© copyright 2004, by Gary Benton
Snakes. That is a word spoken when I was young that was right up there with the boogieman. I was especially scared of the name of one local snake, the Copperhead. Over the years I have learned that snakes do not really live up to the terrible reputation they have acquired. I have also discovered that most will avoid you, if they have a choice. Yep, I know all the old stories of snakes that catch their tails in their mouths and roll, I heard about the snakes that "spit" at you (there is one of these, a cobra, in other parts of the world), snakes that fall apart when you strike them, and snakes that chase you. Well, they may be out there, but I have not seen them in my forty plus years of meandering through the woods. But, I learned a few things on a recent camping trip, on the Little Piney River in Missouri that can help make your survival situation or camping trip safer.
Wally and I had taken four teenage boys on a combination fishing and camping trip. The evening was warm, but we were all huddled up around the campfire as Wally started talking about snakes. Immediately he had the boy's attention. There is something about the subject of snakes that always seems to grab attention. Not a word was spoken as Wally told us about a creature that is hated by some and fear by most.
"There are about 2400 different types of snakes in the world. And, you might be interested to know that only a few, near 200, are actually dangerous to man. That means that less than 10 percent of the snakes in the world are harmful. But, people are usually very fast, too fast in my opinion, to kill a snake because they think it is dangerous.
"I know about a the types of poisonous snakes in United States. And they all, but one, belong to a group called pit vipers (The other group is called short fanged snakes, or Elapidae, and they are coral snakes). Now, some folks call pit vipers long fanged snakes, or Crotalidae. The Copperhead group, Rattlesnake group, and the Cottonmouth (Water Moccasin) are all pit vipers. Off all the snakes in the United States, I am concerned about these three, because we have al three of them in this area. Remember, though, snakes are to be respected, not feared. And, regardless of the type of snake, or its group, most will avoid man if given half a chance."
"So, what do I know about snakes?" Wally asked with a crooked grin, and then continued speaking. Actually I don't know very much, but I have never been bitten and that makes me an expert in my mind. Snakes are usually inactive during really hot weather and during the cold season. During the winter they actually hibernate, or sleep, kinda. Keep in mind now that a snake will move to the shade during the hot part of the day and move into the sun during the cooler part of the day. So, where do these snakes live?
Snakes like to stay around stacked firewood (all the boys turned their heads toward our wood pile for the fire), under and around old lumber and junk piles, along stream and pond banks, under rocks or logs, and in or around old worn out buildings. They may even be in holes or on ledges during the day. Well now that you know just a little about snakes, what about a snake bite? How dangerous is it?
Statistics show that less than one half of one percent of people bitten by a poisonous snake will die from the bite, even if left untreated. Or, that was what the Army told me when I went through military training. I'll tell you how to treat snakebite in a minute. Why wait to tell you? Because snakebite is very unlikely if you use common sense when you are outdoors.
First, dress for the outdoors. Wear high top boots, heavy pants (like jeans or heavy military surplus fatigues), a shirt, hat, and wear gloves when you pick up wood, or when you have to place your hands in places that could be a living room for a snake. Also, if you know there are a lot of snakes where you will be, wear snake chaps. You can purchase them at many stores and they can make your trip less stressful.
Second, make noise as you move. When moving through grasses or weeds make as much noise as you can. This will alert the snake and it will know you are coming. Stay on trails as much as possible and keep the kids close by. Be very cautious when you step over logs or large rocks. Notice I said cautious, not paranoid. Snakes hear by vibrations and the more noise you make the more vibrations that are in the air, so warn them you are coming. Usually, with kids around noise is not a problem. Also, snakes smell you by using their tongues. That is one reason a snakes tongue is always flickering in and out. When they smell prey with their tongues they go after dinner.
Third, be aware of what is around you. In the military this is called situational awareness. Keep your eyes on the trail and watch the kids. I also keep an eye out for movement where it should not be. A well-camouflaged snake, its natural colors, can be very difficult to see. It sounds like a lot to do and it is. I constantly scan the walkway and keep a conversation going with the kids. That makes it easier for me.
Fourth, watch where you put your feet, hands, and body. Walking should be done with your eyes open and you being alert to movement. Additionally, as you pick up wood for the fire watch where you place your hands, and wear gloves. Many people are bitten each year as they pick something up. Never place your hands in a hole or place you cannot see into. Snakes often use dens, holes, or lie under rocks. Also, people think snakes come out by the thousands when it gets dark, this is not true, but they are harder to see. Always carry a flashlight after dark.
So, if you experience snakebite, how would you know? Perhaps you will see the snake strike, or feel the sudden pain of the bite, but not always. Also, Rattlesnakes do not always rattle before they strike, so you may not hear a warning either. You will start to swell around the bite area, usually within 3 minutes or so. And, you may continue to swell for almost an hour. But, wait, there is more.
During this time there is usually severe pain associated with the bite. If you check the injured area you will see the fang marks (normally two punctures, but there may be only one if the snake did not get a good bite), some bleeding, intense swelling, and there will be blood in the victim's urine. This blood is from major organs that are injured by cell loss and tissue damage. Your patient will experience a bad headache, a lowering of their blood pressure with an increased pulse rate. Usually they suffer from severe thirst as well. Medical treatment should be sought immediately, because death can occur within 24-48 hours if left untreated. If you consider all the snakebites around the world, the pit vipers cause most of the deaths.
Well, now you know even more about snakes, what do you do if you get unlucky and experience snakebite? You will find most bites occur to hands, feet, and legs. You should cut the pant leg (or any clothing) or remove the pants (clothing). This should be done in case the swelling becomes severe. Then, most doctors will tell you to wash and clean the bite with soap and water, immobilize the bite and immediately seek medical attention. Also, various doctors will tell you to not cut the bite like they do in the movies, not to suck the poison out, and not to put a tourniquet on the injury. According to some doctors those television techniques might just compound the damage done. It makes sense to me. It all sounds easy, huh?"
All right, lets review some of the rules about snakes and the outdoors.
- Watch where you walk at all times in snake country.
- Make noise as you move, especially in tall grass and slow moving water.
- Watch where you put your hands and feet at all times.
- Wear heavy pants, high top boots, and gloves in snake country.
- If you corner a snake, make no sudden moves. Back off very slowly. The snake may strike at quick movements.
- Always check for snakes in your sleeping area, including your sleeping bag, and clothing before using them.
- Use sticks or shovels to move logs, fallen leaves, or rocks. Snakes love to stay in those areas.
- Never handle a live poisonous snake. If you must use a snake for food, kill it and remove the head before you handle it.
- Treat all snakes with respect. They are part of nature and should not be played with, tormented, or abused. Leave them alone and most of the time they will leave you alone."
The boys all looked around the campsite and not a word was spoken for a long time. Wally had educated them and they were thinking about what he had said. The lesson must have taken hold because a few hours later one the boys approached me and asked to use the flashlight. He said he had to use the bathroom. As he walked down the trail to the port-a-toilet I could not help but notice he had his jeans on, his boots and was sweeping the light from side to side on the trail. I slowly shook my head and thought "Yep, Wally surprises even me sometimes."
Stay safe and take care of yourself. I hope to see you on the trail soon. Keep your eyes open for snakes.