I’m driving to the trailhead when I spot a snake on the road. Perfect! Great place for a photo shoot, plenty of room, I pull over. I take a series of pictures, the snake is a Rosy Boa, non-venemous, no worries. But after seeing a snake out already at 7:00 a.m., I decide to change the route I have planned which included a lot of rock and bolder scrambling. Obviously I can’t be sticking my fingers into crevices, possibly surprising a rattler. So, I scratch that plan. Little did I know this alternate plan could prove fatal.
Heading up an alternate trail, when I’m about 55 minutes in, the deerflies and gnats are intense, so I decide to skip the broad-brim straw hat I’m trying out, and switch to my baseball cap since it will accommodate the mosquito head netting better. I set my gear down slightly off the side of the trail, step towards a rock to put the straw hat onto, noting that the ground was suddenly very soft underfoot. It occurs to me that I have been hearing this loud, very intense sound, like live-wire electricity sparking. My mind is trying to make sense but I’m drawing a blank. Maybe I should have gone for the caffeine before I left home afterall. There are band-winged grasshoppers in the area; I have learned to tune-out the rattle-like, electrical sound they make.
Big mistake! I look down and I hear this terrifying, feral scream… then realize it’s coming from me.
Adrenaline spikes like a thunderbolt, I jump straight up and run as soon as I land; I am rocket-fueled to the max. All of this in what seems like a nanosecond. I immediately begin to profusely thank the Lord, a flurry of praise and thanksgiving. I mean, who can outrun the strike from a snake?!
Suddenly I notice that I’m getting nauseated, and I feel like I might actually pass out. I squat down, I need to be close to the ground if I do faint. Is this the downside of the adrenaline surge or am I in trouble here? My foot is feeling weird, tingling. I need to get my gear; my first aid kit is attached to my gear which I had placed on the side of the trail, near that rattler.
Man, how I’m feeling isn’t a good sign. Did I actually get bit?
Every time I begin to step in the direction where I just frantically hurtled myself away from, that rattler is M-A-D, and rightly so! I hear its intense, loud rattling and hissing. I am at least 12 feet away from where I stood on the snake, but after only 2 steps towards my gear, it is just making a racket; it’s a snake on meth, enraged doesn’t even come close to describing its fury.
Apparently 10-12 feet is too close. I wait. Again when I start towards the area, it’s rattling, LOUDLY and with insane frenzy; it is a pyrotechnic war of words in rattler-speak. Its rattling and hissing became even more ferocious, if that’s even possible. I retreat. I wait. I can’t see it. After an incident like this the viper usually would have moved off, retreating. But this viper is just beyond typical. For one, it gave zero warning when I was near it, before I actually STOOD on it and two, it’s still there. I toss a few rocks, trying to get it to move away. I use my camera’s zoom lens to try to even SEE the rattler, I can’t locate it, it is so well camouflaged. It must be under the leaves or under my gear. I can’t go around the area, the trail isn’t wide enough, I might slide down the hill.
The suffering reptile is craving seclusion and I’m invading its space. I envision that it is in its agonal final moments, my foot covered too much snake real estate. Obviously it can’t retreat. No other choice, I continue with tossing rock gently, not knowing where to chuck them, I cover a wide area. The purpose is to get it moving along, not to hurt it any further. I stomp my feet, trying to mock the ground vibrations of a group of people, figuring that maybe multiple, heavy vibrations will get it moving off. I realize the stomping is not so good for me if I’m bit; too much circulation but I need to get within the proximity of my essential gear. It’s a catch 22.
I probably incapacitated the snake some, at minimum it was injured, after my stepping right on it, full weight on that step. I mean, I was actually standing on it! The sight of it under my foot returns to my memory, it was curled up at the time, it was big and fat but I have no idea if I stepped near the head or what. I can’t leave my gear; someone passing by probably would want to claim it which would get them close to the rattler. Not good. Plus, I need a precautionary ace out of the pack to wrap my leg before I descend. My foot is beginning to tingle, it feels weird. I’m getting chest pains. Is this drama from the fear of it all, or did I actually get a strike from the snake? I don’t want to remove my boot; if I was bit the boot is serving as a soft tourniquet. Dread overcomes me as I notice a wet spot at my pants cuff. Aw, snap …
I backtrack to fetch a long and very sturdy branch from the dead and down just slightly down the trail. This limb is very thick with a handy “Y” at the end. The branch is probably a good 8 feet long; I hope it’s long enough. A snake can strike the distance of half of their length. So, I always figure about ten feet to be safe not knowing how long it actually is, it’s not like I hike with a measuring tape. I toss more rocks, no hissing or rattling this time. Good thing, since I’ve run out of “nice”, no time to play nice anymore; my rescue-clock has been ticking from the moment I stepped on the poor thing.
I walk WAY AROUND the area, teasing the trails-edge stability. I sure don’t want the trail to break from under foot like I had experienced a few months previously. I move several feet further on the trail, giving the “bad area” as much space as possible. I’m shaking like never before. I mean, every inch of me is shaking. I still can’t locate the snake, it’s completely camo. I use the branch to gather my stuff; the “Y” at the end of the branch makes a perfect hook. Fear continues to beat its bass drum in my chest.
I move to a clearing several feet down trail from The Incident area and dig for the ace bandage. I apply a figure eight wrap several inches above the ankle, remembering the wrap needs to be between the bite and the heart. I notice my ankle has swelled just above my boot; anxiety ratchets. I make sure I can slip a finger between the wrap and my leg. The purpose of the constricting band is to restrict lymphatic flow, not blood, so it should not be too tight. I head out; it will probably take 30 minutes to reach my truck. Did I mention that I hike with all of my senses? Apparently I forgot my good-sense this trip. I was way too casual with the hike, it being a trail I am on frequently. I’m feeling so sick and woozy. The chest pain continues, the shakes and the weird tingling foot-thing persist, disheartening reminders of my carelessness. My steps are swift; I mentally visualize a ticking clock; time running out. I pray and focus on staying calm but in all honesty, I’m an emotional wreck. I start to cry. I’m reckless with which foliage I brush against, poison oak is the least of my concerns today. It actually takes me 30 minutes to reach my truck. At least I’m estimating accurately, my brain is functioning; claiming any reassurance I can muster.
I drive to the fire station combination post office just over a mile up the road. The fire station is closed, so I go into the post office adjacent to it. I tell the postmaster that I stepped on a rattler and that the fire station is closed. She, bless her heart, immediately and swiftly takes me outside to a red phone which connects to a paramedic directly. As I am telling the operator what happened, my voice catches, I begin to cry. For some reason thinking about the situation is one thing, speaking it made it all the more real; my fear advances. I go sit in the shade, the postmaster, lovely lady, stays with me until medical arrives.
It probably took only 2 minutes for the first volunteer firefighter to arrive. She seems really casual, nonchalantly getting her bag from inside the fire station. After she approaches me, she asks me, “Where’s the bee sting?”
I tell her I stood on a rattler. Her face drops. I can see the rising panic in her eyes. She tells me that the call dispatched as a bee sting. She hurries to update the call out to Rescue. I tell her that I’m not even sure I was bit, and explain about leaving the boot on, showed her the ace but she is still concerned. Another First Responder arrives, he takes over. I ask wouldn’t the bite hurt, because I didn’t have pain, just the stress symptoms and a weird jittery foot thing going on. I didn’t want to mention the chest pains; they’d haul me off to the hospital for sure. He agrees that the bite would have hurt considerably. He continues checking my leg and taking my vitals and jots down the pertinent information taken from me.
An abundance of medical personnel arrive, I keep telling them, I’m not even sure I got bit, but I have these symptoms, maybe it’s just drama on my part from the terror from The Incident. After thoroughly examining my entire leg and foot and seeing that wet spot, they figured the loose-fitting pants saved me. They tell me to be thankful it was a large snake, which I am, since an inexperienced baby rattler would have over-envenomated. I had heard them order-up a helicopter, I beg them to cancel the helicopter; clearly I’m alright. All I could hear was a mental cha-ching, cha-ching when they said they were warming up a copter. So thankfully, they did cancel it. They were concerned it took me 30 minutes to hike out, I concluded that must be straining the standard “golden hour” before treatment, I’m not sure. Or maybe it was the lymphatic flow that concerned them, 30 minutes of hiking after a perceived bite. Two of the rescue personnel said they recognized my truck, acknowledging that I hike that trail frequently. I replied that indeed I do and to top that off I knew better than to step off trail, even a few inches. They comment that “Someone up there” was watching out for me today. I agree that it undeniably was the grace of God that saved and protected me!
This startling incident reminding me that life can turn on a dime when you absolutely least expect it.
Todays Lesson Learned: LOOK, LOOK, LOOK before you step! Do not develope a habit that causes you to “tune-out” any wilderness sounds. If you are rock scrambling, do “test” the boulder before blindly placing your hands on it.
AUTHORS NOTE: I was told by the First Responders that this snake was a Western Diamondback Rattler. I have since learned that this, and the rattlers that I have encountered before and since then, are Southern Pacific rattlers. They actually have a much more dangerous bite than a Western Diamondback. Their venom has both hemotoxic and neurotoxic properties, and Crofab doesn’t work well with it. Photos of snakes in this post are NOT of the one I stood on, it wasn’t exactly a Kodak moment.
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