BOB KORNEGAY: Not heeding a lesson can leave you rattled

OUTDOORS: Straying off the beaten path is not without it perils

Bob Kornegay

Bob Kornegay

During a hike a few years back, I wandered off the trail and into the “thick stuff.” I have a since-childhood habit of exiting beaten paths. Sometimes, what I want to see or touch is “over there” and over there is only accessible via terrain where, as the old song says, “the rabbits wouldn’t go.”

A couple days later, the thought occurred that I made this impromptu wild trek without an important piece of summertime outdoor equipment. Namely, my pocket-size aerosol can of insect repellent. This reminder surfaced upon discovery of a dozen or more chigger welts that manifested themselves in a number of non-public scratching places. I was prompted to declare, as I have many times in the past, “That will never happen again!”

And it hasn’t. Since then I have not once entered the deep woods without pants cuffs and belt line well saturated with hi-octane DEET. Result: no new chigger bites. Lord knows what that’s doing to my skin and insides, but at least I ain’t itching.

Unfortunately, my resolution to never forget bug spray again has not motivated me from playing trailblazer now and then. If I don’t see a “Stay On The Trail” sign, I’m still apt to go wandering. Last week I was doing just that at Kolomoki Mounds State Park where I disturbed a quite large Eastern king snake. I don’t know which of us was more startled by the chance meeting, but I’m glad no one was around to witness the fat-man dance I briefly but enthusiastically performed.

The incident reminded me of a similar encounter in north Florida back in 2008. I remember the exact date, July 12. It is indelibly etched in my memory. That day it was not bug spray that was forgotten. My equipment neglect instead involved the snake gaiters (leggings) I left neatly folded in the bed of my truck. I belatedly remembered my absent mindedness when I heard a tell-tale “buzz” from the leaf litter near my feet.

Old “no-shoulders” wasn’t hard to locate when I looked downward. From a distance of 2 to 4 feet, even the best natural camouflage is discernible. Those “diamonds” and that sinister wedge-shaped head stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. And that vibrato buzzing. There’s not another sound like it in the world.

When one stands that close to a 5-foot, locked-and-loaded Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, a number of thoughts come to mind. Uppermost is, “This ain’t good.” There’s also, “I wish I had a gun,” I wish I had on my gaiters,” and “I wish to God I was anywhere but here right now.” I even found myself (briefly) wishing for my camera. The outdoor journalist gene can be quite dominant sometimes.

Next I wondered what to do. Jump aside? Run? No. Too close. Movement awakened him and movement just might make him strike. Striking distance for a snake this size? Two feet, maybe? Just how close was I?

In the end, instinct, training, and memories of one or two past encounters motivated my standing there motionless. Okay, okay. Let me be honest. I was really just plain too scared to move.

The rattler, thankfully, wasn’t moving, either. Except for that tail. Lord, what a sound!

“Calm down, snake,” I silently pleaded. “Go away. Please!”

How long did this “Mexican standoff” go on? Two minutes? Five? Ten? Whatever, it was an eternity. Hornets, my worst outdoors phobia, began to look better and better.

Then, the buzzing stopped, as suddenly as it began. Unless you’ve experienced that, you can’t possibly know how eerily quiet it seems afterward. The head (his, not mine) relaxed and lowered. The thick body slowly untwined, stretched out, and began to move. Away. Thank goodness!

I stood there awhile, then turned and made my way back to the trail and back to my parked vehicle, stepping upon huge imaginary diamondbacks with every footfall. It took three attempts before the key finally slipped into the ignition. Continuing the hike was not an option.

Since that time, I’ve kept another promise. In warm weather, my snake gaiters are without fail buttoned around my lower legs and not lying useless in my vehicle.

As for staying on trails, I’m not quite there yet. Despite hints given me by large Eastern king snakes.

Email outdoors columnist Bob Kornegay at cletus@windstream.net.