What do Hoover Dam, cold water and a rattlesnake have in common? They're all elements in a story that confirms the wisdom of a good rule for any outdoor trip: Let sleeping snakes lie.
If you compiled a list of commonly-held fears about the Great Outdoors, here's one that would definitely make the top ten: a close encounter of the worst kind with a snake. Those concerns notwithstanding, the risk of actually being accosted in the wild by a serpent is very small indeed.
You can improve those odds even further by following three basic rules about snakes: (1) just leave them alone; (2) don't put your hands, feet or any other body part in a place you haven't visually inspected to ensure it isn't already occupied by another life form; (3) don't assume that an immobile snake will remain in that condition if you violate rule number 1 or 2.
As validation of the above advice, I offer the following true story. The two fishermen involved in this escapade failed to receive any points whatsoever toward their snakemanship badge.
The setting was on the Arizona-Nevada border, downstream from Hoover Dam, in Lake Mead National Recreation Area. The water released through the dam is quite cold by desert standards—about 52º F—and that chilly water played a key role in this tale.
Occasionally, rattlesnakes are spotted swimming in the river below the dam, and the cold water affects their metabolism. If they stay in the water long enough, the reptiles fall into a stupor and end up floating on the surface. If they had any feet, these critters would appear to have gone "toes up."
The two fishermen in our story came upon one of these slumbering serpents, assumed it had met a convenient demise, and decided to take it home. Their intention was to use various component parts from the snake to make belt buckles, hat bands, necklaces and other works of folk art that are popular with some segments of the population.
One of the anglers retrieved the hapless reptile with a paddle and tossed it into the bottom of their boat. The duo then went back to the business at hand, which was drifting lazily down the river and fishing.
As was often the case when something had gone awry in the park, my first inkling of trouble came when a couple of visitors flagged me down as I was on boat patrol. "Hey, Ranger! We're not exactly sure what's happening upriver, but maybe you'd better go check on ..."
The visitors' curiosity had been aroused when they spotted a boat drifting downstream. It contained the normal assortment of fishing gear, coolers and a couple of partially consumed cans of beverages, but strangely enough, no people.
It did, however, contain one unusual passenger: a rather feisty rattlesnake. Keeping a close eye on the snake, the pair towed the boat to the bank and shoved it up on a sandbar. Recognizing a situation that hinted someone might be in difficulty, they sent their buddies in a second boat upriver to investigate, while they headed downstream to look for a ranger.
By the time I reached the scene, the erstwhile fishermen had been reunited with their boat, and it didn't take long to get to the bottom of the story.
The cold water had put that snake into suspended animation, but once it was fished out and tossed into the full sun on board the fishermen's boat, it didn't take long for a revival of sorts to take place.
A few minutes after the boaters retrieved the reptile from the water, they recognized an ominous sound. If you've ever heard the warning "buzz" of a rattlesnake, you probably won't ever forget it. I've had that experience quite a few times, but thankfully never while sitting in a small boat in the middle of a river, with that chilling rattle coming from the immediate vicinity of my feet.
It didn't take the two fishermen very long to reach a consensus: Their boat wasn't big enough for them and the snake—and it wasn't showing any interest in leaving. The one piece of good news was that these guys were wearing their life jackets, which allowed this tale to have a comic rather than a sad outcome.
Thus properly attired for a "man overboard" drill, the fisherman abandoned ship and started swimming to the nearest bank, only about 30 feet away. Their boat, which had been drifting along with the motor off, continued on its way downstream until it was intercepted by the nautical Good Samaritans.
By the time I reached the scene, the snake was nowhere in sight. The explanation provided to me was that it must have vacated the boat on its own accord before the fishermen returned to reclaim their craft. I'll never know if the snake's exit from the boat was voluntary or assisted, but applying my own three rules for dealing with reptiles, I elected to avoid a search of the thick undergrowth for any serpents, slumbering or otherwise.
There is, of course, a moral to this tale. When it comes to snakes, things are not always as they may appear, so whenever possible, just let them lie!
This story is adapted from the book Hey Ranger! True Tales of Humor and Misadventure from America's National Parks © Jim Burnett and Taylor Trade Publishing, used by permission.