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Rattlesnakes

Most of us will never feel comfortable with the thought that rattlesnakes are a part of the canyon experience.  Almost all of us can relate one experience we've had with these unwelcome neighbors.  Both the owners of Cabin #1 and Lila Adams disturbed one in their outhouses.  One cabin owner discovered one sleeping quietly under the broom in the corner of his cabin.  This was after he had been there for the weekend.  Some of us have seen one slither under our cabin.  These vipers have bitten hikers and cabin owners and one child actually picked one up thinking he was picking up a harmless lizard.  The Golden Retriever who belonged to the past owner of Cabin 26 was bitten on two different occasions in the same group of bushes along the trail.  All of these events had happy endings but we all ask this question -- "What should I do when I encounter a snake and is there any antidote I can carry with me?"

The only rattlesnake you'll run into in these mountains is the Southern Pacific Rattler, (click here for an image) so there shouldn't be any doubt what you're seeing the next time you run into one.  Unless, of course, you're mistaking every snake you see for a rattler.  Harmless gopher snakes, for example, are quite abundant in a wide range of habitats, including dry, scrubby areas like the local mountains.  Not only can they look a lot like rattlers, they can be quite adept at mimicking them when provoked.  Nifty tricks include vibrating their tails, flattening their heads into the characteristic diamond shape, and coiling up as if ready to strike.  King snakes of several species, garter snakes, Western ring-necked snakes, and patch-nosed snakes are also very common along the trail and are equally harmless (except to small rodents and insects).

Regardless of the species, however, you should absolutely not bolt and run from the sounds of a rattler unless you can see it and know exactly where the snake is.  Rattlers are not loud, and if you can hear one, chances are it's pretty close.  Remember that, like you, it's scared and feeling threatened and is most likely backing away from you.  Stand as still as possible until you see where it is.  Wait until it's moved far enough away -- your own body length is more than sufficient -- before you slowly back away from it.

According to Russ Smith, Curator of Reptiles at the Los Angeles Zoo, 25% of rattlesnake bites are dry, which means the snake factually failed to deliver any venom when it bit.  Another 25% are so low in venom that anti-venom is unwarranted as a treatment, and the other 50% may be candidates for anti-venom.  Though this is useful for you, it does no good for your pet.  Yet another reason to be sure to keep your dog on a leash when hiking.

Snakebite kits are essentially little suction cups that don't do an effective job of removing the venom, and trying to use them wastes important time.  Carrying antidote isn't necessary or advised because it's possible you won't be envenomated at all.  Besides, the anti-venom, which is manufactured in horses, can cause an allergic reaction in some people with the effects often outlasting those of the snakebite.

If bitten, leave it up to the doctor to decide whether you need the treatment.  The latest thinking is simply to get yourself to medical treatment as quickly as possible.  If there are many snakes where you will be hiking you might try including a hiking buddy with opposable thumbs who can manage a cell phone in an emergency.

Children, babies, and pets are always in greater danger when they're bitten because they're more near the size of the prey the snakes eat.  Teach kids to wear jeans and heavy hiking boots, stay on paths, and never step over a log or put their hands on a ledge they can't see.

Remember, when you're hiking, you're in the snakes' home, not yours.  Leave rattlesnakes alone and you'll be rewarded with the same treatment.

Thanks to Karen Johns for this article.

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Last updated 3/7/2006