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Some things can kill you slowly.  Other things will kill you all at once.   Not being ready to die quite yet, I do my best to avoid anything that kills, no matter the pace of the Grim Reaper.

This is a story about danger, about survival, and about the way I handle the uncertainties of life.  What does a rattlesnake in Georgia have to do with a wild river in Idaho?  Read on.

Two years ago this month, fate brought me to one of those situations that are never forgotten.  Had I been in a slightly different location, or had slightly poorer reactions, I might not be writing this.  Had I been a few feet in another direction, the snake and I would have been blissfully unaware of each other’s existence, and I also would not be writing this.

People are surprised to learn that I rarely encounter venomous snakes.  I work in the woods; there are snakes in the woods; therefore I should see them all the time, right?  Truth is, snakes don’t always lie on the ground in plain sight, waiting for a hapless forester to stumble over them.  They hide in the brush, under rocks, or in burrows.  At the first sign of danger (such as the vibrations from a Giant Human Being’s footsteps), they slip away to a safer place.

When I do happen upon a snake, I usually see it in plenty of time.  The woods in the rolling hills of central Georgia are usually open enough that I can see the ground ahead of me.  As I navigate through the forest, I scan the ground for snakes, yellow jacket nests, and tripping hazards.  Above the ground, I scan for brush and briars, sticky spider webs, paper wasp nests, and the occasional climbing snake.  Higher up, there might be loose dead branches, or a hunter sitting in a tree stand.  There are creeks to cross, hills to climb, downed logs to avoid.  Much of the time I’m traveling on a compass line some specified distance to some point on the face of the earth where trees are waiting to be measured.  My day is a long string of constant sensory inputs, none of which can be safely ignored.  

Seven days before the Great Snake Attack, I was preparing to step over a log.  Because I looked instead of stepping blindly, I noticed a small rattlesnake coiled up on the far side of the log.  First rattlesnake I had seen in several years.  No big deal.  I went another way, and the snake never moved.

A week later, I began a two-day job near Tifton, Georgia, about 100 miles south of my home.  The woods have a different character there.  The rolling hills give way to flatter ground.  The undergrowth is denser, with more leaves at eye level.  Long-needled slash pine is often the dominant tree, and its needles form a dense mat on the forest floor.  Not only are rattlesnakes and copperheads are nicely camouflaged against the pine straw, they can easily slide underneath it.

Needless to say, I was more on edge that day than I normally am.  Had I been in a movie, a scary soundtrack would have accompanied each footstep.  I watched the ground as carefully as I could, but there were lots of places where I simply could not see, and I had to plow ahead through the brush.  The day was quite uneventful until late afternoon.  Only a half hour of work remained.  As the sun dropped lower in the sky, the light became more flat, and objects on the ground were less obvious.  My compass line led me in the direction of a high wall of brush, which I avoided by following an open spot to the right.  The opening was perhaps twenty feet wide, lined with brush on either side.  With each footstep, I felt the thick layer of pine needles beneath my boots.

The opening narrowed to a spot where single row of bushes separated it from a second, smaller opening.  At the very moment that I stepped between two bushes, the very moment that my line of sight to the ground was blocked, the evening calm was shattered by a loud, unmistakable buzz.  My peripheral vision caught a blur of motion shooting from the source of the sound.  Like a cartoon character turning in midair after stepping over a cliff, I reversed direction and raced away from the clamor.  This is not something you train for; this is the survival instinct at work.  Whether the snake intended to bite, or merely to scare me away, I will never know.

From a safe distance, I turned to face my nemesis.  It was a huge rattlesnake, now returned to its coiled, defensive position with its head held high, looking directly at me.  I estimated its length to be between five and six feet, and its girth was similar to that of my arms.  Its underside had a bright yellow tint that seemed out of place compared to the camouflaged upper body.

I reached for my phone, not to call for help but to take a picture.  But the moment I took a step in the snake’s direction, it resumed rattling and moved ominously towards me.  There would be no pictorial record of my snake encounter.

To my credit, I was able to finish the day’s work (very carefully, mind you).  But when I went to measure a tree diameter, I realized that my 50-foot logger’s tape was missing.  It’s a self-reeling metal tape, weighing about 20 ounces, that is clipped to a belt loop.  When I instinctively wheeled about and fled the snake, I had changed direction with such force that the bottom part of the belt loop ripped loose, and the tape fell to the ground.  I was totally unaware of this happening at the time, as there were more urgent matters to concern myself with.  Did I recover my logger’s tape?  Not that day, but I picked it up later.

When I reached my truck, my heart was still pounding.  Making the quarter mile drive along the woods road to the highway and then unlocking the gate, I couldn’t help but wonder how I’d have been able to manage these simple acts had I been bitten – or whether I would have even made it as far as my truck.  At the nearest house, the owner was busy mowing his lawn.  I imagined myself crawling up to him, in desperate need of an ambulance.

I had planned to make the short drive into Tifton, find a motel, and then finish the job the next day.  Upon reflection, I decided to let some time pass before going back out there.  Instead of getting on the Interstate right away to drive home, I stopped at a pick-your-own farm and gathered up a half gallon of fresh blueberries, glad to be alive, breathing the late-evening spring air, occasionally popping a juicy blueberry into my mouth.

What does this story have to do with a river in Idaho?  I’m sure that's the only reason you’ve read this far.  You really didn’t want to hear about that snake, did you?  Here's the connection: my sister and her husband had signed up for a six day rafting trip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, and they asked me to go with them.  I was wavering because of the expense.  But the Great Snake Attack taught me how precious life and good health are, and how quickly they can be taken from you.  I signed up for the rafting trip, grateful that it was on the Salmon River, not the Snake River.  And it was an outstanding trip, worthy of its own diary.

More snake fun: If you did not see Desert Scientist's rattlesnake diary a few weeks ago, read it here.

Originally posted to Backyard Science on Tue May 15, 2012 at 05:15 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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