Robertson: Rattlesnake quest in Cameron County

Matt Wilson, myself and Terra Haines pose during our recent rattlesnake hunt in Cameron County. The morning was perfect with a hazy sky and sunlight, keeping the snakes out of their dens a little longer. Notice the snake-proof leggings Matt and Terra are wearing just in case. I wore snake boots myself.

Just the word ‘snake’ grabs a person’s attention. But, the word ‘rattlesnake’ strikes the individual, pardon the pun, with a primal response that with few exceptions is one of fear and loathing.

Yet, that very same emotion seems to attract people’s attention and curiosity — drawn irresistibly — when the occasion permits, to watch a documentary on TV or view serpents in a cage or zoo. Even when snakes are simply on the screen or safely caged, those watching them are extremely tense, nerve ends quivering, staring fixedly and on edge. Simply yelling “Boo” at someone in this state usually results in a violent jerk of the body and a scream. This isn’t restricted to women only, many men share the same emotions, some even more so. Like oil and water, people and snakes simply don’t mix.

I myself share these same feelings. When I come in close contact with a snake, I usually give a violent start or jump. Once I know the creatures there I’m OK, able to observe them in a more rational manner. I don’t hate snakes, in fact, I couldn’t kill one on a bet. There is something in my subconscious that prohibits me from even thinking of killing a snake. I’ve thought about this at some length and the closest I can come to understanding this is that killing a snake would bring an immediate, horrible retribution upon me. This feeling is so strong it’s more of a certainty than a premonition. Go figure, but its risk I’ll never take.

Fortunately, my friend Matt Wilson of Smethport is one of our area’s snake experts, and has worked closely with several state and federal government agencies documenting den sites, tagging individual rattlers and monitoring construction projects that could threaten snake populations. He loves rattlesnakes and is very concerned with their protection.

His wife, Paula, works closely with him and loves rattlers as well. Most of the time when working on a project site, she’s been teased and generally made fun of by big, tough, rough construction types. But, when she picked up a 4-foot rattler and walked toward them, these same he-men squealed and scattered like little girls. Their attitudes toward her changed immediately afterward.

I’d accompanied Matt on a snake hunt some time ago. Despite having a big rattler crawl half a circle around me only three feet away while I was sitting on the ground taking pictures of another coiled and rattling snake, I felt the urge to once again come in close contact with these fascinating creatures. After all, that rattler was only moving to the safety of its den and rattling to keep me safe, aware of its presence so I didn’t accidently move closer.

We met at the Port Allegheny Sheetz last Saturday and drove to the Wykoff Run area. Wykoff Run flows into the Driftwood Branch of the Sinnemahoning River, the same river Colonel Kane and the famed Bucktail Regiment of the civil war floated down in 1861 toward battle. The hills in this area are incredibly steep, having near vertical sides and very rocky. I bet a human hasn’t set foot on many of these hillsides for years and years, from the 1800s when the virgin timber was cut and floated to sawmills downstream.

I peppered Matt with questions about rattlers and his experiences on the way, the trip passing very quickly. Today, we’d have a second person accompanying us, Terra Haines of Bedford. I must admit when I heard our accomplice would be female I wondered what she’d be like. When we reached our meeting point, I was pleasantly surprised to find Terra to be a tall, athletic, blue eyed, blonde full of activity, curiosity and enthusiasm for today’s snake adventure.

I was deeply intrigued as to why Terra had taken an interest in rattlesnakes of all things. Most people and especially girls are adverse if not terrified of coming within close proximity of large, poisonous snakes in the wild.

Terra is a goal-setter and the type of person who challenges herself. She began hunting since she loved the outdoors and set a goal of shooting a turkey, buck and bear in the same year. She did it, the triple trophy. Most impressive. Next on her list of goals to overcome was one of her fears. Needless to say, snakes were certainly high on that list and as long as you’re working on snakes, why not make them rattlesnakes?

She did a little research, bought the equipment, license, and headed out. On one of her first excursions she ran into Matt. Now, hunters and fishermen can be very jealous of their favorite spots and snake hunters are the most secretive of them all. Terra’s trying to hide her snake hook, both are talking riddles and finally Matt came out and said; “Quit the bull!”

Soon, impressed by Terra’s sincerity, he gave her his card. She called soon after and Matt became her mentor, introducing her to the beauty and wonder of these timid creatures.

This morning, Matt guided us to an open area covered in sweet fern, grass and blueberry bushes. Rattlers require sunshine for warmth and rocks for cover. Not just any rocks will do. They must be large enough to safely hide beneath, but small enough to warm in the sun. This makes the time of year, the angle in which they face the sun and the amount of time exposed to sunlight of paramount importance. After years in the field, Matt has a pretty good handle on the situation but, there are no guarantees, how many would we find today if any?

                                             (To be continued)