Summer brings with it a whole wealth of good things from the garden, homemade ice cream, trips to the beach or the mountains, cool linen clothes, long hot days and firefly nights, time spent on porches, picnics in the park and swimming in the cool waters of Smith Lake.
In the hottest part of the summer we all long for those lazy days by the water. For Jamie Mize it was the lake that lured her one day last month when the humidity was heavy and the sun was burning so brightly that it hurt to gaze out over the sparkling water for too long.
On June 23, she went to Smith Lake with friends to cool off in the water near Yellow Creek just as they had done many times before. However, this day would be different from any other she had experienced.
The group had been jet skiing, some had ridden the scenic lake in a pontoon boat that came and went as people switched places and enjoyed the breeze from the deck of the boat as they motored down the popular swimming and vacationing spot in the mountains of North Alabama near Jasper.
From about one in the afternoon until around five o’clock, they played and laughed, swam, went tubing and back and forth to the shore to eat, played in the water some more and in general just had a really good time. There were several adults in the crowd, some with young children and babies who laughed and gurgled as the water splashed onto their chubby sunscreen-slathered cheeks.
Jamie, a self-avowed tomboy, was treading water floating in her orange life vest in neck-deep cool water when she noticed a stick about 10 feet away from her.
She turned to say something to someone and when she turned back around the ‘stick’ was right there in her face, only it had evil, slitted eyes and flaring nostrils - a snake only inches away from her face and coming closer. She didn’t think, she just reacted.
She screamed, “snake” as loudly as she could to alert the others. She says that her first instinct was to grab it and sling it toward the center of the lake. “I was trying to get it away from those babies,” she explained.
As she lifted it out of the water and hurdled it as far as she could, it bit her hand between the thumb and index finger. “I knew that I’d been bitten as soon as it struck me,” she recalls. “It scratched me once before puncturing the skin on both sides, bringing blood.”
A friend, Roger Riddle, who was close by, saw the snake just before she grabbed it. He guesstimates its length at about 18,” or so. Both believe its color was a bright shade of rust.
“All I could think about at the time was getting it as far from those babies as possible,” she said. “I’d rather have had it bite me than them, or anyone else.”
Jamie has always been athletic and stays in great shape, so she was strong enough to get out of the water and make it to a vehicle. Riddle drove her to Walker Baptist Medical Center in Jasper, about 20 minutes away. She remained “as cool as a cucumber,” not panicking as some people in a similar situation might have, which would have pumped more poison into her system, had the snake been poisonous.
It was determined that the snake had depleted its store of venom already that day, if it was indeed a poisonous snake. “Now in looking back I wish I’d held onto it so that we would have known what kind it was, but I was only thinking of the children at that point,” she recalled.
The doctors prepared for an IV in case they needed to give her fluids, and did blood work, but the bite never started to swell, nor did it turn black and blue.
The ER doctor couldn’t determine if the snake was poisonous or not, but it was noted from the bite marks that the snake that bit Mize did, indeed, have fangs. Hers was called a ‘dry bite’ means that no venom was released into Jamie’s hand, if it was a poison variety.
She was prescribed antibiotics and discharged a few hours later. She has suffered no ill effects from the bite.
Due to her quick thinking and a good left arm, she removed the snake from the immediate vicinity of the other swimmers, including the babies. Luckily for them, Jamie was a formidable ball player and still has lighting reflexes.
When asked if she was leary about returning to the water she just laughed. “I’m not leary, I’m not scared of snakes, I just don’t like them in my face!”
Andy Baril, Regional Extension Agent over Forestry, Wildlife and Natural Resources for Lawrence and some of its surrounding counties, says that snakes can and do swim from one side of the lake to the other frequently. “It sounds like the snake was swimming along and needed a place to rest,” said Baril. “It would have seen her head as a stump floating in the water and it would have climbed up on her shoulders and head if she hadn’t turned around when she did.” Based on his experience with snakes he thinks the description of how the snake came toward her supports this information. He also guesses that a snake swimming on top of the water the way Mize described would more than likely be a water moccasin or a copperhead. “Non-venomous water snakes swim underwater because they eat fish, but water moccasins and copperheads swim on top of the water. This also makes them very susceptible to hawks,” he said.
According to Baril, the old wives tales about snakes include using moth balls to deter snakes are just that. “The only things moth balls scare away are moths,” he laughed. “Some people put them in their attics to deter squirrels, but that is an old wives tale, too.”
Another of these misleading notions is that a black racer will chase a human. “The only reason any snake might appear to chase a human is that the human is standing between the snake and where it wants to go,” said Baril.
“The best deterrent for homeowners is short grass,” he advised. “Snakes are pretty low on the food chain and many other animals can become a predator for a snake, including hawks,” he explained. “So they like longer grass because it gives them cover.”
Baril says that most people never see a snake in the wild in their lives, much less get bitten. “Usually when a woman gets bitten it’s on the ankle because she stepped on it, or just didn’t notice it in her path, but if a man gets bitten it’s because he is trying to catch it,” Baril laughed.
He also explained that if you find a snake skin you can tell if the snake was venomous or not by turning it inside out and checking where its belly would be. “A non-venomous snake will have two scales that run from its neck to its anus,” he said. “Whereas a venomous snake will only have one scale running almost the length of its body.”
In another reptilian episode last weekend at the Carpenter home in Speake, a snake made a surprise appearance. This time there was no doubt about its species. It was most definitely a rattlesnake.
It was the family pets that first alerted Alicia Carpenter that something was amiss.
Coincidentally, it was about the same time of day that Jamie was bitten a month earlier, around 5:20, when the Carpenter’s female Boston terrier, Lola, started barking incessantly. “Our dogs only bark when warning us,” Alicia explained. “I went outside to see what she was barking at. Lola and Woo Woo, our seven-year-old orange tabby cat had it cornered.”
“That’s the only time I’ve ever seen a snake coiled and ready to strike in real life,” said Alicia. She describes the sound of the rattling as being very loud. “I wish I’d had the wherewithal to video it,” she lamented. “As it was, I could only scream until the cat went away. I loved on him the next day because he could have been killed!” she said.
Baril says that venomous snakes like this one strike their prey from a short distance then wait until the venom paralyzes them. “Then they proceed to eat them,” he noted. “All non-venomous snakes constrict their prey and slowly tighten their grip until they smother the prey or crush its lungs.”
Historically, the Carpenters, who have owned the land since 1978, have seen a few copperheads, but this was Alicia’s first experience with a rattlesnake. “My inlaws said there was one in the exact same spot in the late 1980s,” she added. The family has 20 acres mowed and another 30 are used as walking and riding trails in the woods.
“There is a creek on the back side of our property,” she said. “Maybe it was thirsty; it was headed in that direction.”
Rob Carpenter disposed of the four-foot-long rattlesnake (who died as a result of a gunshot wound to the head).
After the excitement was over, the Carpenters researched the snake and discovered that it was a velvet rattler. “It looks like velvet,” Alicia explained, “but it still feels like a snake.”
They counted nine rattlers.
It seems as if there are a lot more reports about snakes this summer than in previous years. Forestry, Wildlife, & Natural Resources, Alabama Cooperative Extension System Agent, Norm Haley, however, says that his office near Ft. Payne, has received only five calls about snakes all season.
He went on to say that one of the most rare of Alabama’s poisonous snakes, the pigmy rattlesnake is sometimes studied by extension agents who have put monitors on them to get data about their lifestyle. “It seems that they are known for their tenacity in waiting for something to bite to come along. These snakes sometimes stay in one spot for weeks without moving around very much,” said Haley. “They like to hide under leaves and pine straw, in woodpiles or in areas where old buildings have collapsed.”
Haley also mentioned that although snakes can burrow their own holes, they often take over holes made by other wildlife, like moles, gophers and crawfish.
“Maybe the number of sightings has something to do with us displacing their natural habitat,” said Haley. “Mowing and bush hogging can run them out of their hiding place in the tall grasses,” he mused. “They also get displaced when someone decides to dig a pond or build a house,” he pointed out. “That’s one reason we notice them more, or get more reports.”
If you have a question about snakes please contact Regional Extension Agent, Andy Baril – NW Alabama Natural Resources Program Areas:
Forestry, Wildlife & Natural Resources
Geographic Area of Responsibility:
Colbert County, Fayette County, Franklin County, Lamar County, Lauderdale County, Lawrence County, Limestone County, Marion County, Morgan County, Walker County, Winston County
1501 North Airport Road
Jasper, AL 35504
Office: (205) 221-3392
Mobile: (205) 388-6893
Interesting info about the reptiles we share our part of the world with:
-Snakes are a native component of our ecosystem
-Don’t forget that snakes are very beneficial for rodent and insect control
-More than 60 species of snakes have been recorded in Alabama
-Six of those species are venomous (cottonmouth aka. water moccasin, timber rattlesnake, copperhead, pygmy rattlesnake, coral snake, eastern diamondback) in Northern Alabama only the timber rattlesnake and copperhead are considered common.
-Many non-venomous snakes mimic the pattern of venomous snakes for their own protection –for example northern and plain bellied water snakes appear similar to cottonmouths. Gray rat snakes appear similar to timber rattlesnakes.
Snake Prevention & Safety
Reduce or eliminate habitat such as stacks of firewood, rock piles, construction materials, and even tall grass are all excellent places for snakes to call home (they also attract many snakes primary food source - rodents)
Familiarize yourself with identifying characteristics of venomous snakes (extension publication ANR-0597 Identification and Control of Snakes in Alabama)
Don’t attempt to catch or handle them!
Statistics show that only 1.5 deaths from snakebite would occur nationally if deliberate handling or attempts to catch/kill snakes didn’t occur.
If bitten seek medical attention immediately and try to remember the color, pattern, shape, etc. so that treatment can be administered.
Contact Norm Haley at the following:
Courtesy of Norm Haley Regional Extension Agent – Forestry, Wildlife, & Natural Resources, Alabama Cooperative Extension System.