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Andy Dappen | Out for a hike? Here’s how to deal with rattlesnakes

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Submitted by Andy Dappen

It’s been cool snake weather around Central Washington and the Wenatchee Valley this spring, so rattlesnake encounters have been uncommon thus far. The rattler in the picture to the right was found sunning itself on warm rocks in Swakane Canyon in early May. Recently WenatcheeOutdoors has received a few rattlesnake reports from hikers visiting our foothills trails in the Sage Hills and around the Horse Lake Reserve.

While there is widespread (often irrational) fear of rattlesnakes, snake bites from rattlers are uncommon. The western rattlesnakes we have here in Central Washington (crotalus viridis) are not aggressive and won’t strike you if left alone. They will leave you be if you don’t accidentally step on (or directly beside) them, or if you don’t accidentally put your hand beside them while scrambling.

That being said, the hemotoxin of a rattler is powerful stuff that sometimes kills people (rare), but that commonly creates some permanent scarring of tissue. If bitten, it’s important to get to a doctor and to get antivenom.

To greatly reduce the odds of such an accidental encounter, we recommend walking with hiking poles. With hiking poles you can sweep the sides of the trail ahead of you while walking. You can rattle bushes and shrubs you’re approaching, you can thump rocks and tree trunks you’ll be stepping on or over. You can pre-probe areas where you might be reaching with your hands. All of this gives you and snakes time to react to each other.

If you do encounter a snake, don’t poke or kill it. Just walk around it. Keep the basket of the pole between it and you — you’ll like the security of knowing you can deflect the snake should it move toward you (which would be very rare). Furthermore, the pole keeps the snake’s attention off you when you step around it. In rare instances the pole will also give you a tool to gently prod the snake along (or even flick it away) if you decide it’s sitting in a spot that will endanger the next hiker walking the trail.

Cool rattlesnake facts

  • Diet: Mainly rodents and ground-dwelling birds. About 80 percent of a rattlesnake’s diet is made up of rodents and they will eat as much as a quarter of an area’s rodent population.
  • A rattlesnake adds a rattle each time it sheds it skin and it can molt two or three times a year — so there is not a one-to-one relationship between the rattles and the age of the snake. You rarely find a snake with more than 12 rattles because the outer rattles wear out and/or break off. The rattles are made of keratin — the same stuff as our fingernails.
  • Rattlesnakes have a heat-sensitive structure (loreal gland) between their eyes and nostrils — this is the pit that classifies them as ‘pit vipers.’ They use this gland to locate warm-blooded prey.
  • Rattlesnakes can live up to 20 years in captivity.

Visit this post at WenatcheeOutdoors for more interesting facts and myths about rattlers and bull snakes: