My first copperhead

on 13 Comments

I’m on a high this week because I saw my first copperhead snake last Thursday, at last.

Three years ago I moved to this hill in upstate New York, and it’s supposed to have copperheads. There’s a gulch a mile from here called Copperhead Cut. The old farmer at the bottom of the hill on the east tells me he used to see a lot of them, no longer. Still, I was keen to see one. I’m one of those people who’s hung up on snakes. I’m not alone. They’re the original shitstirrers, from Genesis, and they’re powerful and dangerous and beautiful.

I go walking all over these hills. I saw a bunch of black snakes– and I’ve seen plenty of rattlers in the Highlands– but never a copperhead. I decided that they were gone, mythological, another time and place. The only one I ever saw was dead, on the Fishkill Road, a few miles from here, different watershed.

Last Thursday a friend and I were out for two hours and went to a lake not far from the Appalachian Trail as it comes through here. There was an old guy in a towel sitting on a log by the lake, his knee braces on the ground. Hank– he’d just been swimming.

The dogs went in the water, and I was walking back from the dam when I saw the copperhead. It was a couple feet off the trail on a long piece of bark in a patch of sun. It was looped around, but not coiled. I knew in my gut before the thought came into my head, that’s a copperhead. It was copper like a copper beech leaf is copper, purple-blue, with its markings in a bluish black, and it was fat and long. I called Richard and Hank over. They’d all walked by it a couple times. It was just in the brush. We stared at it for a while and it stood our scrutiny for a time then it lifted its powerful diagonal head and unfolded itself and moseyed off.

It was four feet long, and wanted no part of us.

The walk back was interesting. I was wearing Chaco sandals and didn’t take my eyes off the trail. All I’ve done since then is talk about copperheads. I was having a spectacular fight with my wife when I went on the hike, but when I got back, I just talked about copperheads. A friend sent me this, about getting bitten.

I’ll never walk the same way around here. I got so used to there being no copperheads I would go through any brush, bushwhacking, without concern. I’ve gone gallivanting through Copperhead Cut many a time, over fallen trees and high grass. I realized I’ve probably passed a lot of copperheads just like I passed this one at first, and they booked. 

Walking around here the last couple years, I started to think I was king. I was innocent and stupid. Last week I finally saw the king, thick and blue and shy. 

13 Responses

  1. MHughes976
    July 12, 2011, 10:38 am

    An allusion to DH Lawrence’s Mexican snake which seemed to him ‘like a king in exile’?
    ‘Copperhead’ was a political term in Civil War days, presumably originally invoking coldness, disloyalty and treason, though many adopted the term with pride – perhaps thinking of the species’ resilience and deadly power.

  2. Kathleen
    July 12, 2011, 11:24 am

    Hiking in these Appalachian hills for decades I have seen quite a few copperheads. And have to admit have had to kill quite a few near my student rentals in the country. Have never ever seen one when I hike but under piled up under stacks of wood, cleaning out a shed etc. Most of the time they will slither away. They are beautiful. But if they do not leave within a reasonable amount of time I have cut their heads off with a shovel. Sorry with children and renters near by have felt it was necessary. They are aggressive and will not back down. Not an easy thing to do because I am not into killing critters or anything else.

    Have had several friends who have been bitten they pack quite a wallop and can be deadly to children (small bodies) The markings are distinct with a solid dot between each of the hour glass shape on their beautiful bodies. Some Non poisonous snakes will make an effort to make their heads look triangular so that you will leave them alone

    Copperheads. That dot is down near the belly between each hour glass
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    Really like seeing black snakes near by. Keep the mice population down
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  3. Kathleen
    July 12, 2011, 11:27 am

    One of my favorite snake sightings was hiking on a trail outside of Crested Butte Colorado. I walked up on a rattler slowing swallowing a pika had never watched a snake at that point in my life eat its prey

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    • Chu
      July 12, 2011, 11:59 am

      aw, that’s so cute. It’s like a mouse-bunny.

  4. MarkF
    July 12, 2011, 11:28 am

    My “first” was at Camp Monroe in Monroe, NY when I was a kid camper many many years ago. The rifle intructor shot the thing outside our bunk.

    Pizza nights were fun though.

    • Kathleen
      July 12, 2011, 11:54 am

      They are nocturnal. Almost stepped on one night coming out of a friends house deep in the country around 3 am in the morning. Was in the striking position. the adolescents especially pack a wallop of poison

  5. American
    July 12, 2011, 1:41 pm

    Copperheads aren’t that aggressive, they will usually avoid you.
    What we worry about around here is cotton mouths water moccasins and diamondback rattlers…..they are very agressive and will hold their ground and strike out at any movement….and the cotton mouth bite is fatal.
    I had a water moccasin swimming across the lake strike at my boat paddle…unprovoked.
    Then again, I was sitting on a log once over a stream in a cypress swamp and a momma moccasin and two small ones swam right under my feet and ignored me….probably because I froze up in fear the second I saw them.

    • Kathleen
      July 15, 2011, 8:50 am

      Of course they try to avoid you but do not head out asap as many other snakes around here will do. If you try to give them a bit of assistance in moving along they definitely get pissed (rightfully so)

      I have had this experience many many times when I have tried to politely move them when children are in the vicinity. Again have had several friends bitten and the copperheads packed a wallop. Leg swollen, sick to their stomachs, hospital runs

      “But often escape is not possible, so most snakes hold their ground, ready to defend themselves. A difference between copperheads and the other species appears in the next phase, when they are approached. Most rattlesnakes vibrate their tails and most cottonmouths sit with mouth open when a human comes near. Even some non-venomous snakes vibrate their tails. These displays are merely warnings not to tread on them. They are not aggressive attack measures. The snakes just want us to leave them alone.

      So far, the dozens of cottonmouths Dr. Gibbons stood beside have made threat displays but have not bitten the researcher’s boot. The same has been true for canebrake rattlesnakes although too few have been tested to declare that they are as passive as cottonmouths. The exciting news (at least for the researchers) is that the copperhead is different from the others. Most copperheads tested have struck out immediately when they felt threatened.

      This behavior explains why more people receive legitimate snakebites from copperheads than from any other species of venomous snake in North America. Still to be investigated is another aspect of copperhead bites: many are not serious enough to require more than minor medical treatment. This may be so not only because the venom of a copperhead is significantly less potent than that of rattlesnakes or cottonmouths, but also because they seldom inject much venom.

      The copperhead’s initial threat display is to strike. It lashes out at an enemy as a warning. If the enemy is close enough, the fangs may penetrate the skin. However, because this is a threat display, not an attempt to kill, the snake injects little venom. A copperhead has no intention of wasting valuable venom if it can scare away the menace with a minor bite.”

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  6. Mooser
    July 12, 2011, 3:23 pm

    There’s no reason why, with a little bit of care and attention, that little fellow couldn’t become a favorite household pet. And you could have offered him to your wife as a conciliatory present.

  7. DICKERSON3870
    July 13, 2011, 1:43 am

    RE: “Last week I finally saw the king, thick and blue and shy.” – Weiss
    MY COMMENT: Where the devil is St. Patrick when you need him?!?!

  8. annie
    July 13, 2011, 4:48 am

    Walking around here the last couple years, I started to think I was king.

    oh bejeezers does this ever completely duplicate exactly the thought running thru my head right after intercepting a coiled rattler while i was tripping (literally)around naked in the san pedro mts. we looked at eachother and any fantasies i had about being queen of the hill just dissipated in a second flat.

    we have some talking to do about snakes one of these days phil. my land in eastern wa is also on rattlesnake rd. killer post, killer.

    • Kathleen
      July 15, 2011, 8:41 am

      For some reason when I am hiking (which is often) I never feel like a Queen or King. In fact just the opposite. Somehow being out in the woods in the east or hiking in the mts out west etc puts things in perspective. Puts me in my place. Another mammal doing its thing. One of the many.

      Hiking in Montana, Idaho etc in grizzly territory…always aware I am on the food chain.

      • annie
        July 15, 2011, 10:10 am

        i wasn’t hiking. i had been living in this remote place we found on a topo map for weeks. we were looking for places condors could survive which require specific geographical canyon type conditions. i must have started feeling very territorial, like i knew every rock. i had been rock (boulder) hopping (i love rock hopping) in an almost dry river bed. it was late afternoon and very warm and everything in the air was soft and penetrating and i had just been thinking about how perfect the world was and how perfect the balance was and i very much felt like a queen of the universe, like nothing could ever be better than this. and then all of a sudden i looked down and there it was coiled w/rattler rattling and open jaw and tongue near (almost under) a large bolder about 1 or 2 ft from my naked foot/body and i froze and immediately walked back all the thoughts (instinctually, it was not a choice on my part) i had just had while i was lollying around fantasizing how cool i was and then i said to the snake (without actually speaking it was more like a prayer but we were looking at eachother) “i am nothing but a mere visitor in your home and i have only been here weeks while you have been here since the beginning of time and i am nothing (sorry sorry for even imagining something so absurd)”..and then after a significant amount of time that seemed like forever but was probably about 1 minute i very slowly lifted my foot off the ground keeping the rest of my body completely still and retreated the one foot and then the snake started moving under the rock by keeping itself coiled but the coil became less as the rest of it was disappearing under the rock. and then when it was gone i retreated facing the rock without turning around. very slowly.

        so, it was just a momentary thought about being a queen and the universe let me know immediately what an idiot i was!

        and then, as if i was hit by a double whammy within moments a huge bright beautiful dragon fly came flying up to me and startled me and got right in front of my face and just buzzed there right in front of my nose for what seemed like an eternity and then just as quickly exited!
        as if it wasn’t JUST the rattler who i had offended! like who the heck did i think i was! i will never forget this and i there was a human witness. my bf had been about 8 ft behind me and witnesses the whole thing. sheesh.

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