One does not often hike with the hope of encountering a venomous snake, but accompanied by the trained eye of Jim Chestney we thought we might spot one or two.
At our destination, he quickly pointed out that we were, in fact, surrounded by at least two dozen timber rattlesnakes.
“A yellow one just went in here., we’ve got two black ones there!” said Chestney, pointing up and down a group of boulders.
Chestney has been researching snakes for 40 years with the Fish and Boat Commission. Five of those were spent looking for this very spot within Michaux State Forest.
The thought is that an underground spring below this mysterious den keeps the snakes warm all winter. Now, they are beginning to venture off and won’t return until autumn – if they return at all.
“There are a lot of private parcels where they cross properties or get killed,” Chestney said. “This is the only place in the state right now where they are fully protected.”
Part of that protection means throwing away stereotypes. Chestney said their distinct rattle doesn’t mean the snakes are going to attack, just a fright response to warn visitors that they are there.
“It kind of makes you wonder how many I walked by just through the course of my travels through the mountains,” he said about how easily the rattlesnakes blend.
Chestney was bitten once and faults himself for getting too close. Consider though that he has been working with snakes, on purpose, every day for 42 years. He reiterates that bites are very rare.
So, as they embark on their summer journey, Chestney suggests giving rattlesnakes some room and perhaps some overdue respect.