The Copperheads — Fight or Flight? Maybe Fright?

“We are the Copperheads — the mighty, mighty Copperheads. Everywhere we go, people wanna know, so we tell them.”

This chant is still the battle cry for Marlinton Middle School today as it was at my ole stompin’ grounds in the 1970s. Regardless, I am not a fan of snakes! Without a doubt, those copperheads are “mighty,” but the chants remind me of a not so pleasant day at Watoga State Park.

Copperheads mostly lie still, oftentimes in a curled or twisted position. The northern copperhead is a venomous pit viper subspecies in the eastern U.S. | 📸: U.S. Centers for Disease Control
Copperheads mostly lie still, oftentimes in a curled or twisted position. The northern copperhead is a venomous pit viper subspecies in the eastern U.S. | 📸: U.S. Centers for Disease Control

Nonetheless, it did not help my fear of snakes that my junior high school’s logo and cheers revolved around the copperhead snake. During this era, everyone is proud (except me and maybe a few others who wouldn’t admit it) that “we are the Copperheads.”

“The fight or flight response, or stress response, is triggered by a release of hormones either prompting us to stay and fight or run away and flee.”

Freeze! It’s the Mighty, Mighty Copperheads

Just a quick note about the copperhead snake and I’ll get right back to that scary encounter with one at West Virginia’s largest state park.

Found in the eastern U.S., the northern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen) is a venomous pit viper subspecies. The copperhead’s average length is between two and three feet, and its diet consists of rodents, insects, small birds, and amphibians. In the Mountain State, the copperhead’s home is in wooded and rocky areas, and it does not actively seek human contact. Copperheads often lie still (like “freezing”), but will strike if people unknowingly step near them or on them (like I almost did).

The Trouble Writing About Copperheads

Since some experts suggest that writing about your fears helps allay them, this is my feeble attempt at accomplishing that. However, my previous attempt writing about black snakes didn’t cure me. I double-checked; yep, still scared.

In particular, I think that almost being stricken at such a young age by a copperhead may have been the traumatizing event that triggered this deep-seated lifelong fear. And, I am not so sure that I would be writing this story if not for my mom.

Until now, I have never written about this topic. I could blame writer’s block (such an easy excuse to avoid the real reason), but that’s not really the case. So, in essence, here’s my best recollection about that twisted copperhead.

The Jumpman Pose Before Michael Jordan

Ronnie and I are tossing a baseball in the front yard of the conservation officer’s residence, near the north entrance to the park. This cabin is nestled next to a narrow mountain stream where we often caught tad poles, minnows and frogs. Specifically, we are enjoying the chance to run carefree and relieve some of that winter’s cabin fever.

In the meantime, mom is sitting in the brown wooden rocker on the front porch. All of a sudden, mom instinctively spots a copperhead and issues a warning cry that a viper is about to strike me!

“Johnny, watch out. There’s a copperhead! Run!”

Rather than doing what mom instructs, I instead look down and see what lurks below. And, somehow, someway, I leap up and outward.

When I first saw the Michael Jordan Jumpman logo for Nike decades later, it conjured up images of me leaping skyward over the dreaded copperhead. All right, maybe that was more related to my basketball days as a Marlinton Copperhead!

Photo Courtesy of @AFT-West Virginia
This is where the Copperheads live. Marlinton Middle School students gather in the gym below the viper logo. | 📸: @AFT-West Virginia

On the other hand, mom’s well-timed alert about the copperhead snake may have not only saved my life, but it also taught me to pay closer attention to my surroundings – beneath, above, beside, in front of, and behind, and above.

At least, that is how I like to recall that warm spring day in the late 1960s. Years later, Ronnie would still tease me by comparing my screams that day to the wheel screech of a Shay No. 5 making a sharp turn on the downward descent from Bald Knob at Cass Scenic Railroad State Park.

On the positive side and fortunately for me, I did not feel the viper’s sting that day and, needless to say, I avoid ALL snakes at ALL costs. Oh, I said that already, didn’t I?

It’s Your Choice — Fight or Flight the Coopperheads?

What do you do when you see a copperhead snake? Run like the wind? Stand your ground and fight?

While trying to write about this fear of snakes (Ophidiophobia or ophiophobia), I came across what happens to your body during a stressful situation — be it your memorable encounter with a coiled and ready-to-strike copperhead snake at Watoga, a road rage incident about to intensify during your morning rush hour commute or a vicious dog ready to pounce during your peaceful morning stroll.

Regardless of the specifics of each encounter, you now must decide: fight or flight.

“The fight or flight response, or stress response, is triggered by a release of hormones either prompting us to stay and fight or run away and flee,” explains psychologist Carolyn Fisher, PhD. “During the response, all bodily systems are working to keep us alive in what we’ve perceived as a dangerous situation.”

What Happens to You Physically?

According to The Cleveland Clinic, during the stress response, the following may occur:

  • Your heart beats faster and your blood pressure goes up.
  • Your pupils dilate.
  • You have a muted response to pain.
  • Your skin is flushed or pale.
  • You may lose control of your bladder.
  • You are more observant of your surrounding and your senses kick into high gear.
  • Stress hormones flow throughout your body, causing trembling or twitching.
  • Your memories can be affected – not recalling details accurately or even blacking out vivid memories.

And If You Smell Cucumbers . . .

While some of my vivid copperhead snake memories may be difficult to remember in 2020, I do recall with specificity the sage advice my mom repeatedly imparted upon me when venturing into the expanse of Watoga’s 10,000 acres of pristine beauty.

“Johnny, if  you smell cucumbers, it means there is a copperhead nearby, and you need to run!” And run I do – even to this day!

P.S. While I do have an intense fear of all snakes, it never has and never will stop me from enjoying my favorite place in the World — Watoga State Park!

"We are the Copperheads -- the mighty, mighty Copperheads" This copperhead twists its way around and around a basketball. | 📸: @Marlinton Middle School Facebook Page, 01.27.2019
“We are the Copperheads — the mighty, mighty Copperheads.” This copperhead twists its way around and around a basketball. | 📸: @Marlinton Middle School Facebook Page, 01.27.2019

About the Author

John C. Dean is a 1984 graduate of West Virginia University, BSJ. He lived at Watoga State Park until his father, Vernon, retired after 43 years. In the mid-1970s, he was a forward on the Marlinton Junior High School Copperheads team.

Since 2001, John has been an editor at Puritas Springs Software, a legal software development company in Hinckley, Ohio. Previously, he was a senior legal editor for Squire Patton Boggs, a Cleveland, Ohio international law firm from 1989-2001. Additionally, he began his writing career as a reporter for The Register-Herald in Beckley, West Virginia in the mid-1980s. You can contact John at jcamerondean@gmail.com with your fight or flight stories about the mighty, mighty copperheads.

Opening a Can of Black Snakes at Watoga — Hiss!

You may be familiar with the idiom “opening a can of worms,” but what about “opening a can of black snakes”?

Profile of the head of a black snake, Durham County, North Carolina. | 📸: Patrick Coin
Profile of the head of a black snake, Durham County, North Carolina. | 📸: Patrick Coin

In fact, this is the story about a can of black snakes rearing their heads and hissing!

For reptile lovers, copperheads, rattlesnakes and black snakes can be found at Watoga State Park. However, this post concentrates on just one species: the seemingly harmless black snake — the Northern black racer: (Coluber c. constrictor).

“This snake is slender, glossy black in color and may attain a length of six feet. The dorsal scales are smooth and the chin and throat are white. Black Racers occur throughout the state in moist woodlands and fields, where they feed on birds and mammals, as well as amphibians and reptiles. Approximately 25 off-white, elliptical eggs are deposited in loose soil or sawdust piles. Hatchlings have 30 or more reddish brown blotches on a gray background. The banded juvenile pattern slowly disappears as the snake grows larger, and the snake is completely black by the time it reaches 30 inches in length.”

Snakes of West Virginia,” published by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Section.

Ophidiophobia

So, do snakes scare you too?

Before opening that can of black snakes, let me confess that snakes scare me! All snakes. This phobia is known as Ophidiophobia, or ophiophobia. Furthermore, I don’t care if they are venomous or not. For example, just researching and reading a blog post about snakes at West Virginia‘s largest state park creeps me out. Maybe you have nightmares about these reptilians too. In that regard, a future blog will delve into the vivid details of how I became so terrified of snakes.

Let’s Talk About This Can of Black Snakes

Now that you know one of my greatest fears in life, let’s begin to open (ever so carefully) that can of black snakes.

The year: 1963. The place: Near Beaver Creek Campground. The participants: My brother, Gilbert, my sister, Della, and my mom. Gilbert is 9. Della is almost a teenager. Mom is pregnant with my youngest sister, Vicki Lynn.

However, I am just a toddler in the early 60s, Freckles, our pet deer has yet to be rescued by my dad, and the black bear with Paul McCartney eyes has yet to be seen near Calvin Price State Forest.

To begin with, my brother Gilbert is behind the adventurous and daring display that leads to those snakes becoming the topic of Dean conversations for decades to come. When snowstorms knock out our electricity for days on end at the park, we sometimes tell ghost stories and, of course, this snake story too, as we sit huddled together with kerosene lanterns casting an eerie glow about the living room at Watoga.

I recall mom (1921-1998) telling us about Gilbert’s antics, but I wanted to hear Gilbert’s and Della’s versions of those events once more.

The Black Snakes are Hissing

“C’mon mom, I wanna show you something,” Gilbert says.

Even though mom is tired after a day of working in the fields at my grandparents’ 211-acre farm that borders Watoga, she follows Gib that hot summer day at the park. Della, 12, walks beside mom.

At 9, Gib is excited to reveal his “surprise” to Mom. As with most Deans, adventures at Watoga oftentimes lead to interesting and mischievous adventures and practical jokes.

The trio walk to the trash cans situated between our home and the brown wooden sided maintenance garage near the campground.

“Look, Mom, look what I found!” Gilbert excitedly says. “Look inside the garbage can.”

Opening the shiny metal lid, Mom sees about 20 black snakes of various sizes and shapes encircling the bottom of the 30-gallon trash container trying to slither their way to the top of the can.

“The black snakes are all curled up. They are trying to climb up the side of the garbage can. Their heads rear, their mouths open, and they hiss loudly.”

— Della Dean Johnson

A New Version of Afternoon Sickness

After peering inside the trash receptacle, Mom lets out a scream that can be heard as far away as Kennison Mountain, about 16 miles from the park.

Obviously, Mom is not a fan of snakes either.

“Git rid of those snakes right now, right away,” she sternly tells Gib. Della remembers that Mom got sick after seeing the snakes, and it is not your typical morning sickness either. So, instead, a new version of afternoon sickness is unleashed that day.

A Few Slithery Details

A curling black snake on a fall day at Cacapon State Park, Berkeley Springs, West Viriginia. | 📸: @clark.stan
A curling black snake on a fall day at Cacapon State Park, Berkeley Springs, West Viriginia. | 📸: @clark.stan

So, just how do those reptiles get in the trash can?

Gib discovers a nest of the black snakes in a couple piles of saw dust between our home and the nearby maintenance garage about 200 yards from the campground.

“I find quite a number of them,” Gib recalls. “These are not baby snakes either. They range in size from about 2 or 3 feet to about 5 feet. Because I didn’t have a stick or anything to catch them with, I grab them with my hands; I put two fingers at the base of the snake’s neck to where it cannot bite me. I didn’t get bit once. They did climb up my arm and squeeze it though.”

I wanted to know if Vicki also had a fear of snakes. She says emphatically: “I hate them!”

Needless to say, I am leery of opening any garbage can lids.

In conclusion, I like a good laugh or two or enjoy pulling a prank too — just none involving black snakes, copperheads or rattlers. To put it another way, and as my mom screamed that day, “Git rid of those snakes right now, right away!”

About the Author

John C. Dean is a graduate of West Virginia University, 1984, BSJ. For 16 years, he lived at Watoga State Park until his father, Vernon, retired after 43 years. Since 2001, John has been an editor at Puritas Springs Software, a legal software development company in Hinckley, Ohio. From 1989-2001, he was a senior legal editor for Squire Patton Boggs, a Cleveland, Ohio international law firm. Additionally, he was a reporter for The Register-Herald in Beckley, West Virginia in the mid-1980s. You can email John details of your encounters with black snakes or any other reptiles at Watoga at jcamerondean@gmail.com.