A Guide’s Life – A Chronic Case of the Willies

One of the great things about life in the mountains is that wildlife is all around you. Of course we’ve had neighbors who felt like that was a huge downside of life in the mountains and even moved back to more urban surroundings as a result. It’s not uncommon for us to see any number of bird species and even bears without leaving our home.

Black Bear Eating Poke Berries

A black bear eats poke berries behind our house

Even as it’s pretty cool to watch bears picking berries you have to take the good with the bad…

Last week I was prepping for an early morning on the Holston River when I noticed an anole on the fly rod rack in our garage. No big deal. The small chameleons are pretty common and I scooped him into a bucket to take him outside where I planned to drop him into our tomato garden where he would eat any insect pests.

Just as I was approaching the retaining wall where I planned to drop the lizard I noticed a shape in the darkness that resembled the classic black and white photo of the Loch Ness monster. I froze to be sure of what it was. No doubt about it, a snake. We’ve seen a black snake in the garden several times since spring, but they aren’t usually active at night.

I retrieved a flashlight from the garage and my worst fears were confirmed. The classic hourglass pattern of tan on brown along with a triangular head confirmed it was a copperhead. We see these venomous snakes around the neighborhood a few times every year and I’ve known ever since we moved into this house that the retaining wall made of railroad ties was the perfect place for snakes to reside. A queasy feeling came over me as a recalled all the times my children crawled on that wall to pick peppers or tomatoes from the garden even as I told them not to before I could check things out.

I texted Charity of my discovery as I took off to meet my anglers for a day of casting poppers at smallmouth bass and she assured me the children wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the wall.

We’re not necessarily afraid of snakes, but seeing one from a distance and getting close in the dark are two different things. Still I enjoy seeing copperheads and rattlesnakes when I see them without the element of surprise.

Copperhead

A copperhead seen along a trail in the Smokies

A few days after my initial sighting I found the copperhead again in the same spot and he lingered there well into daylight. They are beautiful snakes even if I admit to a healthy fear respect for them. The snake was motionless in the open and I decided I could probably scoop it up with a garden hoe, drop it into a large garbage can, and move it to a more wild habitat than the garden on the side of my driveway.

Charity came out to give any assistance. “Do you want to wait for Tim?” Our good buddy, fishing partner, and talented carpenter Tim Masincupp was scheduled to arrive any moment to enlarge one of our back decks.

“Are you crazy? Tim is terrified of snakes!” I continued with my approach to the copperhead, my voice trembling a bit as I tried to convince my wife of my superiority over our 6’4″ buddy who could easily fill out a Bigfoot or Yeti costume with realistically thick arms and broad shoulders.

I slid the hoe under the snake and it immediately twitched and turned toward me. I jumped as well even though I clearly expected that response. I’m sure I could have easily scooped the snake up and dropped it in the trash can at that moment if I had acted with more confidence and didn’t hesitate. Unfortunately the snake could smell the fear thick in the air, took advantage of the opening and quickly slithered into a crack in the retaining wall.

Charity and I shrugged at each other and figured it was a decent attempt. We were putting the tools away as Tim rolled into our driveway with a wagon full of lumber and a companion in the passenger seat he would introduce as Taylor, his helper for the day.

Charity and I related the morning’s events to the carpenters and Taylor was particularly interested. “What were you going to do with him? Were you trying to kill it?”

“No… I wanted to relocate it, but I don’t know if that will work out or not. He’s pretty quick.”

“Man, I’m glad to hear that! I hate it when people kill snakes just for being snakes. I love ’em. If you want I’ll catch it for you.”

Sounded like a plan but the copperhead was hiding deep under the wall so Tim and Taylor got to work on the deck while I went inside to work on a fishing report. About lunch time I went outside to check on the guys and they were just knocking off for a break. Taylor was over by the retaining wall, squinting into all of the cracks between the railroad ties.

“There he is…. That’s a pretty good size one! Let’s see if we can get him out of there now that we know where he is.” I rounded up the garden hoe, a garden claw  with a long handle and the empty trash can.

“No need for that big can. A cooler will work fine,” Taylor said as he picked one up out of our garage and removed a couple of water bottle and cans of Coke. He took an aluminum T-square from the truck and slowly slid it between the timbers where he could see the snake peeping at him. It didn’t take any time to get a reaction as the copperhead immediately started to squirm to avoid it. Within seconds the snake came out into our garden and coiled in preparation for whatever we had in mind.

“Man that’s a big one!” Tim was impressed and already had the garden hoe in a defensive position. Taylor checked the position of the cooler and coolly handled the garden claw as he slowly moved it toward the agitated viper. I was well out of the way but felt much better when I saw that Taylor barely made contact with the snake when it dodged his swipe with the claw far easier than it had my earlier efforts.

Here he comes!

Here he comes!

Now the copperhead was in full defensive mode and poised to strike. Taylor was focused but sweat was streaming down his forehead. He took the garden claw and with a quick scoop and twist he lifted the snake up and dropped it down into the cooler, but it bounced back out of there like a red rubber ball and was sidewinding across the driveway.

Charity jumped up on the trailer and the rest of us looked like the cast of Riverdance as we didn’t want any of our feet anywhere close to the mad copperhead. But Taylor was relentless and it was only a few seconds before he was able to lift the snake again with the claw and this time dropped it in the deep trash can.

CopperheadInTheCan

Whew! That’s where we want him

The copperhead was frantically trying to slither up the side of the can and Taylor asked, “You have a lid for this thing?”

Charity was on it and Taylor clamped down the lid. He leaned on the can and wiped the sweat from his brow while he broke a smile. “Man! He was fast! They’re not usually that tough to get hold of.”

Now Taylor was inspecting the lid of the can. “I’m not sure if this will work. It’s just laying on there. He might be able to push it off.”

“I’ve got bungee cords,” Charity offered.

“No, its the gap around the lid. I’m afraid he’ll be able to lift it a little and you know, it doesn’t take much of a crack for him to get out.” Taylor nodded his approval as Charity emerged from the garage with a roll of duct tap. He carefully sealed the lid to the can all the way around. “That’ll do it.”

Charity and I were giddy from the adrenaline and were happy to offer lunch for everybody. “Tacos, bacon cheeseburgers, burritos, you name it, Taylor! You da man!”

Our 4 year old son Boone had witnessed the whole thing from the deck upstairs and shouted his congratulations as well. “You’re a pretty good snake snatcher, Taylor!”

We all piled into the car for a feast of champions, but before we left we dragged the trash can into the shade on our porch. After some lunch and a chance to recover from all the excitement I would release the snake somewhere else but I wanted to take it into the shade where it wouldn’t overheat in the midday sun. After all, the point was to prevent harm to the snake.

You can just imagine the stories told around lunch, and I’ll admit it, we were all pretty proud of ourselves even if it was Taylor who did all the tough work. Every snake story any of us had ever experienced or heard was told over the meal and we got up from the table standing pretty tall.

We got back from lunch and Tim and Taylor went back to the work on the deck while I prepped our Jeep Cherokee for the snake’s relocation. I removed some fishing gear from the back and would easily be able to put the can in upright. I went to the can and took one handle ever so gingerly. I lifted just slightly and wanted some confirmation the snake was still in there. The seal on the tape had peeled back in a few spots in the summer humidity and it made me a little nervous.

I gave a little jiggle. Nothing. I shook a little harder. Nothing. I put that handle down and swapped sides, giving a quick look around the porch as I nervously rattled the can with no perceptible evidence of anything being inside.

“Taylor!!! Could you take a look at this?!?” He walked up and was brave enough to pick the can up by both handles and shake it. Nothing.

He looked at me then gave the can a massive jolt and there was a meaty thud inside the can. “Oh yeah, he’s in there.” Now I felt better and carried the 55 gallon trash can to the Cherokee, took precautions to be sure it would stay upright, then closed the hatch.

I waved to everyone as I pulled out. I was heading for a massive vacant lot less than a half mile away. It was well away from any house and it was the perfect spot for a snake or any wildlife for that matter. I was pretty proud of myself. After all, not many people would have been so charitable to a venomous snake found where their children played. I hummed a little tune as I pulled off the side of the road.

Born free….. Free as the wind blows…..

I popped the hatch, grabbed the can confidently by the handles and walked well off the side of the road. Carefully I held the lid down in the center as I smoothly peeled the duct tape from the perimeter. Reaching across the lid I popped it off as I kicked the opening away from myself and the can fell to its side.

I waited several seconds, but nothing happened. I gave the bottom a few easy taps with my boot. Nothing. I cautiously picked up the bottom of the can to give it a gently shake. Nothing. I was aware of my breath quickening as I tiptoed around the can to look inside.

It was empty….

Grudgingly I worked through the math.

The snake was in the can when I left the house.

It’s not in the can now….

Erego….

THE COPPERHEAD GOT OUT IN THE CAR!!!!!!!!!!!

I jogged back up to the Jeep and looked in the back compartment. Nothing. I went to each of the doors and one at a time opened them as if I expected a spray of gunfire. Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing….

Alone on the side of the road I was sweating so bad it looked as if I might have just fallen in the river. My cell phone had no service for anyone to come and get me but there was no way I was getting back in that Jeep Cherokee. Hell, I wasn’t even going to reach in  far enough to get the keys. I just left it there and started walking home.

Jeep Abandoned

Along the way I went over the details over and over again. My eventual conclusion was that the snake had escaped while we were at lunch. After all, I never felt it in the can. The only evidence it was in there was the thump when Taylor shook the can. I even managed to chuckle since it was obviously an illusion.

The lid surely popped when Taylor gave it a sharp jolt. Hell, it’s stuff like that that allows David Copperfield and Chris Angel to make people believe in magic!

I was on the verge of actually believing my theory.

Tim and Taylor were working with nail guns when I came walking down the driveway and they were surprised to see me when they looked up from their work. “Oh hey. Didn’t hear you drive up.”

“Yeah, I know you didn’t! I walked home because I think the snake got out in the car!” Tim and Taylor’s faces fell.

I broke the silence, “But you know, I’m not so sure he was even in there when I left. You’re sure he was in there Taylor?”

“Yes! Yes he was. I swear… I mean, you were there. I think he was up around the rim and I knocked him back down to the bottom.” I couldn’t deny it. There was a chunky thud but that only sent a shiver through my body. I had just lived out a moment from a horror movie, driving down the road all smiles while the viper slipped out of the can into the vehicle I was driving.

Charity came out and was ashen. Even worse, I rarely drive the Cherokee as it’s “her” car. We got in the other car and drove down the road with the long handled claw to poke around. In between bouts of dry heaving I pulled all the waders, boots, and day packs out of the Jeep with the claw and never found any sign of the copperhead.

Don't see him in there

Don’t see him in there

After close to an hour of looking I drove the car home but refused to wear the seat belt in the event I needed to make a quick escape. Who knows, the snake might even come at me by the buckle and I could be trapped! No need to take any chances.

After Charity and I got home we all carefully inspected the lid and I explained my hypothesis about the trash can just making noise if you gave it a good jolt. Big Tim nodded in agreement, picked up the can with the lid on and made a sharp downward motion that stopped short of the ground.

Silence.

“C’mon, Tim. Really pop it now,” I encouraged with a dry mouth. He repeated the motion with everything he had and there was nothing.

Taylor shook his head. “I’m telling you, he was in there,” he said as he approached the Cherokee. I was shocked to watch him run his hands under the seats, lift the back seat up, even look under the spare tire. “I don’t think he’s in there but you might want to let it sit for a little while.”

The Jeep sat in the driveway for two full days with the doors and back hatch open and I spent twice that long a nervous wreck. The garden hose in the garage, shoelaces, and even belts hanging in my closet all made me jump.

ToySnake

This toy no longer lives in our house and its relocation was far smoother than the copperhead.

Comments

  1. Uh, Ian, next time we fish, I volunteer to drive.

    That was a good one!

    EZ

  2. steve yates says:

    Would that show up on CarFax if I bought it?

  3. Wayne Stowers says:

    Ian, funny story (not so funny for you guys though). Unfortunately, snakes can “hole up” in very small cavities and go without eating for days. I would have a hard time driving that car for a long time. One suggestion you might consider: catch a king snake and turn him loose in your jeep for a couple of days. They are usually docile towards humans, and really will take care of any other snake they encounter -I’ve seen one that lives in my back yard eating another snake almost as big as he is.

  4. Very funny story. I had a friend leave a dead copperhead in my driveway as a joke. When I saw it I high stepped in the house and called my wife and told her she was on her own when she came home. I stayed in the house for 2 days. I don’t really miss my friend that much.

  5. John Switow says:

    Man, that is scary stuff! I have nothing but respect (fear) for copperheads, more so even that rattlers. Rattlers always seem to let you know they’re around! I hate to say it too, but I have heard of them finding their way into the dash, and they’re hard to get out of there. Be careful! Brings to mind the old saying; “No good deed goes unpunished”! I know they are beautiful, but (imho) not worth the risk ;). Great story!

  6. Ian, that was a great story and definitely a good sized snake there. Having come across many copperheads over the years, I am always pretty cautious in the woods. I “rescued” one out of my basement a few years ago back in TN and took it down the road. Thankfully it was still in the cooler when I went to drop it off. There’s a good chance I would never drive that vehicle again if I was you. I’m not afraid, just….ummmm, careful….yeah that’s what I’m going with.

  7. Mark Thienes says:

    To think that I have ridden in that vehicle, no more. That is a great story.
    Mark

    • We’ve been considering trading the Jeep for some time. My dad works as a salesman at Carmax in Knoxville and we asked if they might pick up cars for trade. He said it could be done on occasion but it was up to the salesman to pick up the car and he didn’t plan on making deliveries any time soon.

  8. Oh my Ian, this made me laugh and cry at the same time. Great post, but so sorry you don’t know where that snake truly is.

  9. Chris,
    Now I don’t feel quite so bad about losing a 2 1/2′ snake although I’m confident you’re not so creeped out by snakes as I think you’d have to want to bring a 12′ snake into the house unless it was a thatched hut. With a refrigerator.

    We’re hoping that hot days a few days back drove it out of the Jeep. Same thing with cool weather last night and tonight plus we’ve done everything short of tearing out the carpet. (We did smack it with a hammer though)