Rattlers Revisited

The deluge of timber rattlesnake comments continues following two weeks of discussion here about the state’s plan to establish a population of the venomous snakes on Mt. Zion, the large, isolated Quabbin Reservoir island and no-man’s land that’s off limits to humans.

MassWildlife’s justification for the proposal is that no reptile is slipping faster toward extinction than the timber rattler, and thus it’s high time to reverse that troubling trend. That said, state officials and proponents can’t with a straight face pretend they didn’t expect some sort of clamor once their plan leaked out. Yes, one had to presume the inevitability that a public largely unaware that it has always lived with rattlesnakes (and poisonous copperheads, for that matter) without ever having seen one was bound to react hysterically when apprised of the plan. And, yes, the public knee-jerk reaction was indeed negative. Oh what a stir it created. Poisonous snakes can do that to people, especially card-carrying ophidiaphobes, of which there are many. But let’s be honest. Fair or not, is there a more predictable target of public scorn than government agencies and their humble public servants? So let’s not act surprised by the unfavorable, accusatory buzz, particularly that emanating from the North Quabbin Region.

Put on your thinking caps and consider this: Given the fact that, no matter what the state says, there are already rattlesnakes top to bottom in the Pioneer Valley’s hills and dales, wasn’t it only a matter of time in these days of global warming and reforestation before rattlesnakes started coming back like bears and moose and many other formerly displaced wildlife species before them? Well, maybe not, considering the state disclosure that this endangered reptile is in serious peril due to road-kill and human contact. But it still makes sense that a warming climate would eventually open the possibility for more rattlers and copperheads, which have always been more prolific in warmer southern climes than here.

Anyway, most of the feedback this space has fielded was aimed at its own speculation that, despite claims that the last places of refuge for rattlers in the Bay State are located in Hampden and Hampshire counties and the Blue Hills area south of Boston, they are here, too, if you know where to search. Problem is that fewer and fewer folks are patrolling remote, difficult woods, particularly high, ledgy spines with snake-inviting talus slopes, shale beds and leg-breaking rock slides. It’s not the kind of terrain hikers gravitate to for summer frolic, in many cases because savvy upland explorers know that’s precisely where you’re most apt to encounter potentially dangerous serpents from the evil underworld.


Now for a quick look at the more interesting feedback to cross this desk in the past week:

• The most detailed correspondence came by email late last Thursday night from a Colrain man. He wanted to tell a tale that unfolded before his very eyes “five or six years ago” while walking his two unrestrained dogs along the ridge-top trail following the Pocumtuck Ridge overlooking Wapping and Old Deerfield, south of the Eaglebrook School ski slopes. Yes, it was up there that he spotted something halfway onto the trail in front of him which caught his attention and turned out to be “the biggest snake I had ever seen in the wild,” estimated at “three or four feet long and very thick.” Because his dogs had already passed the viper without incident, the intrigued hiker decided to investigate closer, which may or may not be legal when dealing with an endangered species.

“It was elongated, motionless and brown,” he wrote. “In the back of my mind I wondered if maybe it was a rattler because I had heard of sightings on the Holyoke and Mt. Tom ranges. Like an idiot, I picked up a very long branch … and slowly extended it toward the snake, which promptly snapped into a tight coil with the tail rattling away at the center.”

He thought about reporting his sighting to MassWildlife but never got around to it because he figured it wasn’t all that rare.

• Earlier last Thursday, around 9 a.m., the home phone rang and it was a familiar Greenfield man who made it clear that he wanted to remain anonymous. An avid hiker who’s no stranger to upland terrain where rattlers are most apt to lurk, he himself has never encountered one but assumes he’s unknowingly passed many in his travels. He cited hiking trails on Mount Toby and Northfield Mountain as his two most likely haunts to contain rattlers, but was more interested in recounting the tales told many times by his mother, who grew up adjacent to what is today Greenfield’s Cherry Rum Plaza when it was undeveloped, wooded, swampy terrain during her childhood. She was fond of telling her sons of the rattlesnakes killed by neighborhood boys near a well-known den along the southern edge of White Ash Swamp. This den was associated with an outcropping of ledge overlooking Cherry Rum Brook. So, take it to the bank that even today, 70 years later, if someone seriously searched for rattlers along the ridgeline overlooking the Connecticut River, exploring also the steep, stony, eastern and/or western slopes of Rocky Mountain all the way from Canada Hill to Bears Den overlooking Bingville, there’s a good chance you could find a rattler.

• That bold prediction focused in Greenfield gains credence when you consider additional feedback that arrived last week about a mountain north of the state border, across the Connecticut River from Brattleboro, Vt., named here last week (Mt. Wantastiquet) as the 1961 site where a power-company laborer had killed a rattler displayed in Adams Donuts’ parking lot. Considering what correspondent Wendy Gaida reported about that site, it’s more than likely that rattlers still exist there. Ms. Gaida responded to last week’s column to report that she grew up in North Hinsdale, N.H., at the base of that mountain whose Indian name she had never heard until she was an adult. No, the only name she knew for Wantastiquet was the vernacular “Rattlesnake Mountain,” where her family forbade summer play due to rattlesnake fears.

“We were told there were thousands of rattlesnakes up there,” she recalled. “Everyone talked about it, including my grandparents, who also lived in North Hinsdale. They summered dry cows up there but never allow us on the mountain except in the winter.”

• The final feedback arrived from none other than a brother-in-law nestled into faraway idyllic retirement on a gentleman’s farm in Waldo County, Maine. Spurred by mention here last week of the ballad “On Springfield Mountain,” about a young Wilbraham man killed by a rattlesnake in 1761, he had a tale to tell from his childhood on Somers (Conn.) Mountain, a stone’s throw from the Springfield Mt. of Woody Guthrie ballad fame. He recalled capturing a snake and placing it in a grass-filled pickle jar as a curious 5- or 6-year-old Somers lad. That snake became part of the family, transmitting absolutely no bad vibes until neighbor Chan Hubble stopped by on his way through and the young lad decided he may want to see his captured pet, which he fetched and brought just outside the hilltop home’s front door.

“There, to my astonishment, upon looking into the jar, old Chan went absolutely wild, immediately screaming, ‘Copperhead!’ and dumping my little snake out on the ground in front of my mother and me. Once the snake was out, Mr. Hubble leaped unexpectedly into the air time and again — each time crashing down with his heavy boots on my precious little snake and bellowing, ‘Copperhead!’
“To this day, I have no idea what type of snake that was. And, of course, once old Chan was done dancing, which lasted the better part of a minute, a forensic scientist would have had trouble determining that the mass on the ground was a snake, never mind what type of snake it was.”

Oh yes, snakes sure can bring out the worst fears in a man, especially a committed ophidiophobe, which ole Chan Hubble may very well have been.

That young boy, now a trusted brother-in-law and devoted naturalist, got a close look at the reaction one can expect when such fears kick into high gear.

You can’t make it up.

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