When I began backpacking from Springer Mountain in Georgia on the Appalachian Trail I had lost any fear I had about snakes, rattlesnakes in particular. I’ve always found knowledge to be an potent antidote to specific fears. Since my first run-in with snakes in the Uwharrie National Forest until I began my backpacking trip, I became well-read about venomous snakes. Laurence Klauber (1883-1968) is known for the landmark book “Rattlesnakes: Their Habits, Life Histories and Influence on Mankind.” I consulted it other written work. As I read I came to understand these reptiles. The more I learned the more the myths faded. By the time I saw my next rattler in Pennsylvania, I felt curiosity and appreciation and not dread.
Along A.T. in the Blue Mountains of Pennsylvania I stopped 0n a sweltering August afternoon for a water break. Dropping my pack I fished out my water bottle and took a long drink. I sat on a log for a rest. The trail ahead followed an abandoned woods road and I consulted my map to survey the course ahead. Gazing from the map I checked the trail ahead, then observed a disk-shaped black patch on the footway. Thinking it to be some sort of wheel – perhaps from a child’s wagon – I went over to investigate it. It only took a moment to see it was a black-phase timber rattlesnake spiraled on the side of the trail. The snake lay still. It did not rattle. But its eyes were full life as it lay patiently, waiting for an opportunistic meal to venture by. I did not disturb the snake, but I did spend practically an hour standing there, observing the snake. Fascination had replaced my fear.
Some weeks later, while following a blue-blazed side trail on the New York section of the A.T. to get water, I stumbled across two rattlesnakes sunning on a ledge below me on the trail which led to the spring. I admit being surprised. They were not readily visible until I was almost upon them. I bushwhacked around them. On the way back I saw they had slithered into the bush.
Hikers and backpackers along the Appalachian Trail who meet up with snakes are fortunate. Rattlesnakes and copperheads are endangered and vanishing from much of the A.T.. These creatures require distance and respect. Basic rules for avoiding encounters with them would include:
Never go barefoot when walking in the wild. Always wear hiking boots, especially in known snake country. Avoid thick underbrush where snakes may lie concealed. Don’t step or put your hands where you can’t see. Step on logs and rocks and not over them; a snake may be lying on the other side. Also check the other side of rocks or logs before you sit down on them. Never handle a dead snake; it can still bite. Don’t antagonize or rile a snake for fun; you might regret it.
Snakes are animals you’re likely to see along the Appalachian Trail. Most will be nonvenomous. But if you’re in luck you might see rattlesnakes and copperheads. Treat them with caution, giving them some distance, snap a photo (only if you can do this from a safe distance), enjoy the moment – then hike on.