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May 11, 2012

Rattlesnakes may be closer than you think, so pay attention


Daily Star

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Last September, I told you about my first ascent on the vertical rocks near New Paltz.

Shortly after that column on rock climbing, my cousin _ who lives just across the border in Connecticut _ emailed me about those very same cliffs. He told me that the Gunks are inhabited by a large concentration of rattlesnakes.

Great! My buddy George and I are returning to those rocks again this week. Hopefully I won't find a rattlesnake sunning himself on one of those ledges as I pull myself up.

That happened to a friend of mine many years ago. Matt was hunting elk in Colorado one warm autumn day. While making a stalk on a large bull, he and his guide climbed up a small, rocky outcrop. With his fingers on the ledge, Matt peeked over and instantly realized he was just inches away from a large diamondback stretched out on the warm rock. It was a good thing he wasn't 50 feet up on the side of a cliff because his retreat wasn't slow or pretty.

Back in the 70s, I visited a friend who lived in Entiat, Wash. Bob was an avid fly fisherman and I was excited about fishing for some of those big western rainbows.

One evening, we drove to a beautiful, rocky stream to fish. As we got out of the car, Bob told me to watch where I stepped because this area was loaded with rattlers. He said you usually smell them before seeing them, claiming they smell like bananas. Luckily, I didn't get a whiff of that fruity smell or see one, either.

We did catch a lot of fish, though. The river was full of hungry fish. I landed well over a dozen that evening.

Rattlesnakes used to be quite common on South Mountain. Up behind the Tally Ho and above Hemlock Road, there is great habitat for the timber rattlers. When I was in college, I stopped by Dr. New's office one day. I stood in the doorway talking when I caught a slight movement out of the corner of my eye. As I turned my head, I jumped back. In a glass aquarium was a large rattlesnake that was collected from the rocks on South Mountain.

I'm sure many of you are aware of the snakes near Hancock. A local businessman said he saw a couple last year as he walked down over a bank to fish a stream in that area. Before the timber rattler was placed on the endangered species list, a friend from Deposit made a lot of spare cash hunting them. Don and his friends would sell the snakes for their venom.

There are far fewer rattlers around than there used to be. I've been told their decline has a lot to do with the reintroduction of the wild turkey, which eats baby snakes. I'm not sure how much truth there is to that, but it sounds reasonable.

I've never seen a rattlesnake out in the wilds. I think it would be kind of neat, though. I've often thought of hiking the trails on Tongue Mountain at the northern end of Lake George. There's a large concentration of those diamond-backed snakes there. People tell me it's not uncommon to see them sunning themselves on the rocks along the trail.

Seeing a rattler at a distance would be fine but not up close and personal. I doubt that I have to worry about it this week when I'm climbing on the Gunks. Fifty-thousand people go there to climb every year, and I've never heard of anyone getting bitten.

I think with all the activity, the snakes find secluded places to live away from the crowds, but it's always good to be a little cautious. Besides, what self-respecting snake is going to hang out some hundred feet up on the side of a cliff? That would be crazy!

Rick Brockway writes a weekly outdoors column for The Daily Star. Email him at robrockway@hotmail.com.