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HomeNL-2018-09 Safety Minute #2

Safety Minute - Snakes on a Boat
September 2018
by Harmon Everett

Recently we’ve seen an episode where a rattlesnake attempted to board a boat in the middle of a lake. In researching for this article, I found that there were actually TWO separate incidents where rattlesnakes attempted to get into boats. YIKES!

Last year I was paddling on an HCC trip where a snake attempted to get into someone’s canoe. I wasn’t in a good position to see what kind of snake it was, but the paddlers swore it was also a rattlesnake.

Also, several years ago, we were on the Colorado, I think, and packing up from a lunch stop when a largish snake slithered across Terry’s foot on its way to the water. A blood-curdling scream ensued.

We often paddle waters where snakes are plentiful, so it is a wise course of action to try to understand how to deal with snakes in and around our boating activities.

First of all, snakes are pretty simple folks. They pretty much wear their heart on their sleeves. If they had sleeves.

They only have half a dozen or so emotions, which are pretty obvious just by looking at them. They are happy and contented, or angry, or scared, or hungry, or tired or curious, and you can pretty much tell what they are feeling, just by looking at them.

Second, their primeval enemy is predatory birds. So when they get angry or scared, or tired, their instinctive reflexive reaction is to find some place to hide, like a hole, or under or in some brush or logs. When they are swimming, which they do either to hunt for small fish, or to get to the other side of the lake or river, they are supremely vulnerable to being seen from the air by predatory birds, so most of the time they are swimming they are afraid. And they get tired.

Consider these two primary natures when you come across a snake, or, if while in your canoe, or even just floating in the water, one comes at you. Or you bang into some overhanging brush and one falls into your boat (they sometimes do that).

You are way too big for them to consider you to be prey. They are probably looking for a place to hide and rest. A boat, canoe or kayak probably looks like a floating log to them, and a place they can rest and hide for a while. If you can, go ahead and give it to them. This is problematical while in a kayak.

On land, I would use a large garbage bin with a lid. I would put the bin on its side, and lean the lid against it, making the inside of the bin look like a dark and deep hole. It was irresistible to them. I would quickly set the bin upright and slap the lid on, and then tape it down before transporting them to a distant meadow to release them. Of course, by then they were seriously pissed, and I had to be careful to be well away from the top of the bin when I tipped it over and took the tape and lid off.

But I knew they would be, and took precautions. They then went their way, and I went mine.

We had a presentation at a club meeting a year ago or so by a herpetologist (snake expert) who talked about many of the snakes we might encounter as we paddle. Some of them are poisonous, like the diamondback rattlesnake, or the cottonmouth, or the coral snake.

I met a coral snake once near Spring Creek. We’ve all heard the rhyme about how to determine whether the brightly colored red/yellow/black snake we meet is poisonous or not – Red on black, friend to Jack; red on yellow, kill a fellow. The snake expert said we don’t really have to remember that rhyme around here. The only red/yellow/black snakes that live in southeast Texas are the deadly ones.

He did say that they tend to be shy, non-aggressive, and passive unless you go out of your way to piss them off. The one I met was pretty chill, and let me take pictures of it for several minutes before it ambled slowly off toward the creek.

By and large, the snakes we meet do way more good than harm, in eating and controlling mice and rats and other vermin and insects. Unless you go out of your way to piss them off, they will mostly leave you alone, or slither across your foot on their way to somewhere else. If they are swimming toward your boat, they are most probably trying to find some place to hide and rest – and are NOT attacking you. If you can move gently out of their way and let them be, you can probably take some good pictures, and have a good story to tell. Don’t go throwing rocks and sticks at them or go out of your way to try to kill them. Like the Hulk, you don’t really want to see them angry.

So, to wrap up, you can pretty much look at a snake and see what it is feeling. They will mostly avoid you, and not attack unless you are too close and startle them. They usually will try to escape rather than attack. You are too big for them to think of you as prey. If you are on the water and a snake is swimming toward your boat, it is probably thinking your boat is like a big log, and probably just wants to rest or hide.

If you can, make a hidey hole for the snake to crawl into, and it probably will go in, in order to hide and feel safe. If it gets in your boat and crawls into a hidey hole, leave it alone. It will probably stay there. If it feels safe and is not hungry, you and snakes can coexist and maybe even become contented acquaintances. I don’t think “friends” is one of their emotions. When you get to land, you can empty out your boat and safely escort the snake to go away.

The author, Harmon Everett