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Don't Be Rattled

by on September 02, 2015 6:00 AM

Not to alarm you would-be woods walkers, but there are rattlesnakes out there.

We met one the other day, all curled up along the John Wert Trail, which follows tea-colored Sinking Creek away from Bear Meadows, deep in the Rothrock State Forest.

A timber rattler this was, thick as a baguette.

There were five of us. Louise told us that according to local lore in South Africa, where she’s from, the first person alerts the snake, the second person irritates the snake and the third person gets bitten.

Happily, Rosa did not alert, Louise did not irritate, Dorn did not get bitten and my wife and I did not have to spring into heroic action – a good thing because we would not have known what to do.

Perhaps, I suggested, we should review best practices in the event that we alert and irritate some other snake as we make our wary way back to the car.

We had heard contradictory things: Suck the venom out of the wound. Cut away the area around the puncture (none of us had a knife). Apply a tourniquet. Ice it (no ice, either).

Then: Get to a hospital, pronto. No, stay still while your companions rush out and get help.

I was reminded of the conflicting advice I’d heard about what to do in an encounter with a bear. Do you:

a)    Lie down, play dead and hope the bear cops a sniff and a cheap feel?

b)    Run like hell or, if you’re nimble enough, climb a tree?

c)    Stand your ground, inform the bear in the strongest possible terms that you are not to be trifled with, and chuck rocks or brandish a stick?

Bonus question: How about if it’s a mountain lion rather than a bear?

Hereabouts, the only mountain lion you’re likely to meet is the one in the Penn State jersey at sporting events and pep rallies, but in California I was told that if a lion gets up in your grille to gouge his eyes out.

This made me fervently hope I would never encounter a cougar in the wild.

One may, however meet a black bear in Penn’s Woods. I met one in my backyard once, three blocks from downtown State College. (We had blueberry bushes.)

For that matter, I remember a news story about a bear in the tree outside the florist shop on Allen Street. (The police complained that some bystanders were unhelpfully baiting the bear. A human was cited for disorderly conduct. The bear was tranked and released into the wild.)

There are two things to keep in mind when you have a close encounter with a black bear. One is that the first thought that pops into its head when it sees a human is not “Chow time!” We may be tasty, but we are not a normal part of a bear’s fare.

The other thing to keep in mind is that we are imposing creatures in our own right: They would prefer not to mess with us.

For these two reasons, black bear encounters rarely turn ugly. When they do, the experts say, it’s usually because you’ve gotten between them and their cubbies or between them and their yummies.

(When I was a reporter in California there were occasional stories of visitors posing with adorable bear cubs, then being charged by the momma, who apparently did not fancy her little ones being treated as teddy bears.)

If a bear encounter does turn hostile, try talking to the bear calmly first, the experts say. You know, explain that you are a sincere man from the land where the palm trees grow and assure him that a bearskin rug would clash mightily with the décor of your living room.

If that doesn’t work, raise holy hell and throw stuff. 

Oh, and use your bear spray – which means you should probably carry bear spray (I never have.)

As for rattlesnakes: Forget “Guantanamera.” They feel the vibrations of your footfalls rather than hear you crooning. Like bears, they’re unlikely to strike unless startled. So don’t startle them

OK, if you do startle a rattler – easy to do, it seems to me, because they have this nice camo thing going – and you’re struck, the experts want you to remain calm.

Yeah, good luck with that.

Also: no tourniquet, no suction, no cutting, no ice.

Some of the experts say to stay put, which doesn’t seem all that compatible with getting to a hospital if you’re on the trail and far from your car.

Those that acknowledge this inconvenient fact advise walking out slowly and resting frequently. The idea is to keep your heart rate down so the poison doesn’t circulate.

The good news: Assuming you get treatment, rattlesnake venom is unlikely to kill you.

The better news: Once people read this column you’ll have the woods all to yourself.

A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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