Narrative #10 - Rattlesnakes

"Week of the Buzz-Tails"

By: Ron Reil

This narrative is different from my others because it's set in the present, or at least, near present, where my other narratives mostly took place in the late 60's and early 70's. One of my favorite local outdoor trips was a multi-day canoe trip on Owyhee Reservoir with my daughter Kimberly. We had made numerous camping trips down the 45-mile long cliff bound reservoir in the past, but this particular Spring trip was different from all the rest. It is a trip that I shall never forget, and I doubt that Kimberly, my now 24-year-old daughter, will soon forget either.

It was very early June, right after school was out, and the snowmelt was still coming down the rivers. When we got to the Leslie Gulch "put-in," I was impressed with the level of the Reservoir. It was brim full, and higher than I had ever seen before. It didn't occur to me that this could be significant, as we loaded the canoe for the 10-mile trip down to the mouth of Painted Canyon where we would set up our camp.

I should give you a little background information about this impressive lake. Owyhee (a corruption of "Hawaii") Reservoir is 45 miles long when full, and is known to mostly a few locals for the most part. It is fortunate that it has little use because it's a very dangerous body of water. There are very few locations where you can get ashore if you have problems. It is mostly bounded by spectacular cliffs, and some of the Northwest's best geology is laid out all around you if you know what you are looking at. The thing that makes this lake so dangerous are not just the cliffs, but the severe wind storms that can hit without warning, and with clear blue skies overhead. It can go from flat calm, to 3'-5' high waves in under a minute when one of these wind storms hit. Your first warning is a distant howl of wind, and the surface of the water being ripped up and blown into the air as it heads your way.

To a 20' jet boat this presents little danger, but to a little canoe it can be fatal to the boat and it's paddlers. I learned early-on about the dangers that this body of water presents to the canoe paddler, and I took steps to protect my canoe and my passengers. The first thing I did was to equip my boat with a 6 HP Johnson outboard motor so that we could power into the waves, maintaining control, and get off the water quickly if conditions turned bad. I also installed a single diaphragm bilge pump that I could operate when kneeled down on the floor in the back of the boat, and operating the engine at the same time. The biggest danger to an open boat in severe weather is the large volume of water that comes aboard due to the wind and high waves. If you can keep the water pumped out you can survive a very bad blow in a small open boat.

This particular trip down the Owyhee did present us with some memorable wind storms, but it wasn't the wind that remains in my memory. When we arrived near Painted Canyon we discovered that there was hardly any place we could camp. The water was so high all the beach campsites were under water. Camping anywhere else was not very inviting due to numerous sagebrush and cactus growing all over the landscape. There was no place big enough to pitch a tent. We finally found one little spot on the beach just big enough to pitch our tent under the trees. That is another thing about Owyhee Reservoir…it can get hot in the summer, really hot, 110-115 degrees, so you want to camp in the shade.

We pulled our canoe in and took charge of the little beach that would be our home for the next five days. The first order of business was to get the canoe unloaded and our tent erected while the weather was still calm and beautiful. While I made the little piece of beach ready to receive our tent, Kimberly was unloading the boat and stacking our equipment above storm wave reach, and just in general setting up our camp. I had our tent about half way up when Kim made a very casual comment to me, saying that there was a big rattlesnake coiled up right behind me. I turned and looked but didn't see any snake, and made some "smart" reply about trying to trick me. She insisted that there was a big buzz-tail right there, not 4 feet away, so I went along with her joke and turned once again to look. And once again I saw no snake. When I turned back to her and made some comment about her pulling my leg, she came over and pointed with her finger. Sure enough, there was a corker of a rattler coiled up and blending in with the dry driftwood at the edge of the beach, barely four feet from my legs.

Well, rattlesnakes are a part of the outdoors in Idaho, and I had taught my daughter from the beginning to be comfortable around them. In fact she was almost too comfortable, as you will see in what follows. I asked Kim to hand me my walking stick, and with the stick I hooked up the rattler and sent him on his way up into the sagebrush where he posed no threat to us. We continued setting up camp, and soon had all in its place. It was early afternoon and very hot, so we decided to relax in the shade on the few square feet of dry beach we had open to us. We each had a canoe chair and we were soon both reading a book, and oblivious to what was going on around us.

About a half-hour later I became aware of something moving in my peripheral vision in Kim's direction. I looked up and there was another big rattler silently slithering across the sand toward Kim's outstretched legs and bare feet. Rattlesnakes don't bother me much either, but when one is headed toward my daughter's bare legs and feet, and we are many hours from any help, I get concerned. I made a not so calm comment to Kimberly to not move, and by doing so she looked up and instinctively yanked her feet back away from the snake, which was sniffing her toes by touching them with it's rapidly darting forked tongue. The snake was startled by her sudden motion and headed for the nearest cover, the space under the canoe.

So once again I got out my walking stick and had Kim lift the bow of the canoe while I reached under with the stick to pull the snake out. I soon had the critter in control and prepared to send him in the same direction as the last one, up into the sagebrush. Unfortunately the tent was between the sagebrush and my coiled up snake. I elected to "chip" the snake up over the tent and into the brush. Unfortunately I was never very good at golf, and instead of a nice gentle chip shot, I sent the snake right up into the tree above our tent. Kimberly thought that was hilarious because now I had to climb up into the tree and retrieve the snake, or we might have a very unpleasant surprise when he later decided to drop to the ground.

With Kimberly laughing and making sarcastic comments, I climbed into the tree while Kim watched the snake to be sure it didn't vanish into the leafy canopy overhead. I soon found myself out on a limb, literally, with the not so happy buzz-tail. I worked him free of the limb and dropped him to the ground where I could attempt to send him on his way again after I got back down. The second time was a charm and he soon joined his bigger cousin in the sagebrush. All the while Kimberly was making wisecracks about her fearless father and the dangerous snake.

Well, that introduction to our tiny campsite was the precursor to a constant series of encounters with both rattlesnakes and bullsnakes. Everywhere we walked near camp we were running into them. During our day hikes in the canyons we didn't see any snakes, but near the beach they were everywhere, apparently having been pushed out of there normal dens which were now under the high water. When the sun went down they came out of the brush, out from under the driftwood, and out of holes in large numbers, making movement around camp or down the narrow beach a very trying affair. Getting up in the night to go to the bathroom was especially nerve wracking. It was just too easy for one of them to be laying next to the tent, and he would have a great opportunity to strike when we were climbing out of the tent. So I beat the sides of the tent near the ground before we unzipped the tent and hoped that any snakes would be frightened into moving away to a safe distance.

Each evening after dinner, Kim and I would go for a long walk down the beach to enjoy the cool evening air and look for antelope and deer, and during the walk I would escort numerous rattlesnakes off the beach and into the sagebrush. They were not a threat, but they required constant vigilance to make sure we didn't have an unpleasant encounter of the snake kind.

Three times during our week camped there we had severe windstorms, one of which hit when we were in the canoe and about 5 miles down the canyon from camp. Our first view of the oncoming wind was of a violent ripping off of the wave tops which were being blown high into the air in sheets of white spray. Even over the noise of the engine we could hear the roar of the oncoming winds, still almost ¾ miles away. I told Kim to put on her life-vest and foul weather gear, and to hold on. I had her get off the canoe seat and sit down in the bottom of the boat to lower the center of gravity, and also reduce the area exposed to the winds in the front end of the boat. With my heart in my mouth I headed the boat straight at the oncoming wall of wind and water in an attempt to cross the reservoir to the windward side before the water became so rough as to make the crossing impossible.

I got down on the floor on my knees also, and made some last minute adjustments of the gear so it would be secure in the oncoming winds and waves. We only reached about the third point in our attempt to cross the open water to the far shore when the storm hit us. In only seconds we went from flat calm to horrific winds and towering waves, at least towering to a canoe. The wind was strong enough that I was concerned that the bow of the canoe might take the wind under it when we topped a wave and blow the canoe up and over, flipping us end for end. Kimberly stayed low and we forged ahead into the caldron of white water, blowing spray, and sheets of solid water.

Visibility was almost zero as I tried to look ahead into the spray and wind. I maintained very careful control on the engine to keep the canoe balanced directly into the wind, and not get broached each time we went over the top of one of the monster waves, which were almost all breakers now. We had about a mile of water to cross, and it seemed like it took an eternity to cross that stretch of water. Finally the approaching windward shore caused a calming of the water we were passing through, and we found ourselves safely on the upwind side of the lake.

Being on the upwind side of the lake made travel up the reservoir along the beach and cliffs relatively easy, but we still had a problem. Our camp was on the leeward side, so we still had to cross the mile wide lake again to get safely back to camp. I considered staying where we were until the winds blew themselves out, but often that takes 12 hours or more, so I decided to try another crossing when we got to a point directly upwind from our camp.

If I didn't consider myself an expert small boat handler I would never have attempted the crossing with my daughter in the boat. However, six years in the Navy operating small boats in very adverse conditions, my attempt to sail the 24' wooden yacht Sea Dart around the world, and sailing a 36' sailboat through hurricane Alice for five days, had taught me how to stay afloat in almost impossible conditions. I had Kimberly put on her life-vest again, and we made the canoe as secure as possible in order to save most of our possessions if we did end up filling the boat and having to swim for shore. Also Kimberly is an excellent swimmer, so I felt the risk was relatively low so far as survival was concerned. However the risk was significant to our equipment, and that concerned me greatly. Also the fact that we often don't see another person for 4 or 5 days on the reservoir added to my anxiety. There was no help if things went wrong.

When we appeared to be directly upwind of our camp, I had Kimberly get down in the bottom of the boat once again. I got down on my knees and took my two handed stance, the engine tiller in my left hand and the bilge pump lever in the right, and off we went. This time it was much more comfortable for us. We had the wind at our backs so we didn't have sheets of spray and solid water cascading over us and into our faces. However this orientation to the wind presented dangers that were actually greater than when running into the wind. The canoe wanted to surf down the face of the bigger waves, and if she did, and she buried her bow deep enough into the back of the wave in front of her, we could broach and end up rolling over as the canoe was slewed around to the side violently by the following wave.

With a white-knuckle grip on the tiller, I guided our 17-foot Grumman white water canoe across the tumultuous mile of water, and ran her full on to the white sand beach four feet away from our tent. After a semi-panicked 30 seconds, while we rushed to get the canoe up out of the water to prevent her from being swamped on the beach from behind, we could sit down and relax next to the tent in welcome security. We were safe, and the camp was secure. Life was good.

Knowing that these windstorms can, and do, hit often, I always brought my four season mountaineering tent. It is a four-pole dome tent, and the winds have almost no visible affect on it. I also use all the tie downs and anchors it has, to make sure it doesn't take off in the wind, which can reach 50-60 mph.

The windstorm continued on unabated all night, and finally blew its last gust just before dawn. We had to cook dinner in the tent to be able to keep the stove lit. I love stormy weather when I am in my tent safe from the elements. The roar of the wind, and the crashing of the breakers on the beach were very pleasant to listen to as I went to sleep with a wonderful feeling of total security.

That windstorm was on Tuesday, and we would be heading back home on Friday. Wednesday morning broke quiet and warm. We hiked another canyon during the day, and returned back to camp early for a relaxed dinner and evening. While we were eating our dinner, we heard the noise of a big boat coming down the reservoir, the first we had seen since setting up camp. Not only did it come into view, but it headed directly for our little beach. The boat beached about a hundred yards down from us, but around a point of land so that we could not see them. After we finished cleaning up camp, and putting everything shipshape and Bristol fashion, we decided to walk down the beach to meet our neighbors.

As we approached them we observed that they had three kids, and it was actually two families. They had set up a BBQ and were getting their charcoal going to cook steaks. I also noted, much to my concern, that their kids, which were about 7-8 years in age, were playing in the driftwood at the upper edge of the beach. That was where we had seen most of the rattlesnakes we had been escorting off the beach each day, and considering our distance from the nearest help, the kids were at great risk. We walked up to the adults, introduced ourselves, and then I told them about all the rattlesnakes we had seen during our time camped on the beach. They didn't seem in the least concerned, and I could only assume they thought that Kimberly and I were telling tall stories to them.

As luck would have it, when we returned to our camp there was a nice big rattlesnake stretched out next to the tent. I looked at Kimberly and we both had the same reaction…catch the snake and take it down to the doubting picnickers and show them a snake in the flesh. I pinned the snake with my walking stick and picked it up. By the time we had walked the distance back to their picnic site, the snake had relaxed and was just hanging limply from my hand, all 4-1/2' of it. When we got there, everyone quickly gathered around to look at our snake. I opened its mouth and lifted the fangs for them to see, and then showed them the rattles. At that moment the snake decided he had had enough and started rattling as hard as he could. He also started twisting and wrapping himself around my arm. Apparently the picnic crowd had assumed the snake was dead. The moment it came alive the kids screamed and ran. Then the two mothers also started screaming, and apparently crying too.

I looked at Kimberly and we both knew it was time to leave. So we quietly headed back toward our camp after having totally destroyed the calm in theirs. Before we reached our camp we heard the sound of their big outboard fire up, and off they went, back the way they had come. I let the snake go, then told Kim that we should go back down to where they had been cooking their steaks and see what they had left behind, that it seemed to me they had departed way too quickly.

We walked back down, and just as I expected, all was not well. They had dumped the burning BBQ briquettes into a big glowing pile less then 2' away from the edge of the driftwood, which was drier than a popcorn's fart. Kim and I took care of the briquettes, dumping some water on them, and then covering them with sand. We returned to camp. In less than a half-hour we had another big windstorm in progress. If we had not gone down and taken care of that fire it would almost certainly have been blown into the driftwood and started a very serious range fire. Kimberly and I were both impressed with what had just happened, and also with what had not happened.

The time continued to pass by quietly until it was Thursday evening, the night before we would head back up the reservoir and back home. About an hour before dark Kim and I headed down the beach for our last evening walk. We headed toward the mouth of Painted Canyon and into a little cove. The beach was heavily covered with young trees, and as we were working our way through them we saw something happening down close to the water's edge. We crouched down to get under the low limbs, and when we got closer we realized it was a big snake trying to eat a young bird. It was all wrapped around it but for some reason was unable to eat the bird. As we watched we realized that there was one too many snake tails showing in the writhing ball. There were two snakes, and they were fighting over the bird. We squatted down to watch the event unfold.

The battle went on for some time until they dropped the bird. Once they realized that the bird was not in their grasp they separated and started looking for the it. One headed toward Kimberly in its search. Kim was squatted down and remained totally still as the snake slid over her bare foot, and moved between her feet to search behind her. When it got behind her it stuck its head up under Kim's shirt and went right up her back. I thought it was going to come out her neck, or the arm of her T-shirt, but it finally lost interest, dropped down and continued on it's way. Kimberly stayed totally calm and unmoving during the few minutes of the snake's rather personal explorations.

We continued to watch the two snakes until it was almost dark. They found the bird, and were once again wrapped up around each other, and neither one able to get enough of a lead to swallow the bird. We never knew the results of the battle, but it was a wonderful experience none the less. It was a fitting conclusion to a 5 day camping trip where we encountered 22 snakes, most of which were rattlesnakes.

We packed up camp the next morning. Soon we were back to our rig and loading the canoe on the trailer for the drive home. Both of us were relieved to not have to watch every step due to rattlesnakes, but the canoe trip was a very special one for both of us. It will remain in our memories forever.

The End

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