Saturday, July 2, 2011

Nothing But Water and Woods?

Today Jess and I hiked Big Frog Mountain in Polk County, Tennessee.  I was anxious for this trip as I knew it was black bear country (and boar country).  I haven't seen a black bear in a few years, the last two I saw were in Glacier National (Montana) and the only wild bear I have seen in Tennessee was ages ago (15 years?) and the bear was quite far from me.  My aspirations, today, were to see a black bear.

A view from Big Frog, by Nicotye
Jess and I left around 6 a.m. and hit the trail around 8.  Not quite 2 miles into the 10-mile-round-trip I hear something "hear us".  Normally, the most noisy creature in the woods is a squirrel.  I swear, I have watched a large buck run through the woods and make less noise than a squirrel rooting around for nuts.  Whatever heard us, however, wasn't a squirrel.

It was big.

It huffed... not a deer huff, but deeper.

My heart started racing.  I started fumbling, hands over my shoulders, with the top of my pack to get my camera.  It was still making noise and was in a thicket not 30 feet from us.  I told Jess, "my heart is pounding!"

As soon as I spoke, even though it was a low tone, the animal started to run.  Instinctively I listened for the direction it was running and realized almost instantly it was running away!  The trail went around a bend immediately in front of us and I took two huge strides - forgetting the camera - and rounded the corner just in time to see it.

Maybe 50 feet now to my left a large (well, it would have come to my waist, so large to me!) bear was high-tailing it down the mountain.  I watched him bound for about 10 strides and one jump before he was in underbrush too thick to see him.  I got a great look at him (granted, from behind).  His ears were, for the record, freaking adorable.

After my missed photo op of a bear's bum, I opted to strap my trekking poles to my pack and carry my camera.  Now, you know as well as I do, this is a big, fat JINX.  It worked flawlessly, too... at least against bear.

About 4 miles later the terrain had shifted slightly and I told Jess, "keep your eyes open, this is pristine rattler country."  Less than 40 steps later, I let out a loud, startled "WHOA!"

Jess quickly caught up.  "Mom? What is it?"

I pointed.

Six feet in front of us, what in my wonder-filled eyes did I see?

A HUGE effing rattler, about to see ME.

Sorry for the lamer poetry there, but I was startled.  Just last week I found a rattler, but there was one difference:  I had MEANT to find that one.  This one was being totally un-timber-like and laying, literally down the center of our 12" path.  He was large, too.   Every bit of 4-feet long and as big around as my fist.  No sooner had Jess let out a gasp of wonder (I hadn't let her see last week's specimen), the snake realized we were there.  It went into a mildly defensive "S", staring us down.  It didn't "RATTLE" but it 'buzzed' at us.  Not a "ch-ch-ch-chhhh" but a "zzzzzzz".

Timber Rattlesnake, photo by Nicotye
"Jess, back up a couple steps," I whispered. She immediately complied, as did I.

No sooner had she and I backed up, it laid it's head back down and started to slowly move off the trail.  There was one problem.  It moved off the trail by, at most, 2-feet... and it was parallel with the trail.  I may have cussed a bit.  Making up my mind that it had moved for a reason (to be out of our way), I told Jess to get behind me and, never turning my front or taking my eyes from the snake, we eased past it.  As soon as we were clear I told her to step it up and we walked a little faster for about 15 feet.  I cussed a little more and thanked all that was green and good that I hadn't brought my dog, LeiLui.  On the way to a destination, Lui is always out front; there's no doubt in mind she would have been bit and killed.  After that, I'll admit, I went a little paranoid.  I'd go so slow I was almost in reverse any time that I couldn't see the trail (it was overgrown in spots).

Jess asked, "What's your deal, mom?"

I explained to her over the next quarter that timbers were the bane of the pioneers.  They aren't aggressive by nature, but their venom packs a punch.  If you startled an adult, there's a 20% chance that, when they bite, they won't inject you with venom.  But 20% isn't odds that are high enough to bank on.  Timber's venom is highly toxic and deaths have been recorded.  Moreover, survival rates decrease based on two things:  amount of injected venom (only the snake knows, initially) and length of time before treatment.  I then asked her how, if I got bit, she was going to haul me off the mountain and get to a medical facility in a couple hours when it had taken us 4 hours to get that far, not including the 45 minute drive to the nearest city.

Her reply?

"Well, if you get near it, you'll hear it rattle first."  Comforting?  Not really.  I explained that timbers aren't actually known for their over-use of their rattle.  They rely on camouflage far more than their rattles.

"Then I'd leave you."  Less comforting.

"You'd leave me?!" I exclaimed.

"Well, I'd leave you and my pack and run down till I got cell signal and then call 911 and give them your GPS coordinates to fly in and get you."

It was a good thing I never got bit.  I checked on the way back and we didn't get signal once on the trail and, once back on the road, we didn't get signal until 35 miles later.

We hiked the rest of the trip, and the trip back in peace.  I did have to make a quick trek about .75 miles back in to find one of Jess's trekking poles that a tree had pick-pocketed (which, of course, we didn't figure out until we got to the trailhead).  Luckily, I was pack-free so I walked at a good 3.5 mile pace to her pole and, literally, jogged back.  Nothing like adding an extra mile-and-a-half mallwalker/jog to the end of your lengthy, 3000-foot-vertical-variance hike!

15 rattles on this timber!  (Nic Pic)
In all, totally exciting trip and a magnificent picture to boot.

Just in case you were wondering, the timber had 15 'rattles'... which does not indicate he was 15 years old (snake shed more than once a year).

As always, learn about the areas your hiking in... temperatures, elevation variances, terrain, and FAUNA.  Study the facts that help you to identify signs, tracks, scat, and behaviors.  In the end, seeing wildlife in the wild... is the most amazing thing you can do.

As always: GET OUT AND PLAY!

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