Eastern timber rattlesnake photograph by Johnathan Esper

Adirondack snake encounters

Photographer Johnathan Esper
has traveled the world. In recent years he’s stayed months at a time in Iceland, where he teaches visitors how and where to shoot the stunning land- scapes that have launched the island into a hot tourist destination.

During his adventures, “I’ve nearly gotten myself killed three times,” he says. Those close calls involved an avalanche in Greenland, a sea cliff in the Dominican Republic and, last Christmas, glacial silt mud in an Iceland ice cave.

Still, 33-year-old Esper, who is originally from Long Lake but now lives in Jay, was especially rattled last May when he was hiking near Lake George and almost stepped on a four-foot-long eastern timber rattlesnake. “That wasn’t a near-death experience,” he acknowledges, but, “I keep telling myself to play it safer. I’m being more cautious in my life.”

That morning Esper—aware of the area’s venomous inhabitants and dressed in hiking gaiters over his boots—had been walking through a beech and maple forest. He says, “The snake was well camouflaged—in the mottled light it looked like another root across the trail.” Just as he was about to step on it, the snake started rattling. Esper backed away, photographed it and then, after it slithered along, resumed his hike. That snake, shown above, had a yellow color pattern (rattlers have two genetically determined permanent color varieties—yellow and black).

Esper says that in his High Peaks backyard, “I drink mountain stream water. I lie or sleep anywhere—I don’t worry about wildlife.” But the eastern corridor of the Adirondacks, he says, is another story. There have been many snake sightings around where he saw the rattler (including one by this writer, so distracted by trailside spiderwebs and mosses that a boot nearly met with a coiled-up creature).

Herpetologist Bill Brown, an expert on eastern timber rattlesnakes who has devoted more than three decades to studying the reptiles, says it’s the snake that’s in danger. Crotalus horridus is listed as “threatened” and, since 1983, is protected under New York State law following a period of exploitation and near-extirpation.

“Regarding the perceived danger to the public,” says Brown, “there is virtually none. Although quite venomous—and therefore potentially dangerous—the snakes don’t exist to pay attention to humans unless they have to.”

Although Brown doesn’t disclose exact locations of snake sightings—that, he says, goes against his work as a researcher and conservationist—forest rangers have posted fact sheets at the trailheads of routes where rattlers are known to exist. Timber rattlesnakes hibernate in winter and are most on the move during summer mating season.

Commonsense precautions will keep hikers and campers safe, says Brown, such as “watching where you sit, step and place your hands.” He describes rattlers as “shy and retiring” and explains that they’re “normally not aggressive and will attempt to escape in an encounter with a human. However, if provoked or disturbed, a timber rattlesnake may hold its ground, coiled and rattling, until the human intruder disappears.”

Brown says, “I’ve dealt with hundreds of ‘nuisance’ calls to get rattlesnakes over the years at camps, driveways, lawns, porches, decks, docks, campsites, pathways, roads, bird feeders.” (They feed on small mammals such as chipmunks and mice.) Though there have been bites—“the result of human stupidity”—he adds, “there have been no documented timber rattlesnake deaths in New York State for the past 90 years.”

Bottom line? Pay attention. If you see a rattler, leave it alone. If it’s a nuisance, contact the Department of Environmental Conservation. If you’re bitten, go to the nearest hospital immediately. Be respectful of one of our region’s oldest inhabitants: according to Brown, our “rattlesnake dens represent ancestral populations that have been in continuous existence for approximately 8,000 years.”

Learn more about timber rattlesnakes during a lecture by Bill Brown on July 27 at 5:30 at the Lake George Land Conservancy office, in Bolton Landing. See a video of the rattler Johnathan Esper encountered at www.adirondacklife.com starting May 26.

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