Ask not for whom the vultures wait. They wait for thee.
By Gary Lewis
Spring is coming and the wildflowers will be opening soon. The sage will turn silver-green and the sky is blue. Trout are feeding on the surface again. Doves are roosting in the junipers. It's easy to think that all of nature exists for our pleasure but the truth is that there are some critters out there that could ruin your day.
It was seventy degrees and a brisk April wind blew down the gorge. Dust and sage mingled in our nostrils. We were kicking through a brush-choked draw on the north-facing slope hunting rabbits. It was the first week of warm days in an otherwise damp and cold spring. I knew the snakes would be coming out soon.
It had been the previous April when we had seen the first one here, a little rattler, all of nine inches long. One tiny rattle on the end of its tail. We'd looked at it for a few minutes and then let it go on its way.
Now as I crossed the same ground a year later I wondered about the wisdom of that decision.
I cut down through the dry streambed, started up the other side then stopped dead, frozen in my tracks. All that was important in my life was suddenly replaced by one sound. A rasping buzz that sounded a little bit like crickets only louder and meaner. He lay in a patch of sunlight on the path in front of me. A thirty inch rattlesnake coiled in the trail, head weaving back and forth, tongue flicking in and out to catch my scent.
A dry throat, shortness of breath, cold sweats and heart palpitations are the mandatory components of a rattlesnake encounter. I experienced all of these and yet managed to remain manly and dignified. "Snake!" I exclaimed in a squeak that, as I later explained to my friend, Kraig, is how you are supposed to alert a partner to the presence of a reptile. The trick is to say it in the vocal range of a mouse, one of the principle prey species of the western rattlesnake. This will allow you the time to react in one of three ways: One, take a closer look, thereby joining the mouse as a principle prey species of the western rattlesnake. Two, find a different trail. Or three, begin proceedings to turn the creature into a hatband.
The best way to handle snakes is to never encounter them in the first place. A fishing guide I talked to carries a handful of pebbles to throw as he approaches one spot he fishes regularly. Throwing stones ahead of him, he warns the rattlers that he's coming, giving them time to move out of his path. Similarly, a person can carry a staff and rap it on the ground, sending vibrations that the snakes can sense, allowing them time to move away. Rattlesnakes buzz to warn you of their presence. Usually they'll only strike when threatened. Give them time to get away.
If you spend much time in snake country, carry a snake bite kit. If you or one of your party do get nailed then seek help immediately. Your trip is over. Don't overexert yourself on the way back, you'll only spread the poison faster.
Speaking of poison, we can't forget scorpions. Hunting spiders and other insects at night, scorpions retreat to cool shadows in the daytime. I've found them beneath flat rocks high above the Deschutes. Their bite will probably ruin your day and could possibly be fatal. Out looking for food at night, they could end up in your tent by morning. It pays to be careful.
Shake your boots out before stepping in. A spider may have sought refuge from the scorpions there. Most spiders are harmless but a cousin of mine put his foot in his shoe one day and was bitten by a brown recluse. The black widow, a large spider characterized by a black body and red hourglass on the abdomen, is venomous too. Their bites are painful though seldom fatal. A particle of knowledge that might be comforting sometime.
Don't think I'm trying to keep you out of the woods or off the river this spring and summer. I wouldn't want to be accused of trying to scare you. It's not like I mentioned fleas that carry bubonic plague, wasps, fever-carrying deer ticks, bats or rabid skunks, though I could have.
I just want you to be careful out there while you hike the canyon trails or watch birds from some stony outcrop. Sometime toward mid-afternoon, you might stop what you're doing and look to the sky. There might be vultures circling above the rim or watching from some rocky ledge. Remember, they are up there for a reason.