Afield in WNC: Hikers and strikers in the hot months
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Afield in WNC

Afield in WNC: Hikers and strikers in the hot months

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A close look at a copperhead. You do not want to be this close.


When we leave the human world and hike into the natural world, we should take comfort in the fact that we can expect a set of constants.

For example, I have never been attacked by a bear because it was high on amphetamines or had a snake strike at me because of my skin color, my religion, or my political affiliation.

Animals react to fear or food, almost nothing else. They probably don’t recognize you or carry a grudge. However, for some strange reason, we often fear the natural world more than our everyday dealings with humans.

That being said, we need to note that venomous snakebites are on the rise in North Carolina. So, I can’t help it, one of my fears is snakes. As a hiker I’m always curious about snakes. Maybe more than curious. Maybe obsessed. Anyway, here are some interesting generic facts about venomous snakes in Western North Carolina.

When I hike, I’m always looking for snakes that might be using the same space that I want to use. Most are non-venomous, and the venomous kind probably do not want a confrontation. But there is always that one who has had a bad at the pit and is ready for a little action. Just in case, I stay as far away as possible. It also helps to know a few facts. Please keep in mind that the facts are changing daily but this article is accurate enough to give you some guidance.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, about 8,000 people a year receive venomous snake bites in the United States, of those, only 5 to 10 victims die. In fact, more people die from wasp and bee stings than from snake bites.

The venomous snakes you are likely to see in McDowell County and surrounding counties in Western NC are known as pit vipers. Pit vipers are recognizable by their large, triangular or diamond shaped head, a pit between the nostril and the eye, and vertically elliptical “cat’s eye” pupils. It’s OK if you’re not close enough to see these details.

The copperhead, canebrake rattlesnake, and timber rattlesnake are pit vipers. These snakes have a highly specialized venom apparatus which include two long hollow hinged fangs connected to small venom sacks. These snakes also have a pair of extremely sensitive innervated organs which are located in pits between their eyes and nostrils. These pits are “heat detectors” used for hunting. It enables the snake to locate, aim, and strike at warm-blooded prey (primarily rodents). This ability is so sensitive that blindfolded snakes have been able to accurately follow rodents from a distance of 6 feet!

Another identifying feature is the stubby tail as opposed to the long, slender, pointed tail of black snakes or garden snakes. Of course, rattlesnakes will probably have rattles on the end and let you know when you are too close. That may not always be the case, however, so be careful.

Rattlesnakes are equipped for both day and night vision. They give birth to living, venomous young. For some years, researchers have known that juvenile rattlers often have stronger venom than that of their larger, more mature counterparts — a difference that may have arisen because small snakes inject much less venom than adults so it needs to be more potent.

In some species, young snakes have a higher proportion of neurotoxins in their venom than do older individuals. New research has found that the toxicity of venom varies greatly between individual snakes, both young and old.

Pit vipers generally inject large amounts of venom into hunting bites, but often little or no venom into defensive bites. In fact, up to 25 percent of pit viper bites in humans are non-venomous “dry bites”. A provoked and angered snake, however, might not only “load up” to be quite venomous, but may also strike several times!

Most venomous snakes are peaceful, retiring animals that flee for the underbrush when they encounter humans. Unless they are hunting rodents, rattlesnakes strike only in self-defense. But if you step on one or try to capture it, a rattler will retaliate with a rapid strike that can be debilitating or even lethal.

In 1988 two doctors at the University of Southern California Medical Center analyzed 227 cases of venomous snakebite, covering more than a decade, and found that 44 percent occurred during accidental contact, such as stepping on the animal. More than 55 percent, however, resulted from the victim’s grabbing or handling the creatures, and in 28 percent of these cases, the victims were intoxicated. The doctors’ conclusion was that the typical snakebite victim is male and under 30, with a blood-alcohol concentration of more than 0.1 percent at the time he is bitten. Yet only 0.2 percent of all snakebite victims die each year, and most of those receive no medical treatment or first aid.

Living with venomous snakes is really no different than living with hornets, or other minor risks of daily life. If you find a hornet’s nest in the wild, you usually do not disturb it. The same caution should be applied if you see a snake. Injury may result if hornets or snakes are disturbed or harassed.

However, in North America human injuries from playing sports or slipping in the bathtub are far more common than are injuries from snakes. Venomous snakes are simply not a significant human health issue in North America. Yes, as hikers we may up the odds a little, but I like to think, as a group, we are smart enough to know the risk. The appropriate response to encountering a snake is to simply walk away. Do not attempt to capture or kill it, as 70-80 percent of bites occur from human aggressive behavior.

If you take nothing else from this article, remember, if bitten, STAY CALM your chances of survival are exceptionally good. If you can identify the snake, that’s good but don’t make a special effort. Get yourself and your group away and head for help. Try to keep in mind that vipers like rattlesnakes and copperheads have primarily hemotoxic venom. That is important to know because it means the toxin needs to work in order to destroy red blood cells and in time causes organ damage. These bites are painful but what this means to the victim is YOU HAVE TIME to get help.

There’s an old song about a lady who, while walking in the snow, found a lifeless snake who was nearly frozen. She took the snake into her cabin, warmed it in a blanket, and nursed it back to health. One day when she went to care for the snake, it struck her, releasing all the venom it could muster. As she lay, dying, she cried out to the snake, “Why have you done this to me after I cared for you?” The serpent replied, “Hey, you knew I was a snake when you took me in.”

Keep that in mind when you hike. Respect them and give them room. Keep on hiking.

Thanks to NC State University — Cooperative Extension for the facts and special thanks to my fact checker; Ranger Jamie Cameron of Lake James State Park.

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