Snake Tales From A Surveyor

An old surveyor and longtime reader of this space stopped by Saturday afternoon to shoot the breeze. A bit of a character, he’s always welcome.

He started right in on the Red Sox, especially Panda Bear, whom he calls “Fatso,” then said he’s more interested in the Patriots’ draft and even had the date memorized. Not bad for an octogenarian closing in a 90.

Then came the subject he most wanted to address.

“What the hell is wrong with those people wanting to stock rattlesnakes at the Quabbin? Do they need their heads examined?”

“Well, you’re not alone in that opinion,” was the response. “Truthfully, though, it probably won’t change things much. No one will likely ever know the difference.”
“That may be true, but it still makes no sense to me.”

Mind you, we’re talking about a man who has legitimate reasons for his feelings about poisonous snakes. In 40-some years as a land surveyor on jobs from northern Maine to Maryland, he had some close calls over the years. And he didn’t hesitate a millisecond to engage in eager conversation about his encounters with dangerous snakes as a member of crews cutting line with machetes, pounding hubs into the ground and running traverse and cross-section detail through mountainous wilderness plots spanning the Northeast from the early 1950s into the ’80s.

A South Deerfield native, he had heard childhood tales of poisonous snakes and where they lurked but had managed to avoid confrontation during a foot-free childhood that included many a trek up the two Sugarloafs. No, never a rattlesnake or copperhead sighting from his boyhood adventures. Not a one. Just cautionary adult tales planted in his consciousness to assure that he was always alert when exploring the hills and dales.

That all changed as an adult, when he went to work as a land surveyor, working on projects like the MassPike between Westfield to Russell, where snake-infested Mt. Tekoa loomed large to the north, or Lane’s Quarry along the West Springfield/Westfield border, and especially during extended work in the early 1960s laying out peripherals related to Camp David, the famous presidential retreat built 62 miles northwest of the White House in the 1930s and situated in the snake-infested Catoctin Mountain Park in rural western Maryland.

“We had to wear special high boots when we worked there,” he said, “and sightings of poisonous snakes were not rare. In fact, I recall a laborer getting bitten not far from me and getting very sick.

Of course, he also remembers the time he was working somewhere in western Massachusetts — for the life of him, he can’t recall where — when a trusted crew-member he always called “Old Fred” intervened in a memorable incident.

“I was walking along through the woods with Old Fred behind me and I unknowingly walked right past a snake I didn’t see,” he said. “Well, Old Fred — he had a hunter’s eye in the woods — touched me on the shoulder and said, pointing down with the tip of his machete, ‘Hey, look what you just walked right past — copperhead!’

“Sure enough, right there, a foot away from the point of his machete was a three-foot snake in an aggressive pose. You’re more apt to get bitten by a copperhead, you know, because they don’t warn you with a rattle. Old Fred took care of the problem. With the flick of his wrist, he cut that snake’s head off right there within five feet of me.”

Another time, having laid out an underground mountain communications chamber outside of Clear Springs, Md., blasting crews were hollowing out the bed rock with dynamite when they disturbed a thickly populated nest of rattlesnakes, blowing many living, squirming, angry rattlers atop a large, flat, warm bedrock shelf. The fellas were used to dealing with such problems, and their methods speak to the reason why Eastern timber rattlers are now an endangered species in these parts, where they were likely for years attacked with similar lethal fury.

“They doused the stone surface with gasoline and set the ledge aflame,” he said, “killing them all.”

You don’t have to wonder whether rattlers uncovered during similar construction projects here in the Pioneer Valley and elsewhere in New England were likewise burned from existence. It was undoubtedly done here before the snakes became protected by law.

“When we told the story to the guy who owned the place where we ate every night, he didn’t seem surprised,” said the surveyor. “Apparently, it was common practice. Plus, he told us a story about a wildfire up there up on that mountain, when people could hear the rattlesnakes rattling as they fled down the hill toward water.”

Who knows whether that’s fact or fiction? You be the judge.

Back closer to home in the Pioneer Valley, our aged surveyor source said he didn’t recall seeing a rattler, per se, when working on the MassPike project “around that bridge at Woronoco,” but he did remember being warned often to be wary of rattlers, then in early autumn finding the shed skin of a large rattlesnake in a cement drainage trench along the edge of the interstate. It served as a visual reminder of the potential dangers lurking around any sunny, stony corner, and, of course, gave the fellas the heebie-jeebies every time a twig snapped across the back of their legs or a dead prostrate branch two or three inches thick lay across a path they were clearing through brush.

Then there was the time not far away, our source remembered, when a worker at the aforementioned Lane Quarry went into the brush to answer Mother Nature’s call, come running out terrified, grabbed a long, heavy stick and came back out with a limp four-foot rattlesnake dangling from the end of it.

“In the field, we were always on the lookout in rocky, upland terrain, plus around stone walls, which snakes seem to like,” he said, “especially down in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Stonewalls were always a concern down there, but I would guess you’d find snakes in stonewalls here, too, if you went looking.”

One other place our surveyor friend remembers for its poisonous snakes was his brother-in-law’s secluded, wooded estate in the middle Hudson Valley Town of Kingston, N.Y. There, he said, copperheads were not an uncommon sight in the woods and probably still aren’t, be it along the dirt roads or even around the house, where one of his brother-in-law’s Irish setters was once bitten. When his brother-in-law asked him if he’d survey the perimeter of his property some weekend to mark the corners, he promised to do so, “but only around wintertime when the snakes were hibernating.”

As indisputable as it is today that local rattler and copperhead populations have diminished over the past 50 years, the fact is that they were here and were not at all uncommon in the not-so-distant past. Now, given the fact that the Pioneer Valley is indeed warming with the rest of the planet, how long before the return of the vipers with or without MassWildlife’s proposed reintroduction initiative at the Quabbin Reservation?

Who knows? Maybe rattlers will find their way to Mt. Zion on their own.

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