Well wouldn’t you know it, I just wrote an article about dangerous animals two days ago (about moose), and today I encountered another deadly animal which I have not written about yet, even though today was only one of many encounters I have had with rattlesnakes. I have never been bitten by a rattlesnake, but I have had some pretty close calls, and today it was close enough to startle me.
I decided to ride my bike all the way around Chatfield Reservoir today to the farthest extent that the bike trail reached, which was the rail road tracks near Santa Fe Drive. I don’t know how many miles it was, but by the time I got there I was hot and thought a swim in the lake would be a nice way to cool off. I was along the base of the massive rock-covered dam, and I knew there was a trail somewhere that led to the lake, which was at least a half mile away. I started back on the paved bike trail I was on until I found what looked like a good dirt trail through the grass and tree-covered area towards the lake.
I got off my bike and started walking along the trail, pushing my bike next to me. I had never been to that area of Chatfield State Park before, and it was truly wild and rugged, with thick forests of cottonwood trees mixed with tall prairie grass and open areas of parched dirt and cactus. I certainly wasn’t properly dressed for walking through that type of environment; I was wearing tennis shoes and bike shorts, no protection at all on my legs. I had come across rattlesnakes in that park before, so at least I was aware and vigilant.
After I walked about 400 yards I came to a place where the trees cleared, there was tall grass on the left of me, and the medicine-ball-sized boulders on my right, and suddenly I heard the buzz of a rattlesnake’s tail. I stopped immediately and looked for the snake, and then I saw him just to my right about three feet away, with my bike between us. I quickly took a few steps forward to get away from him, and I thought about getting my phone out to take a picture, but it was in the saddle bags on my bike, and I decided to just keep going and leave the snake alone, which is what I wish everyone would do.
While rattlesnakes can kill you, it is rare. Each year in the United States about 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes, and only about 1% of them die. However that doesn’t mean you should ignore the threat, and you should always be aware of snakes when you are out in the wild. I’ll just say this; all snakes provide a service to the overall ecosystem, so don’t kill a snake just because it’s a snake, just leave it alone and go on your way, especially if it is a rattlesnake, you don’t want to mess with them.
While you should leave all snakes alone, it is helpful to know what kind of snake it is that bites you should that happen. The easiest way to determine if a snake is venomous is to look at its head; a venomous snake will have a clearly triangular head; this is true of rattlesnakes, cotton mouths, copper heads. These snakes will also have a large, heavy body, as they don’t chase their prey. By nature their body type is built for them to hide in wait to capture their prey, sometimes waiting for hours or even a day in one place. Snakes are not out to bite humans, we are not part of their diet, but they will strike us when threatened or cornered.
Here are some interesting facts about rattlesnakes:
- A young rattlesnake may not even have a rattle yet on its tail, yet its venom is more potent than a mature rattlesnake.
- A rattlesnake will only eject venom one third of the time in a defensive strike. The snake needs its venom for its prey.
- If a rattlesnake has recently been in the water, its rattle will not emit any sound.
- Rattles frequently fall off of rattlesnakes, so you can’t always count on that warning signal.
- A rattlesnake can strike from a distance up to one half of its body length, which here in Colorado the average rattlesnake is 3 feet long.
- A rattlesnake does not need to be in a coiled position to strike.
- A rattlesnake will not always shake its rattle prior to a strike. The snake does not want a confrontation, and will sometimes strike without rattling.
Precautions to take when in rattlesnake country:
- Wear over-the-ankle or calf high boots and loose fitting long pants or chaps, which I was not doing today, although I didn’t expect to be in snake country.
- Do not step or put your hands where you cannot see. Don’t place your hands on unseen ledges or into animal holes.
- Don’t turn rocks or boards over with bare hands, use a tool or tree branch.
- Avoid wandering around in the dark as rattlesnakes become more active at dusk and dark in the summer time.
- Step on top of logs and rocks, never over them, and be especially careful when climbing rocks.
- Avoid walking through dense brush or willow thickets. If you must, use a long stick or branch to beat the brush before you as you go.
- Remember that the snake doesn’t want anything to do with you either, he is not out to get you.
- Always keep tent doors zipped up, all day and all night.
- Check your sleeping bag before climbing in at night, you don’t want to find an unpleasant surprise as you slink into your bag.
What to do in the event of a snake bite:
- Try to remain calm and inactive.
- Get to a hospital or doctor as soon as possible (have someone else drive).
- Loosen or remove any restrictive clothing or jewelry (e.g. shoes, rings, watch) from the area near the bite.
- Watch the victim for signs of shock. Treat if necessary by lying flat and cover with warm clothes or blanket.
- Identify or photograph the snake only if it remains visible from a safe distance.
What not to do:
- Don’t make incisions over the snakebite.
- Don’t constrict the flow of blood.
- Don’t immerse a limb in ice water.
- Don’t elevate the bitten area, this will increase the flow of venom to other tissues.
- Don’t use your mouth to extract venom. Sucking out the venom is no longer a recommended practice, and wastes valuable time. The important thing is to get to a hospital as quickly as possible.
- Don’t run or carry unnecessary items as you go for help, to avoid elevating your pulse rate.
- Don’t try to catch or kill the snake.
- Don’t administer any pain medications or antihistamines, unless instructed by a doctor or EMT.
Though uncommon given the amount of people who venture into snake country, rattlesnake bites do occur. The first thing to do if bitten is to stay calm. Generally, the most serious effect of a rattlesnake bite to an adult is local tissue damage, which needs to be treated. Children, because they are smaller, are in more danger if they are bitten. Get to a doctor as soon as possible, but stay calm. Frenetic, high-speed driving places the victim at greater risk of an accident and increased heart rate. Remember, about one-third of all rattlesnake bites are “dry” bites, where no venom has been injected.
While I am usually well aware and well prepared, today I wasn’t so well prepared, and luckily nothing bad came from it. I didn’t expect that I would be walking through terrain like that today, but as with all situations, awareness is the key, and at least I was aware today. In fact I kind of expected that I would come across a rattlesnake, so it really wasn’t a big deal when it happened. It’s those times when it is a surprise that are more memorable than what happened today.