By Clint Calhoun
While not intending for my title of this article to sound too philosophical, it is quite true that we never know what truly lies around the bend, whether it be life in general or things we endeavor to pursue. As a general rule, I generally try to anticipate what might be coming and try to plan accordingly, so as not be hit head-on by the oncoming transfer truck, metaphorically speaking of course. After 20-plus years of botanizing and searching the high and low places of Hickory Nut Gorge for unusual species, I have come to expect surprises in unusual places and am usually rewarded with experiences that leave me in awe. My latest meandering is a perfect example.
On this particular day I was in search of wildflower photographs, specifically a rare plant species called broadleaf tickseed (Coreopsis latifolia). A couple of places I had already searched were low quality sites and were not yielding the nice flowers I was looking for so I decided I needed to go a little further off the beaten path. The backside of Chimney Rock Mountain along the shoulders of Stony Mountain and Sugarloaf Mountain are great places to find the plants I was looking for so I made my way up the old mountain roads back in that part of the Gorge in search of my quarry. I was certainly rewarded for my efforts too because I ended up with photographs of three different sunflower species as well as photos of the broadleaf tickseed, all taken along the roadside.
As I continued to drive along the old dirt road, I started around a bend and noticed a large, black cylinder. At first I thought it was a black log, but it had a weird look to it. As I got closer, I noticed the pattern and then I saw the rattle and my heart skipped a beat. I stopped the truck in the middle of the road, unconcerned about any vehicle traffic way back up in there. The moment my foot stepped out of the truck, the huge timber rattlesnake went from straight as a stick to coiled like a cable and rattling.
I was looking at quite possibly the largest timber rattlesnake I have ever encountered in the wild. What made it even more special was that it was a black phase timber rattler which I had also never encountered in the wild up to that point. The adrenaline was pumping as I fumbled to change lenses on my camera. As big as this snake was, I didn’t want to risk getting too close on possible uneven footing so using a telephoto lens was a sensible approach and helped me to get over the initial shock. I adjusted my lens and started shooting pictures. The big rattler remained tightly coiled with its head pressed flat to its body. The rattle was held erect and incessantly buzzed during the entire course of the encounter.
After several shots, the adrenaline rush began to fade and I got a feel for how the snake was going to behave. I decided I needed to get an estimate of the snake’s size so that I could add it to my records. I never leave home without my trusty snake hook, so I grabbed it out of the truck and gently prodded the rattling snake. It obliged by moving in the opposite direction of the poke, allowing me to then manipulate it into an outstretched position. Although the snake continued to rattle, it tolerated my gentle prodding until I could get a chance to get a reasonable estimate on length. My hook is 3.5 feet in length. Laid beside the snake, there was easily at least one more foot of snake beyond my hook, placing the snake somewhere in the 4 to 5 foot range. The girth diameter of the snake at its middle was about 3.5 inches. With no appropriate equipment for accurately sexing the snake, and no one with me to help either, I am going out on a limb to say that based on sheer size and tail length, this was probably a male snake and by the looks of things, had probably been around for several years. Males typically are larger and heavier bodied than females but it takes several years for a snake to achieve the size of this one, particularly in the wild.
Using my hook, I once again re-positioned the snake so that I could get some additional photos. At no time did this snake ever threaten to strike or go into a strike position. All it did was rattle and try it’s best to be as still as possible, fully demonstrating that these snakes are not mean or aggressive, but rather are timid, afraid, and just want to be left alone so they can live and perform their ecological function. That is not to say that timber rattlesnakes should not be respected. They are highly venomous and can be deadly and that fact alone should encourage people to be extremely cautious around them, but it should not be a reason to senselessly kill them. Timber rattlesnakes control large rodent populations which have been shown by scientific studies to reduce tick and flea populations. Their ecological role is very important and more often than not we allow our human fears and prejudices to defy common sense and logic, usually to the detriment of these marvelous reptiles. There are so many other thoughts I would like to share on the subject but there just simply aren’t enough pages in the Mountain Breeze to do that.
So, you never know what might be lying around the bend. It may be a once in a lifetime experience. How great is it when you one adventure turns into something that you weren’t expecting? Get out there and explore the outdoors. The more you know about the great outdoors, the more you will care about protecting the wild places of our planet. To read more about this adventure you can visit my blog at http://clintcalhounadventures.blogspot.com. Until next time!
Clint Calhoun is a naturalist and biologist and has worked in Hickory Nut Gorge for over 20 years. He is currently the Environmental Management Officer for the Town of Lake Lure.