by Mike Todd
The eastern timber rattlesnake hardly ever shows aggression towards humans, so if you really think about it, I’m actually quite fortunate. If I wasn’t a super-lucky dude, I probably wouldn’t have encountered the largest pit viper in North America at all. That gigantic, venomous reptile might have just heard me coming and hidden somewhere until I’d wandered past, subjecting me to a serene, boring day in the woods without any heart palpitations at all.
But I am a lucky person.
I’d set off down the trail last Saturday as a part of an elite expeditionary force, consisting of me, my 40-pound dog Memphis and my 15-month-old son, Zack. We might not sound that elite, but right in the corner of Zack’s nursery, you’ll find a Diaper Genie II Elite model, which they don’t sell to just anyone (unless they have diapers to dispose of). It says “Elite” right on the thing. We have credentials.
The rest of our family had a baby shower to attend that day, so they missed out on our luck-filled adventure. “I’m going to Julie’s baby shower tomorrow. You can come with me and eat cake and help open presents, or you can go hiking with Zack and Daddy,” my wife Kara had explained to our four-year-old son Evan.
We went hiking on the South Taconic Trail, climbing Brace Mountain outside of Copake Falls, NY. Evan loves hiking. Something deep inside him just connects to the sounds of the birds, the crunch of the leaves under his feet and the unwrapping of the candy bar his father bribes him with. (Go ahead and judge, but I bet Thoreau’s dad hooked him up with some serious licorice in his formative years.)
But I knew I had no chance when the decision boiled down to this: Mommy and cake, or Daddy and exercise. His four-year-old brain couldn’t even process the decision anymore once it hit the word “cake.”
Without Evan on our expedition, I decided we’d go farther from home and tackle a larger, more remote hike. About five minutes up the trail from the parking area, Memphis trotted 20 feet ahead of me. Zack sat perched on my back, quietly enjoying the ride, just as his big brother had done so many times before.
I was just getting my camera strap adjusted around my neck when this sound came from the bushes beside my ankle. “I’M CONSIDERING KILLING YOU!” it said.
Actually, that’s just how I translated it, but the rattle sounded like a child’s car that you pull back, but instead of letting it go, you pick it up and let the wheels spin. It wasn’t the gentle tika-tika-tika noise I would have expected. The rattle was fast, urgent and an effective cure for constipation.
I looked down and saw a large, ornate snake within easy striking distance of my leg, piled on top of itself like a hastily coiled garden hose. He watched as I jumped, cussed and scooted away, my heart pounding as I put precious distance between us. Then he slowly straightened out and slithered across the trail as if to say, “Glad we have that settled.”
In the research I’ve done since, I found that timber rattlesnakes are generally docile, rarely rattle at people, and even when they lunge, they often do so as a warning, with their mouths closed. The majority of bites happen to adult male two-legged creatures who intentionally provoke the snake, often while drunk or otherwise intoxicated. At first, this sounds like damning evidence against my gender, but you can say this about us: At least we know better when we’re sober.
After the snake slithered into the bushes, heading for the open field beyond, I stopped to collect my breath and my thoughts. Memphis trotted back and stood next to me.
“We’re pretty lucky, huh?” I asked her, giving her a pat.
And indeed, we were. Also, I’m lucky Zack’s not old enough to repeat the words he learned that day.