I was recently asked about the details of the picture of me with a rattlesnake, taken on the Kinni in the early 90s. Please note that this incident took place long before the late great Steve Irwin permeated our TVs, clad in shorts with a crazed enthusiasm for all wild creatures. I’ve always been a fan of his, and have been known to break into a Steve impersonation to this day when I encounter a more common critter like a garter snake—“Crikey!! Have a go at this little rippah! The common garter snake is non venomous….but they’re REAL MEAN!!!”
Late spring, 1993. I’m leaving for a summer guiding job Alaska the next morning. It’s not enough that I will be in Alaska for the entire summer in a day, I still have to get in one more session on the local trout creeks before I leave. Never enough fishing in those days, I look back at photo albums from the 90’s– man did I fish a lot. You put in that much time on the water, and some shit is going to get caught, and I took pictures of most of it.
My fishing partner on the day was the Gunnar, then as now the first one to get a call when I want someone to join me. To set the stage a bit let me just say that Gunnar is not a fan of snakes, does not like snakes, is scared of snakes. And just to make sure, every couple of years I break out a wooden jointed snake that I bought just to scare him with. I will sometimes stow it my fly tying box, and dig it out at an opportune moment at a parking lot next to a steelhead river somewhere. “Look what I found”, I say with a tone bound to invoke curiosity. He pokes his head around the car, I’ll turn towards him, waving the fake snake. Hilarity ensues.
One time, maybe a year or two earlier we were poking around on the Apple River, looking for trout [we found some]. Gunnar was leading the way as we hiked the trail back to the truck. Suddenly he stopped in mid stride, one foot still up in the air. This was followed by a strange dance, along with some whooping and yelling. I quickly spotted the cause of this strange behavior—laying across the trail was about two feet of snake. Mind you there was two feet we could see—I think there was another two feet on each side of the trail we couldn’t see, and this was by far the biggest snake I’ve ever seen in the wild. It was about as big around as my wrist, and at least six feet long. Of course I had to grab it, but the front end was too far into the undergrowth for me to be able to wrestle it out. To this day, I’m not sure what kind it was; due to its size it was most likely a bull snake. Much to my dismay, I had to let it go and watched it quickly disappear into the bushes.
Alright back to the day of the rattlesnake. We were going to spend the day in the canyon section of the Lower Kinni, hard to access then and now. You really need to hike in from the top or bottom access points, which is what we did. Planning on spending the day, we brought enough food and drink [in those days this meant Doritos and Mountain Dew]. Thinking back on the day, I don’t recall anything special about the fishing—I ‘m sure we nymphed our way up and buggered our way back down, catching plenty of wild browns along the way. We had made it up the river as far as we usually go, it’s a good area with a couple of runs next to each other. So I’m upstream of Gunnar, retying or something when I see a snake coming down the stream. Having spent a lot of time in the area, I’ve seen snakes around before [as in the aforementioned incident at the Apple River], at first glance I figured it to be a fox or bull snake so my interest was piqued, but as it came closer, its head popped all the way out of the water and I could see that it was triangular in shape. Being an amateur herpetologist, I knew this meant VENEMOUS. When would I get another chance at a venomous snake? Not anytime soon, [no snakes of ANY kind in Alaska!] so the next thing you know I was roll casting loops of fly line around the thing to keep it in the river. I yelled for Gunnar to get up to me. He runs up and was all “What the F are you doing, leave that thing alone”. It was too late. I had pulled a stick from a nearby log jam and had pinned the snake’s head down. I grabbed it behind the head and yelled for Gunnar to get the camera out of the case around my neck. No effin way was the answer I got. After a bit of pleading, he finally took the camera and managed to click the picture shown. Such a cool picture, the snake looks awesome, too bad there are the distractions of the questionable red bandana around my neck, the giant sunglasses, and the bandage on my hand from an unrelated injury.
I sent the snake on its way up a dry tributary creek bed, and it was time to head back down the canyon. I livened up the walk out with an occasional “chickachickachickachicka”, my impersonation of a rattlesnake. “Not funny” was the answer I always got back. I haven’t seen another one in the many trips I’ve made back there since, nor have I talked to anyone else who has run across one. I’ve been told that the Kinni Valley is the northern border of where they are found.
I’ve always liked snakes—ask my mom about the time when I was 8 and I filled a wading pool with about 50 garter snakes if you want a good story—the way she reacted you’d think they were cobras or demons or something. Or about the time when I was about six when I was chasing down a particularly big garter snake. I went into some tall weeds after it and the nifty terrycloth outfit I was wearing got so many stickers in it that it had to be thrown out. The snake got away. I hated that outfit anyway.
Some other cool snake sightings include the python sized things sometimes spotted along the pools at the famous Seven Pines Lodge. While teaching fly fishing schools there they have provided some extra entertainment/drama. On a couple of occasions I have encountered a green snake. I suspect they are more common than we would realize, as they blend in perfectly with their surroundings.
There is a lot of good info about indigenous snakes found here: http://dnr.wi.gov/eek/critter/reptile/snakes.htm