By Sandra Millers Younger
Editor’s note: We’re so inspired by this reader’s “unrattled” attitude over a common backcountry fear that we'd like to make “Tales from East County Readers” a regular feature. Do you have a memorable East County experience to share? If so, please send your essay to firstname.lastname@example.org.
June 17, 2009 (Lakeside)--It had to happen. Leaving suburbia for the raw beauty of San Diego’s backcountry meant that sooner or later I was going to meet a few rattlesnakes. But even knowing that, staying alert, watching my step, it came as a shock the day I opened my front door and found a three-foot-long Southwestern speckled rattler stretched full-length across the porch.
Like some ditsy cartoon character, I slammed the door shut, grabbed a couple of quick breaths, then opened it a second time. Maybe I’d just been seeing things. But no, there really was a rattlesnake on my front porch, its head slightly raised, its eyes fixed on mine, its expression nonchalant, as if to say, “Hey, what’s up?” I closed the door again. Now what?
Most people we knew killed any rattler that invaded their space. But my husband, Bob, and I just didn’t feel right about that. Maybe we’d seen too many episodes of “The Crocodile Hunter,” but weren’t we the real invaders? We’d barged into an ancient, perfectly functioning ecosystem, where each and every species played a unique and vital role in maintaining a delicate balance. Who were we to interfere?
So we’d agreed on a catch-and-release rattlesnake policy. Trying to play it smart, we’d equipped ourselves with professional gear—snake tongs and knee-high, bite-proof boots we found online at snakeboots.com. (Yes, really.) Now all I needed was the guts to use them. But maybe I wouldn’t have to. My first instinct after finding a rattlesnake on the front porch was to call Bob. He was off running errands but graciously offered to hurry home and take care of the situation. Thank God!
I was still fairly curious about the snake though, so I decided to watch it until Bob arrived. That way, if it left the porch, we’d still know where it was. I pulled on my snakeboots, grabbed the snake stick for self-defense, along with the big, covered bucket Bob would need, then exited through the garage and warily approached the front of the house.
The snake had retreated to a corner of the porch behind a flower pot where it lay curled in a big “S.” I leaned against a wall a safe distance away. For the next 10 or 15 minutes, neither of us moved, but my mind was racing. It wasn’t just the snake I found unnerving now. It was me. Face facts, I told myself. You want to live in the backcountry, and snakes come with the territory. Literally. So are you going to learn to deal with them yourself? Or are you going to be the kind of woman who has to be rescued from scary critters by a man?
O.K. I couldn’t wait for Bob. I had to wrangle this rattlesnake myself. Trying to visualize how it would go, I ran through every scenario I could imagine, even the possibility my new acquaintance might suddenly sprout gill wings and fly at my throat, like those deceptively cute and chirpy mini-dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.
The snake meanwhile was still just lying there, no doubt waiting for me to leave so it could go about its snaky business. I realized for the first time how beautiful it was—a long shiny loop of rusty orange triangles, flecked with bits of black, tapering to a series of black and white bands and, finally, that infamous rattle.
Swallowing hard, I took the lid off the bucket, picked up the stick and stepped within reach of my uninvited visitor. It began to pull away as the tongs came closer, but I was still able to slip them around its body and clamp down—firmly, but I hoped not too hard. I didn’t want to injure it.
Amazingly, there was no fight at all, just a momentary rattle as I lifted the snake up and into the bucket. Then I slipped the lid on, and the deed was done. I could not have been more impressed with myself. Bob arrived home about five minutes later. After a quick peek, he picked up the bucket, and we both walked a long way down the mountainside before tipping it and watching as the snake slid away into the brush, as nonchalant as ever.
Since that day, I’ve wrangled a few more rattlers, each time with the utmost respect and caution. I know better than to think of them as friendly. But I no longer fear them. And I’d like to think that somewhere Steve Irwin is happy about that.