I’m now at the age where “He lived a full life!” will roll glibly from the lips of my survivors, and as my shade ascends, descends or simply hangs in the viewing room like a bad smell, it won’t really have reason to protest.  Such high philosophy is noticeably absent when incidents occur on this side of the Great Divide such as the one on our hike on Friday.

We were walking a section of the Pacific Crest Trail in what is now the Soda Mountain Wilderness (thank you, Bill Clinton, for your 9th-inning National Monument designations) just southeast of Ashland that we’ve been on many times.  It winds through mature second-growth forest, breaking out into slide areas that afford gorgeous views, either west towards Ashland and Siskiyou Pass, or southeast to Mt. Shasta.

Due to heavy winter snows and below-normal temperatures throughout the spring (sound familiar?), nature is somewhat behind schedule, and we’ve been seeing wildflowers on our hikes that are usually burnt out and gone by the time we get here, and things everywhere are lush and green instead of the more accustomed brown and sere, and we were literally reveling in every step.

Until this one step.  The one with my right foot as I was leading us on the trail through moderate underbrush.  About a quarter-mile before, we’d flushed a pair of grouse, and been startled at the loud, low vibration of their wingbeat, so we were on alert as we proceeded the rest of the way through the meadow.

So when I heard a vibration and scuffle on that fateful footfall*, I wondered for a second if I’d disturbed a grousing grouse*.  Two more strides, and I heard Mrs. Perils’ maidenly exclamation…”holy fucking shit!“, I believe it was…as she leapt up onto a log well off the trail.  What she had seen was a western diamondback rattlesnake, about 1 1/2″ to 2″ in diameter and at least 4 feet long, just to the right of the trail where I had stepped.

We were both pretty shaken, and as we proceeded each ensuing step was as fearful as they had been euphoric before. We froze at every rustle in the undergrowth.  As I had on countless other hikes, I turned to Mrs. Perils and assured her, “It is only the wind, Gretel!”

We tried to remember what the current procedures were for dealing with a snake bite.  Back in the 70s, we’d been sold snakebite kits that had razor blades and suction devices for draining venom; we knew that this treatment had been discredited, but were fuzzy about current best practices.  We got to a clearing with a sumptuous view of Mt. Shasta, but our enjoyment was muted.  We had a cell phone signal, so we made our one Lifeline call to a client of mine whom I knew liked to search the internet, and he pretty much confirmed what we thought we had remembered: immobilize the limb, keep the bite below your heart, no tourniquet, etc.  Oh, and call 911.

Our hike was not on a loop trail, it was an out-and-back, so we would have to walk past that spot again on the way back to the car, which was 3 - 4 miles beyond it.  Rescue would have been a major undertaking.  (did I really say “undertaking”?).  We walked on about another mile or so, hoping that, given time, our reptilian interlocutor would decide to move to a different snack bar.  Ultimately, though, we had to turn around and head back. We found a couple of sticks to brandish, and walked warily.  We didn’t know exactly where the encounter had taken place, but knew the general vicinity, and tapped our sticks ahead like blind people as we walked through.

Once we knew for certain we were past the spot, we built up an absurd sense of euphoria the rest of the way, as if we had a map that showed for certain we’d passed the lair of the only dragon in the forest.

Here are some photos to show why a person would undertake (there it is again) a stroll into the forest (click image to enlarge):

More photos in a gallery here.

* I know I can write stuff like this because I’ve read some Barth recently


  1. Yikes! Close encounters are always so good for doing a quick review of emergency procedures. Glad this encounter provided the necessary prompt, and nothing more. Sure is beautiful there, even with a rattler hiding somewhere in the brush.

  2. roger:

    wow! i have come upon rattlesnakes while hiking, but only in rather open areas. and i have never encountered one coiled and hissing and rattling. was this one threatening, other than just existing? beauty has hidden (or not) perils.

  3. scary stuff. how in the hell does one rely on a 911 response out where you were? you don’t! Whomever is bitten should ride piggy back if at all possible and hike the hell out of there as fast as one can manage.

    could one make a paste out of -ack-something- to help draw out the venom? Hmmm…next time I hike I should go armed with this information. The hike did seem worth the danger…as they usually are.

    Your wife swears like a sailor, sir. ;-)

  4. Phil:

    This was actually my second close encounter with a rattler. The first was when I was hiking solo over in Leavenworth. A couple descending the trail told me they’d seen a rattler on the trail, but had driven it away with rocks, etc, so I hiked on heartily. My first warning on this one was a hissing by my right ear, as I passed the bugger perched on a rock. The conventional wisdom is to freeze, but mine was to run like hell. I photographed him from what I thought was a small distance, but the photo itself discloses that I was well up the trail.

    Roger - I believe that any rattling is threatening, though by Betsy’s observation, he wasn’t coiled to strike. And, no, I don’t deny him his right to be there. I was surprised that this occurred in rather heavy undergrowth rather than on some sunny scarp.

    Tara - we had discussed a strategy whereby the lighter of us went first, so the meatier could carry the victim. Though even the untutored eye would affirm Mrs. Perils to be the lighter by several stone, it was I who preceded her into the breach.

  5. beatriz:

    It was bigger than that, like about the size of my wrist. It wasn’t in a piled up coil, Roger, but rather lying on a rock in a big S-curve. I bet it was warming itself. The image of it is emblazoned in my visual memory. However, we both agreed we wished there had been an opportunity to photograph the creature; it was astounding. I could hear Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, exclaiming,”Crikey! Look at ‘er, she’s a beauty! All gravid and full of eggs!”
    Man. I kept working through scenarios and actions for quite a while.

  6. Yes, a photograph would have been great, but sometimes you just have to get the heck out of there and forgo the artful moment! You remember what happened to Steve Irwin? One too many close encounters with wild beauty.

  7. kathy rogers:

    That’s right pretty.

    Too bad about the big damned rattler. If it’s any consolation, I’m sure you disturbed his/her outing as well.

  8. Phil:

    Kathy, I believe you’re right, he probably thinks he stumbled on an Interstate. Such empathy - has your zoo work engendered Stockholm syndrome? ;-)

  9. Lovely writing, Phil. You hooked me with fateful footfall and you took me right under with the grousing grouse. I was also glad to read of your noisemaking on the return trip (works for skunks when walking a dog at night too).


  10. The critter I always worried most about when we were doing a lot of mountain hiking was the two-legged criminal or unhinged variety (we did have one encounter with one once deep in a Western Carolina forest). I was naively friendly to a fellow hiker, but ta da Buck to the rescue as always, so there was only a flash of teeth and a hint of knife, nothing more and I learned my lesson about talking to strangers. Next on the list are snakes and wild hogs.

    Great story, and I sure am glad you both lived to tell about it and don’t have any bite scar souvenirs. Gorgeous countryside.

  11. Laura C.:

    Hey Phil. I forgot to tell you and Betsy that I once brought in a rattlesnake skin to present as a Show N’ Tell when I was in elementary school. My uncle had found a rattler in his garden in Cocoa Beach, Florida, and lanced it with his weeder, so the skin had a gaping hole in it, but was otherwise intact. Andi t provoked enough interest among my classmates to make it, in the words of Ed Sullivan, a really big shoe….:)
    Glad you stayed safe. Great pix!

  12. How did I miss this for a month?! I have never encountered rattlesnakes on walks and hope I never do. But glad to know what to do if someone is bitten. I just have to remember to carry my cell phone at all times and stay near a tower.

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