the building at night. A common trail trap includes pinning a snakes tail so that it cannot exit the travel zone. The angry and in pain snake waits along the path ready to ambush anyone walking by. Ragnar Benson writes about shining lights into warehouses and seeing a dozen beady, glowing eyes, reflecting back in the darkness. The venom is easily extracted to add a little punch to darts and various booby traps, effective as long as the poison remains potent. Snakes harnessed in tunnels did much to dissuade American troops in Vietnam, or at least slow down progress in chasing a VC escapee. Another infamous trick used around the world is placing deadly snakes in an automobile or airplane which can have serious consequences and look more like a ‘crash’ than an assassination.
I just took a break from writing and went to check on my dog. The flies crowding around his mouth were a bad sign. He’s dead. Damned snakes.
Mothballs placed around a home perimeter or tipi can help deter unwanted visitors and there is a variety of products for purchase that repel snakes. These are often made from concentrated pellets of clove and cinnamon than don’t dissolve too quick in rain.
First Aid for snake bites is a subject of debate. Things to not do include tight tourniquets and ice. Recommended action includes light constriction of the affected limb, rest if possible, lowering bite area below the heart. Suction cups are often included in modern field first aid kits but can be negligible in effect unless used quickly and correctly. Eustace used to carry a little retractable razor knife that can hold a set length, very small, to make a controlled quick incision for immediate treatment (within seconds). I watched his dog Prarie heal from a bite to the face over a period of days. People wonder why I don’t put a seat on my outhouse – just one time walking in, starting to squat, and seeing the golden eyes on a triangle head poking out from between wooden slats was enough to sell me on the whole hole idea. No hiding room for snakes or spiders. An interesting experimental treatment that’s gaining ground in the modern era is mild electric shock. Preferably from a DC source at low and controlled power, the current breaks down and destroys chemical compounds in the venom reducing its hemotoxic effect. Infection and secondary medical complications from swelling are often a problem associated with snake bites.
Well I’m about done with this writing. I expected Niko, my other dog, to go any day now. At seventeen years old she has given it a good run. Gee Lee, also spelled Ghillie for the famous camo outfit of Scottish origin, is a vital part of home and farm security. Losing a dog up here means aggressive encroachment of canine predators and less warning time for humans as well. We have them both, especially when the ginseng berries turn red. Just yesterday a coyote tore out the throat of a goat in broad daylight down the hill, likely hoping to return after dark for retrieval. Gee Lee had special barks for different critters; deer, coyote, human, and vehemently protected my young kids (the human kind). He will be missed. It’s a rough week on the mountain. I think I’ll go drink some beer. I’m just glad I still have the freedom to buy good weapons. And nightvision.
For a great video on Copperheads with Eustace, check this out;
For a great video on Copperheads with Eustace, check this out;