WHITE SALMON — I was just starting the climb at Coyote Wall, the sunlit hiking trail in the eastern Columbia River Gorge, when a distinct whooshing sound arose.
It sounded like a waterfall, which might have made some sense, since the Gorge is famous for its many waterfalls — but not right here.
The whooshing grew louder as I trucked along. I rounded a bend in the trail — still trying to place that odd sound — and there it was: a big coiled-up snake, head hovering over brown-and-gray body, aimed right at me and loudly rattling.
My nervous system kicked into gear immediately, I am glad to report. There was zero thought process, no slo-mo realization: “Wow, that’s a rattlesnake, hmm, perhaps I should …”
I was gone. Racing back down the path in an instant. I’ve spotted a snake or two on Gorge trails, but this was my first face-to-face conference — at a distance of maybe 4 feet — with a creature ready, willing and able to kill me.
But did it really want to? Not according to the experts. They also caution against freaking out and running the way I did. Freezing, assessing the situation and backing away slowly with my hiking poles deployed as defensive decoy would have been the wiser course of action.
Now that I know, I’ll have a talk with my nervous system before my next hiking trip to the eastern Gorge. I don’t see curtailing my excursions out there because of one scary snake.
I’ll just heed the following snake-avoiding pointers, gleaned from the Washington Trail Association, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
- How do you know it’s a rattlesnake? In addition to the rattles in their tails, rattlesnakes are famous for big, triangular heads wider than their necks and diamond patterns on their backs. Color differs with habitat, from olive to brown to gray.
- Late spring and summer, when temperatures rise above 60 degrees, are when rattlesnakes emerge from their eastern Gorge dens. If you can’t stand the thought, hold off on hiking there until fall through early spring. That’s when rattlesnakes are either still brumating (a form of dormancy, like hibernation), possibly in dens of hundreds of snakes, or too slow and sluggish to care about you.
- Stay alert and aware of your surroundings. When I started climbing Coyote Wall that day, my eyes were technically on the trail but my mind sure was elsewhere. Since my unexpected meet-and-greet, you’d better believe my focus is always the trail, the whole trail and nothing but the trail.
- Wear tall hiking boots, thick socks and loose-fitting long pants. To hikers sporting shorts, sandals, flip-flops on rugged slopes: What are you thinking? If the snakes don’t get you, the ticks will. Protect yourself.
- Bring trekking poles and use them to push back brush. Their clicks on rocky ground will alert snakes that you’re approaching. If you do get into a close encounter, hold the poles up defensively. The snake might go for a pole instead of you.
- Stick to well-used trails. (I did at Coyote Wall. It didn’t help.) Don’t step or reach where you can’t see. Avoid tall grasses and heavy underbrush where snakes can hide. Careful around stumps, fallen logs and rocky crevices.
- If you hear that signature rattling sound, freeze. Look around, locate the source and move away slowly. Never make sudden movements in the direction of the snake. (If you are hiking with kids, the Washington Trails Association suggests having some fun by having them rehearse their freeze ahead of time. Try it as you depart from the trailhead.)
Hmm, was my lizard-brained bolt for safety too sudden, too abrupt? Did that snake actually lunge and almost get me? I didn’t look back, so I’ll never know.
What to do if bitten
Rattlesnake bites are rarely fatal. About 8,000 people are bitten by rattlesnakes in the U.S. annually, but just a handful die. About one-quarter of all rattlesnake bites are dry, injecting no venom at all. But it’s still crucial to take the bite seriously — because it might well be venomous — and get medical help immediately.
- Stay calm and rest, if possible. “Snake venom travels slowly through the body. Most deaths from rattlesnake bites are caused by shock rather than venom,” according to the Washington Trails Association. But if there is venom, increased blood flow will distribute it through the body faster.
- Call for help. Cell service is available at Coyote Wall, but not everywhere in the eastern Gorge. Send another hiker ahead to the trailhead for help. If you are alone, layer your clothing to keep your temperature stable and walk slowly back to the trailhead, exerting as little energy as possible.
- The bite area will swell. Remove clothing and jewelry — like rings, bracelets, watches — that will constrict swelling.
- Wash the bite area with soap and water or an antiseptic wipe. Apply a loose, moist dressing for comfort, but don’t apply pressure.
- Dogs are likelier to get bitten than people. If your dog was bitten, carry it out, keeping the wound below the heart.
What not to do
- Don’t apply a tourniquet. Pooling the venom in one place in the body can cause internal bleeding and severe, permanent damage to flesh there. Don’t ice the wound. Most post-bite amputations are caused by tourniquets and icing, according to USDA.
- Don’t make an incision to let out the venom, which doesn’t work.
- Never suck out the venom. That’s a cowboy movie trick with little basis in reality. Sucking out the venom only spreads the risk to a mouth, where it can be absorbed or swallowed. Medical professionals and recreation experts generally frown upon over-the-counter snake bite kits too, because they simply aren’t effective.
- Don’t take painkillers or other medications until you’ve gotten medical attention.
- Don’t speed to the hospital in a state of panic, which raises your heart rate and risks a crash. That’s likelier to kill you than the bite.
Most bites occur when people don’t take rattlesnakes seriously, leaning in close for photographs, for example. Rattlesnakes do not always rattle before they strike. This is why zoom lenses were invented.
Feel sorry for snakes, which are “misunderstood” and “persecuted,” according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and USDA.
“Many harmless, beneficial snakes have met untimely deaths at the hands of shovel-wielding humans,” according to the state wildlife department. “Of the dozen or so species of snakes found in Washington, only the Western rattlesnake is capable of inflicting a venomous bite, which it seldom does.”
There are about 3,900 species of snakes in the world; 600 or so are venomous. There are 36 species of rattlesnakes, all found in the Americas.
It’s too common for snakes to die on highways at night under the wheels of cars, according to state Fish and Wildlife conflict officer Todd Jacobsen. He said he wishes more drivers would watch out and avoid snakes in the road.
Rattlesnakes don’t live in Western Washington. The most common kind of snake you might run into in your Clark County yard is the garter snake. It has brightly colored stripes running lengthwise and gray-blue underneath. Garter snakes can grow up to 3 feet long. They are nonvenomous but still may strike, bite or smear foul-smelling stuff on you if threatened. But they’d rather just slither away.
Other nonvenomous local snakes are the Western terrestrial garter snake (likes water, gray-brown, checkered pattern, yellow stripes) and the Northwestern garter snake (slender, 2 feet long, dark with various stripes). The gopher or bull snake (3 to 4 feet, dark blotches against tan) resembles and even mimics rattlesnake behavior — coiling, hissing and striking — but it is not venomous.