Monday, July 23, 2012

Sharing the Trail

Last weekend, I took the boys to Camp Tracy up Mill Creek Canyon east of Salt Lake City. One of the events on our agenda was a five mile hike. This is a pretty tough trail, climbing 2,500 feet in 2.5 miles, it's one, long switchback to a great overlook of the Salt Lake Valley. We were in a group of about 50 other Scouts, and it being a weekend, we got to share the trail with plenty of other hikers and their dogs.

We were about 2/3 of the way back down the mountain, when someone ahead of us called out "snake!" Curiosity being a huge part of Scouting, we all tried to spot the slithering serpent.  A little movement along the ground revealed this Crotalus oreganus lotusus, or Great Basin rattlesnake slithering past.

Crotalus oreganus lotusus, the Great Basin rattlesnake

This two-and-a-half footer was on a leisurely, er, stroll, paralleling the trail about 4-5 feet from the edge of the trail. The image above was taken with a 18-55mm lens, at the 55mm end (which approximates the field of view of a human eye), so you can tell we were pretty close.  One of the boys asked, "Can I make it rattle?" and of course the answer was, NO.  Stretched out like this, the snake is not dangerous - he doesn't feel threatened; he wasn't even racing to get away from us.  Coiled and rattling though, he's angry and a potential threat.

And that's the thing.  You can often neutralize a threat by maintaining a safe distance, by staying out of range of its effects.  We were standing several feet away from a 2.5 foot pit viper. Venomous, yes; dangerous, no.  He wasn't threatened by our presence, and we were content to just watch him pass.  And this encounter is a great illustration of staying safe by staying away.  Whether it's heroin, porn, lying, or what-have-you, keeping a safe distance (which is different for each threat, for each person) will go a long way toward eliminating that threat.

This is more than "Just Say No,"  It's Keep Away.  In general, you can control how close you are, and that will in large part determine how much of a threat it is. It's as true for Surface-to-Air missiles as it is for rattlesnakes.  Know what the threat is, what it's capable of, what it looks like, and how it works. Know what constitutes a safe area, and stay there. Either let the threat pass, or walk away, but keep your distance and stay safe.

ADDED:  The harmless, common gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer), or bull snake, is a close mimic of (and is easily mistaken for) the Great Basin rattlesnake, and will even shake its tail to scare off threats.  It has very similar markings, shares a black tongue, and can grow up to five or six feet in length. Both species exhibit a great variety in coloration and markings, too.

Pituophis catenifer, the gopher snake,
which I photographed in someone's front yard in Ogden, UT.
(shot with a Nokia phone, edited with Picasa).

For comparison, here's a shot of the more surley Texas Western Diamondback (Crotalus atrox), that I took at the County Fair last year. With a piece of glass between me and her four feet of angry.


Pale-winged Trumpeter said...

At Priesthood Encampment this week, heard that the Ventures encountered a rattlesnake while on an expedition. It was then reported to me that they then proceeded to throw rocks at it to kill it "to protect everyone." I was so angry and disappointed. Rattlers get such a bad rap anyway, but to have this old mindset of having to kill any rattler that you see - perpetuated by guys purporting to "respect all living things" - it infuriates me.

Eric the Half-bee said...

It's unfortunate that so many "teaching moments" come from the stupid actions of people who should know better anyway...