Let’s Talk Snakes

Let’s Talk Snakes

Brian Hirt, one of Watoga’s volunteer trail workers had already put a full morning’s work into the Arboretum on Sunday, May 19. Then he decided to finish out the day by continuing his trail marking project on the Allegheny Trail. He had marked several miles of trail when he ran out of trail markers. So he turned around and started back to his car deciding to clear as much debris off of the trail as possible on his return trip.

At one point he reached down, grabbing a large branch, and started to give it a tug when he heard the distinctive and unmistakable sound of a rattlesnake that was hiding under the branch. The rattler did not strike at Brian, nor did Brian provoke the snake, he just walked away. This story has a good ending for both man and snake because Brian did the proper thing when encountering a venomous snake

Copperhead snake
Copperhead Snake Agkistrodon contortrix

We humans seem hard-wired to react to snakes and even something that merely resembles a snake. I remember reading an article in a science magazine about a controlled study in which the subjects were exposed to a series of images on a screen, while an fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) was measuring their brain activity based on blood flow. When body patterns of venomous snakes were shown there was increased blood flow to the amygdala initiating the Fight or Flight Response.

I can relate to this when I remember being startled enough to jump back recently by nothing more than a long, curving section of grapevine lying across the trail. I had reacted physically before my conscious mind confirmed that it was not a snake.

Roy Moose Snakes of West Virginia

Those of you who have attended Roy Moose’s snake program at the Cranberry Mountain Nature Center know that Roy’s level of engagement with the audience is exceptional. He captures the complete attention of adults and children alike. It is somewhat humorous to watch Roy hold forth a garter snake to youngsters who lean forward to accept the snake as the parents simultaneously lean back away from the snake.

Roy Moose Snakes of West Virginia at Cranberry Mountain Nature Center

Roy’s ever-popular Snakes of West Virginia reveals many facts and misconceptions about the two poisonous snakes found in this region; copperheads and timber rattlesnakes. Roy has been bitten by both species of snake which are pit-vipers. He said that the hand that was bitten swelled up over five times the size of his other hand. And he added that if you are bitten by a poisonous snake you will know it immediately. The pain is horrendous.

He stressed that neither poisonous snake is aggressive; both are exceedingly shy by nature and most people who are bitten were attempting to kill the snake. The best thing to do when you encounter a copperhead or rattlesnake is just to walk away. The strike zone from a coiled position is only half the length of the body. And they can only cover ground at a maximum of five miles per hour so most people could easily outrun a rattler or copperhead.

According to the WVDNR publication Snakes of West Virginia, no one has been killed by a copperhead bite in West Virginia for over 30 years. As for fatalities from rattlesnake bites, from 1969 through 1992 only four people were killed by rattlesnake bites in our state. During the same time period over 15 times more fatalities occurred from bee stings, cows and horses.

Dr. Jennifer Shreves, an emergency room doctor, at the Pocahontas Memorial Hospital, assured me that the facility has a protocol in place for snake bites and anti-venom on hand.

Dr. Shreves emphasized that victims should not bring in the offending snake. Their treatment will be based upon evaluation once they have arrived at the emergency room. This will include a blood test for toxins as the venom from both species of snake are hemotoxins as opposed to neurotoxins.

I asked Dr. Shreves about hikers and trail workers who may be some distance from help. If the victim is alone they should walk slowly back to the nearest help, trying not to get their heart beating any faster than necessary. If the victim has a car nearby they should drive only as far as necessary to get help. If in the company of other people it would be ideal to carry him or her out, however, given the type of terrain in our area that would be extremely difficult at best.

As one ER doctor with experience in treating snakebites puts it, “The most important first aid equipment for a venomous snake bite is a set of car keys.”

As for the toxin, over half of the bites are “dry” bites, meaning that the venom sac is empty. After a copperhead or rattlesnake bites its prey it takes approximately a month to replenish the supply of the toxin. As a side note, if you are bitten you better have good health care insurance; the average cost of an anti-venom treatment is $30,000. It is always better to exhibit smart behavior around snakes than getting treated for a bite.

It wasn’t that awfully long ago that the universal method of treating a bite from a poisonous snake was to simply cut a large X across the wound and suck the venom out, then spitting it on the ground.

With that in mind, I beg your patience in allowing me to share with you a once common tale told around campfires. And in the sort of bars that have singing plastic bass mounted on the wall. And, generally by men.

Humorous Anecdote

As the story goes two friends, Charley and Sam were hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail in the Smokies when Charley took off his pack and headed off into the woods telling Sam he had to go to the bathroom. Charley had just dropped trow and sat down on a log when he felt an excruciating pain that made him howl in agony. Sam yelled, “You OK Charley?” Charley replied, “I’ve been snake bit.”

When Sam got to Charley he asked him where he was bitten; Charley told him that a rattlesnake had bitten him squarely on his derriere. (please note that he actually used another less delicate word to describe that particular area of his anatomy). Charley instructed Sam to run to the little town they hiked through less than a mile back the trail and find a doctor. When Sam got to the town he managed to find a small doctor’s office manned by an elderly doctor. Sam told the doctor that his buddy had been bitten by a rattlesnake about a mile down the trail.

The doctor said, “Where was your friend bitten?” Sam told him the bite was right on his behind. (Sam also used an entirely different word in describing the exact location of the injury). The Doc replied, “Listen, you have to run back as fast as you can and suck all of the venom out of that wound if you want to save your buddy.”

Sam departed immediately and headed back at a fast run. Upon his arrival, Charley was lying upon the ground on his side. In a desperate voice inquired, “What did the doctor say?” To which Sam replied, “He said you’re gonna die.”

With that, I leave you with one more very important thing to do if you see a timber rattler. Please do not harm it. Rather, report it on the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources Rattle Snake Report site. Your participation in this survey will help DNR in managing the timber rattlesnake in the Mountain State.

Happy Hiking,

Ken Springer

1. A special thanks to Dr. Jennifer Shreves and Dr. Michael Jarosick, both ER docs who generously shared information on current treatment modalities for venomous snake bites.

2. Photo of timber rattlesnake courtesy of Rosanna Springston. U.S. Forest Service.

3. Photo of Roy Moose frighteningly close to a rattlesnake, courtesy of me from a safe distance using a telephoto lens.

Arrowheads at Watoga

Arrowheads at Watoga

Background

Consider the trails currently existing in Watoga State Park.  Some of these are assumed from existing pioneer trails. And those early but historical trails may have been appropriated from trails trod by the ancients. We now call them Native Americans.  After all, the terrain forces us to take the path of least resistance. So it is reasonable to assume that there is a certain logic to the path one takes to get from one place to another.  Trails were important to ancient people for hunting, trade, socializing and annual migrations.

So I was not surprised when I found an arrowhead on Monongaseneka Trail recently.  Finding an arrowhead is a singularly profound experience. Consider the last human to touch it was an Indian who lived and hunted in these mountains hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago.  So, what can we infer about this person by the artifact that he left behind?

Details of the Found Arrowhead

We may be able to determine an approximation of the age of the point by the material it is made of and its design. This point is a stemmed point referring to the square elongation at its base. The color and quality of the flint suggest it may have come from flint found in the Lewisburg area. And finally the design indicates it may be Archaic, a group of Native Americans who lived in settlements in our area in the period from 9000 BC to 4500 BC.  An archaeologist or a collector may have more accurate information.  But it is probably not a tool that belonged to historic native groups, such as Shawnee.

Is it truly an arrowhead ? Was it attached to an arrow shaft and shot from a bow?  Probably not.  Only a small percentage of flint points were used on arrows. Furthermore, it was not until about 1400 years ago when the bow and arrow found its way to the western hemisphere.

Flint points were manufactured for a variety of uses including scrapers, knives, bow drills for making fires and drilling holes, and for spears. This point may have been a spear point, meaning it is attached to a wooden shaft and cast using a spear thrower called an atlatl.

This fine point is on display at the Watoga Nature Center.  It is a reminder of the people of many purposes, languages and customs who traversed these same mountain trails that we do to this very day.

It goes without saying that the removal of any historic or prehistoric artifact in any West Virginia State Park is unlawful and deprives the public of its cultural value.

Emerald Ash Borer Critically Endangers Ash Tree

Feeding Trails of Emerald Ash BorerAncient Petroglyphs found In Watoga State Park? No, these are the feeding trails of the Emerald Ash Borer.  In this case the Emerald Ash Borer is responsible for perpetrating a trick on the human brain, pareidolia. We humans instinctively seek patterns in nearly everything we see. For example, I see an abstract horned creature in one photograph and a coyote in the other.

Emerald Ash Borer LarvaeThe sad truth is that the ash tree is being decimated by the Emerald Ash Borer at a rate not seen in any one species of tree since the Chestnut Blight of the early 1900s. The white ash is considered “critically endangered” and the population decline is expected to be 80% over the next 100 years. As one forester wryly put it ” Without divine intervention we can kiss our ashes goodbye”.

Emerald Ash BorerWhen the Emerald Ash Borer enters the tree it lays eggs. The emerging larvae attack the phloem essentially girdling the tree. They attack trees as small as 2.5 cm in diameter, long before it is mature enough to produce viable seed.   This virtually ensures 100% mortality of the species.  Emerald Ash Borer Critically Endangers Ash Trees.

Invaluable Qualities of White Ash Wood

White ash is valued for its strength and straight grain. It is used for everything from furniture to tennis rackets and baseball bats. I have an old pair of snowshoes that hang on my wall.  They are made of ash. We will miss this tree just as we miss the chestnut, the elm and all the other species that have been the victims of parasitic attack.

In ways we are not now aware of we will sorely miss all of the wild things that go the way of the passenger pigeon. When the last ash tree is gone, we will be all the poorer for it.

With that in mind I leave you with a poem that speaks to the love, utility and admiration of the Ash tree.

The Firewood Poem

Beechwood fires are bright and clear
If the logs are kept a year,
Chestnut’s only good they say,
If for logs ’tis laid away.
Make a fire of Elder tree,
Death within your house will be;
But ash new or ash old,
Is fit for a queen with crown of gold

Birch and fir logs burn too fast
Blaze up bright and do not last,
it is by the Irish said
Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread.
Elm wood burns like churchyard mould,
E’en the very flames are cold
But ash green or ash brown
Is fit for a queen with golden crown

Poplar gives a bitter smoke,
Fills your eyes and makes you choke,
Apple wood will scent your room
Pear wood smells like flowers in bloom
Oaken logs, if dry and old
keep away the winter’s cold
But ash wet or ash dry
a king shall warm his slippers by.

By Lady Celia Congreve

Keep on hiking my friends,
Ken Springer

Watoga Trail Report December 31 and January 1, 2018: Hoarfrost


Happy New Year to all the folks in the Watoga State Park Foundation, all the trail volunteers, employees of Watoga State Park and those who love and visit Watoga State Park.  I have long since quit making resolutions.  But my New Year plans are to continue getting out on those Watoga trails every chance I get in 2018.  For that I will be immensely grateful !  Today’s article is about hoarfrost.

Today I had much appreciated help from the “other mountain state”, Colorado. The following trails are clear for hiking.  In fact tracks in the snow reveal recent use.  Jesse’s Cove Trail, Arrowhead Trail, Bear Pen Run Trail, Lake Trail and Recreation Trail.

Hoarfrost Encounter

We encountered a real treat early this morning on Bear Pen Run Trail in the form of ” Hoarfrost “.  An English dictionary from the 1920s describes hoarfrost as ” expressing the resemblance of white feathers of frost to an old man’s beard”.  A more recent dictionary defines this delightful cold weather phenomenon as ” a white crystalline deposit of frozen water vapor formed in clear still weather on vegetation, fences, etc.”

Hoarfrost on pine Jesses Cove Trail Watoga State ParkTo delve a bit deeper into the formation of hoarfrost we need to look at the necessary environmental conditions. To produce any form of frost you need water in the form of a gaseous vapor and it must be suspended in the air over the ground that is at a temperature no greater than 32 degree F.  Today’s temperature clearly met that requirement.

When these water vapor molecules come in contact with a subfreezing surface, such as a pine needle, they jump directly from a gas state to a solid state. This process, known as “deposition”, leaves a coating of tiny ice crystals that sometimes develop into these beautiful feathery forms as you see in the pictures.

Hoarfrost found along Jesses Cove Trail Watoga State ParkNow a word of advice to those who attempt to photograph these ephemeral sculptures.  If you are being accompanied by a creature of the canine persuasion you would be wise to tie that critter off.  While conducting your photography session, they seem to be drawn directly to the object of your attention. This often results in a paw coming directly down on your specimen of hoarfrost before the shutter is released. Believe me, I speak from experience.

Happy Hiking,

Ken Springer