The valley, as most of the locals call it, is a wildlife management area known officially by the State Wildlife Commission as the Tract 4227. It’s a pristine site of pine and oak, bordering a low water creek that meanders through the eastern part of the state.
It’s rugged country. I don’t hike it often. But when I do, the activity gives me a huge sense of accomplishment in knowing that I had the self-confidence to place myself in a wilderness environment with only my knowledge to guide me.
My original plan that day had been to negotiate a hike of at least eight hours by first descending into the valley to a footbridge that crossed the creek. From there, I anticipated swinging in an southerly direction to hike the far ridge along deer trails and small animal paths, making notes of my sightings – a task that would allow me to present evidence as to whether or not the tract should be opened to the public.
My morning went smoothly. The wilderness, in my estimation, appeared much better prepared to handle foot traffic than I had originally suspected.
For lunch, I stopped at an overlook with a view of the valley. There I downed a bottle of water and ate one of Maggie’s sandwiches while I tallied my lists of plants and animals. Looking back, I have to admit my day up to that point had been very productive.
Later, near a stream, I spotted bobcat tracks and wondered if they were moving back into our region trying to establish a foothold. Their return would be a welcome sight and another sign that wildlife was trying to coexist with humans despite the stresses they were being forced to endure.
My initial suspicion that something was amiss occurred in the late afternoon just as I was moving through a heavy grove of trees where the trail seemed to vanish. At first, I heard movement in the brush paralleling my track. I glanced to the side curious. But, failing to see any activity, I continued on, my attention directed to a small flock of Chickadees in the trees overhead.
Eventually, I became concerned by the sounds and stopped to again take a closer look. Whatever it was, it seemed to be following me – though when I think back, ’stalking’ would be a more descriptive interpretation.
I took several steps into the brush then stopped to listen. Soon, I heard a rustling noise coming from a clearing in the distance. I took a few more steps, feeling a tingle of excitement. Maybe, it was a bobcat. If so, a live observation and perhaps a photo would add substance to my earlier sighting of footprints.
I started in that direction, quietly pushing through the underbrush.
On reaching the clearing, I stopped in the shadows to scan the area. Right off, I spotted several meadowlarks moving from one clump of grass to another, their activities seemingly oblivious to my presence.
Even though the scene looked quiet, I sensed a presence in the grasses, It was something I was unable to pinpoint with certainty. After about twenty minutes of uneventful observation though, I returned to the woods and started toward home, remembering that Maggie was expecting me to attend a dinner party with her club group that evening.
In an effort to hasten my return trip due to the late hour, I decided to forgo the easy trails and take the shortest route to my truck, which meant hiking directly across the valley through rugged terrain.
Boldly, I started deeper into the forest, moving hurriedly toward the creek. Once there, I reasoned, I could easily locate a shallow water crossing that would give me a straight hike up the hill to my truck.
Suddenly, I saw movement ahead and spotted a large, dark snake in another nearby clearing. On first look, it appeared to be about six feet in length and moving confidently. While snakes were common in the area, I rarely saw one in the open, especially one so large. Its presence naturally surprised me and caused an immediate ripple of anxiety to course through my hair.
Instantly, I froze, daring to breath.
I watched it pause near a tree. When I saw it lift away from the ground and extend its body fully upright and turn from side to side as if searching, I started to wonder. Carefully, I eased further into the shadows, all the while, watching it study the area. Soon, I noticed it move to the far side of the tree to view the terrain toward the creek, my intended direction of travel.
Finally, when I saw it ease into a secluded shadow beside the tree and coil, I began to wonder if it had been stalking me. Some snakes, I knew, were skilled trackers – a thought that sent another series of shivers along my spine as that inevitable burst of adrenalin kicked into my system.
I tried to clear my mind, remembering that I was supposed to be the dominant species. Yet, as I stood there, breathing heavily and feeling a distinct tachycardia, I became acutely aware that I was alone in a remote area with a large snake pursuing me just as the sunlight was beginning to fade.
Logic suggested that I move past it without being seen so I decided to backtrack and circle rather than take my chances on a direct confrontation. I checked the wind then glanced at my watch, certain that Maggie would become concerned once the sun had disappeared below the horizon.
Carefully, I moved away from my hiding place and eased quietly through the underbrush, taking slow careful steps. A few minutes later, when convinced that I had moved a sufficient distance away from the snake, I turned back toward the creek to make my way along the side of a rocky hill that would take me in the general direction of my truck hopefully below the snake’s line of sight.
Unexpectedly, the rocks along the hill were loose. A few broke away under my feet and rolled into the water below me. I looked up. Suddenly, I saw the snake stir under the tree then immediately rise from the ground and turn sharply in my direction, its fiery eyes glowing like those of a devil, mine undoubtedly broadcasting fear.
In an instant, I was running, my feet hitting the ground faster than my heart was pounding. I had probably only gone a few steps when I stumbled and fell.
Cursing under my breath, I came to my feet and started running again, charging along the hillside, stumbling from rock to rock, fleeing for my life and wondering if I would live to see another day.
Finally, after what I thought was a safe distance, I looked back… no sign of the snake, so I eased into a fast walk.
As my panic began to subside, I started to wonder why I had acted so foolish. After all, I was a professional naturalist, a person comfortable with the out of doors. Fear, I knew, caused people to do unrealistic, even dangerous things. I could have been injured in my flight to safety.
Near the creek though, I looked back to check my progress. That’s when I saw it again – all six feet of black menacing snake moving like a demon, its body flying across the hillside, charging directly toward me.
Certain that it was chasing me, I resumed running, my arms and legs pumping frantically, ignited with the terror coursing through my body. I chanced a look back. To my surprise, it was closer – its body whipping back and forth, gaining steadily.
Suddenly, I stumbled again and began rolling uncontrollably downhill toward the creek where I finally came to rest sitting in water up to my neck.
Quickly, I looked about and spotted the snake across from me, watching from the bank, its eyes directed to mine. I waded several steps to the side. It mimicked the move. I reversed direction. It followed, the tongue flicking back and forth, the eyes intent.
Smart snake, I thought as I backed away and began edging toward the far side of the stream, thinking that if I could put the water behind me I’d be safe. I had to be smarter than a snake, at least that was my impression at the time.
It must have known what I intended because it slipped into the water and continued in my direction, its sleek body sliding smoothly across the surface.
Hurriedly, I began a frenzied run up of the last hill toward the truck, my actions uncontrolled – the terror overwhelming. I again glanced over my shoulder and saw it come roaring out of the water, its intent certain.
As I scrambled across the top of the ridge, my lungs were gasping for air and my ability to scream lost somewhere in my tortured body. Staggering on, I spotted the truck in the distance. I started toward it, feeling my knees weaken, knowing that I was close to the end of my endurance.
Almost immediately, the snake was beside me, striking out at my pant leg – its body whipping back and forth as it matched me stride for stride. Angling away, I glanced toward the truck and took another deep breath, digging deep to grasp whatever energy remained.
Anticipating the distance, it edged ahead of me then suddenly, it turned and coiled, it’s mouth poised.
I sidestepped to avoid its thrust, but my shoe caught on a rock that sent me tumbling out of control. After that, it was on me, slithering across my shoulders and around my neck, its body dominating mine. I reached to fling it away, my fingers feeling its cold, muscular body squirming in my hands. Then coming to my feet, I sprinted the remaining few yards to the truck and threw myself inside, knowing that my nerves were shot.
As I frantically dug into my pocket for the keys, I again spotted it in front of my truck, confidently moving away. Strangely, I saw it stop and look back in my direction. Once our eyes met, I watched it lift several feet off the ground and present me with what I can only describe as a look of satisfaction.
Ramming the gearshift into drive, I stomped the gas pedal and charged it, intent on getting my revenge. But then, for reasons I cannot fully explain, I hit the brakes, skidded to a stop and waited until it had safely disappeared into the brush. Only then did I settle back and head for home.
Maggie was not happy when I arrived late for her dinner party. But, as I tried to explain, it’s not often that one comes face to face with an aggressive snake.
Her group seemed enthralled by my story.
Naturally, I failed to mention that the snake had been a Black Racer, a non-poisonous species – one to be respected but not feared.