Although I am the rugged, hairy-chested outdoors type, I have one fear.
No, it’s not bears or mountain lions. I once faced a bear in the Pennsylvania mountains and bravely stared her down. Now let me spot a snake and the story changes.
A year before my wife, Eileen, passed away we were traveling along Sugar Loaf Road between Ohiopyle and Confluence and made a side trip up a gravel road to a parking area. Pulling to the side I noticed what I call a kiosk with a glass enclosed poster that warned the sightseer to not harm the rattlesnakes. It further stated that they were endangered and delicate critters.
I looked at the pictures and thought, what about me? I think I am a delicate critter, and those things look irritable.
From that point we walked up the rough road but I never stepped anywhere I couldn’t see gravel or dirt. Eileen laughed at me all the way. Snakes make me nervous. I can use all of the logic in the world but logic goes out the window when I spot one.
Actually, there are but two types of snakes in Pennsylvania that are poisonous. Far and away the majority of them are harmless. Both the copperhead and the rattlesnake are pit vipers from the same family. It would be fairly safe to say there are few or no rattlesnakes in Washington County and darned few copperheads.
The last copperhead I have personally seen here was long ago on the railroad bed that is now arrowhead trail in Peters Township, The last rattlesnake I saw was near the town of Tionesta in Forest County.
If my memory is correct, there are two types of rattlesnakes in our state. The most common is the timber rattlesnake which is found in the more remote sections of the state.
My daughter, Kathy, and her husband, Mike Ward, spotted a big rattler stretched across the bike trail just outside of Ohiopyle a few summers ago. This only proves that you dhould be careful in rugged country even if it is in a park. I have often fished this area and can’t help but wonder if I have ever walked by one and didn’t know it. After all, they are secretive and again logic says they are not out to get me.
When in rattlesnake country, it does, however, pay to be careful, especially where one places his or her hands. In most instances a snake will avoid human contact by moving aside, letting the person pass.
After all, we are a bit big for a snake meal. In dry weather (drought), watch for snakes around creeks and other bodies of water. The water attracts small animals, and that represents the snake’s dinner. They will be where the food is at.
The other rattlesnake is rarely found, the massauga. This snake is truly endangered and is sometimes called a swamp rattler. Its range is confined to the swampy terrain found in Lawrence, Mercer and perhaps Venango counties. It is a small rattlesnake that is rarely encountered by humans. Because of its limited habitat, this snake’s number has dwindled significantly.
I have no doubt but that there are copperheads here in Washington County and a higher number in more rural Greene County, but they are rarely encountered as humans have killed them off. I remember, however, Dominick Montani of the Capture Company near Eighty Four showing me photos of about a dozen copperheads he removed from a home along the Monongahela River in Washington County. Better he did it than me.
One thing is for sure, an encounter with a poisonous snake is almost nonexistent here in Pennsylvania. You have a better chance of being struck by lightening than being bit by a poisonous snake. Still, I find myself fascinated by them and strangely afraid of them. My fear doesn’t keep me from walking through heavy cover or going outdoors.
While harmless and nonpoisonous, I especially dislike the brown water snake that drops out of the willows and into the creek while I am fishing.
My grandson, Doug, was turning rocks as a child and was bitten by one. He had to visit the emergency room because, while nonpoisonous, the bite of any snake can cause infection. There are no water moccasins north of southern Virginia but we do have a lot of brown water snakes, and I don’t hurt them but still don’t like them.
I often think of that kiosk off Sugar Loaf Road. I don’t want the snakes to be hurt, but I sure don’t want them to hurt me. Perhaps we need a very low sign telling the snakes don’t hurt the people.
George H. Block writes a Sunday Outdoors column for the Observer-Reporter.