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.

Tales From a Watoga Naturalist

Jim Meads, Professor Emeritus, Glenville State College, was Park Naturalist at Watoga in 1967 and 1968. Here are Jim’s stories from his time at Watoga.

Background

Judy and I have been married 52 years this July, 2019. Watoga State Park is such a special place for us. We started our wonderful life together here. In June of 1967, I was hired as a seasonal naturalist for Watoga. I was going into my Senior year in the fall at Glenville State College majoring in Biology and Chemistry. Richard Dale (wife Verna) was the Superintendent and Dale Crouser (wife Gwen) was the Assistant Superintendent. Their kindness will never be forgotten. The precusors to Tales from a Watoga Naturalist.

We were married in Parkersburg on July 2, 1967. My lovely wife was a city gal with not much experience in the world of nature. She never had an indoor pet except for a goldfish. Our plan was to leave for Watoga after our wedding in Parkersburg hauling a small Scottie trailer behind. I should tell you that in the trailer was a poodle given to us as a wedding present. No, never buy a pet for someone else. I also had an injured red tailed hawk, a bag of snakes, and an assortment of amphibians. Our plan was to live in the trailer at the Beaver Creek Campground.

Hawk Head

I need to stop here and explain the injured red tail hawk. He was discovered before our wedding on the road going from Seebert. We named the hawk, Garth, and Garth took up residence in the trees at our Beaver Creek Campground location. I fed him bluegill. If I wore my green park uniform, I could call his name and he would fly down and perch on my head. I had a scabby scalp that summer. Garth got into trouble when a camper was grilling hamburgers. Garth eyed the juicy meat, swooped down, and flew away with his catch.

I then moved him to the lake by the Administration building to keep him out of trouble. He was always a welcome addition to my nature lectures by the lake. When I called his name he would appear, land on my head, and amaze the park visitors. I had to laugh when one day a fisherman appeared in the office complaining that “the damn eagle had swooped down and grabbed the bass he had just hooked”. I knew it was no eagle but just an opportunistic red tailed hawk. Good ending to this story. Garth found a bride and I am hoping many Garth descendants are around Watoga.

As we entered the park through Seebert, along Island Lick Run, the rhododendrons were in full bloom. Judy told me later that, as we traveled the road toward the Administration Building, she was wondering if she could ever find her way out of that vast wilderness.

Accommodations

We setup our camper beside the Beaver Creek Campground’s bath house and lived there for a couple of weeks. Mr. Dale realized our accommodations were a little cramped and asked if we would like to move to a large room over the restaurant in the Administration Building, which was built in the mid 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corp. Most of the logs and lumber used in the construction was salvaged from blight-killed American Chestnut. Judy was excited to live in the large room with a bathroom on the side.

Mr. Dale gave us access to the storage shed and we found an electric hot plate and a table. We were now ready to live in our new abode. Judy was a trooper. She adapted to the camel crickets that shared our shower. Only two appliances could be used at a time, she realized. Otherwise we would pop the breakers losing power not only to our room but the restaurant beneath us. We did have the luxury of an electric skillet, crock pot, and coffee pot.

Cricket Tales from a Watoga Naturalist.

I loved it when we first moved in to the room and Judy heard tiny squeaks coming from the windows. She said that it is so nice to hear the chirping of baby birds. It was not until we were leaving for the summer that I confessed that those bird sounds were actually bats resting in the cracks of the windows.

I had such a wonderful experience working as naturalist at the Park. I would help with Monday check-ins of cabin guests. We would always plan a marshmallow roast up by the Recreation Hall each week. I learned early on the horrors of flying burning marshmallows launched by the kids of cabin guests. The Rec Hall is where we would show a 16 mm Disney nature classic. Who can forget “Bear Country” or “Squeak the Squirrel”? Tales from a Watoga Naturalist.

Usually after cabin check-ins we would have one cabin complain about finding bats in the cabin. There was no way they were going to believe that this was part of the park experience. I would don my superman suit (green park attire) and arrive at their cabin with a large container of bat repellent spray. Actually it was plain ole water and I would liberally spray the rafters. It worked almost 100% of the time. Plain water equals no bats.

Field Trip Tales from a Watoga Naturalist.

I would schedule motor field trips to Cranberry Glades. Oh, the memories of leading a tour to Big Glade and getting my direction confused in the alder thickets. There was a memorable time where we had several Mennonite ladies hiking through the sphagnum bogs. With their long dresses and buckle shoes, a person would think that it would make the trek difficult. They hiked better than I did. We scheduled trips to Bear Town before it officially became a state park. This unique natural area was finally purchased in 1970 with funds from the Nature Conservancy and a donation from Edwin G. Polan.

I shared Watoga’s unique animal and plant life with Park guests. I collected beautiful Timber Rattlesnakes from an old wood pile located at the end of the old airport runway at Beaver Creek. They were beautiful reptiles indeed. Tales from a Watoga Naturalist.

We always had a botany hike along the trail by the lake. As I was pretty good at plant identification, I learned a technique to use if one of the plants stumped me. “ I am not certain of the proper name of that plant but the locals call it….”. and would make up an Appalachian sounding name. However, that identification technique could not be used more than twice during one field trip! As I was diligently working, my good wife and Gwen Crouser would walk to Watoga Lake and put two reclining lounges in a row boat so they could sun bathe. A beaver tail slap beside the boat often greeted them.

Pre-Riverside Campground Tales from a Watoga Naturalist.

It was such an exciting time for us. Before the construction of Riverside, newest campground, we parked at Cabin Three, a great large cabin that tragically burned. We would hike along the Greenbrier River and enjoy the wonders that we encountered. I recall one evening that we packed our supper. We hauled a coffee pot and large container of water to a waterfall. Sadly, after transporting the heavy items, we discovered we had forgotten the coffee! Tales from a Watoga Naturalist.

It was on this trip that my good city wife had a scary experience. Going around a wet area in the path, she decided to take a detour. She stepped on a pile of limbs and quickly realized she had fallen into a beaver’s lodge up to her hips. Judy thought that the beavers would chew her legs off. I pulled her out and explained that beavers were herbivores and she had nothing to worry about.

Watoga memories continue to be a part of the fabric of our lives -from a night search for a lost cabin guest on Honeymoon Trail to collecting ancient coral fossils at nearby Calvin Price State Forest. As we get older, we realize the importance of life stories and feel so blessed to have Watoga as an amazing part of our story.

Jim Meads, Glenville State College Professor Emeritus of Biology