When you spend enough time in wild places, you’re bound to run into a few of the creatures that call it home. Dorothy might have had her “lions and tigers and bears,” but somehow “lions, rattlesnakes and bears” doesn’t have the same ring to it. Nevertheless, there must be something special or perhaps mystical about these encounters that chisel them so deeply into memory. I doubt I’ve ever forgotten even one.
Since my first encounter with bears in the Canadian wilderness as a teenager, I’ve somehow managed to cavort with bears somewhat regularly. Only once did I ever feel a sensation of fear. This was in Northern California’s Whiskeytown National Park.
The climate and natural beauty of the mountainous areas of California could lure even the most jaded hermit outdoors. On this particular day I was just taking a long hike in the woods on one of the park’s many terrific trails. I was deep in the woods and the trail was descending a gradually sloping ridge. There were tall trees all around, and I noted there must be a small creek down slope to my right because I noted thick blackberry bushes. I’d been pushing myself fairly hard, so I stopped for a moment to catch my breath. Then I spotted it.
I noticed a hint of movement in the blackberry bushes just below me, and quickly made out the shape of a huge bear feeding on the thick clumps of berries. The bear had not seen me.
It was the largest black bear I had ever seen. Black bears come in a variety of colors, and this one was almost blond. I’d seen lots of skinny bears, but this one was thick and robust. Due to its size and age there was a massive hump on it’s back rounding down into a pair of great shoulders and thick forelegs from which hung long, curving claws. I knew there were no grizzly bears in California, but this black bear could have been easily passed for one.
I felt a little awkward just standing there watching, and began feeling a little naked and vulnerable. The bear was no more than a hundred feet away, and I wondered what I would do if it came for me. It could easily outrun me if it wanted to. Then, as if it had read my mind, the bear’s eyes lined up with mine and our eyes locked. It was an intensely uncomfortable moment. I knew that running from a bear might well inspire it to chase me, so trying my best to seem cool and nonchalant, I slowly backed down the trial and around a bend, far enough away to feel I could turn my back. Then I started singing my head off hoping my caterwauling would empty the vicinity of any other potentially dangerous wildlife nearby. It apparently worked.
It’s grand when you encounter bears and you know they can’t get you. It’s common to think wild animals are always acutely aware of their surroundings, but I don’t think that’s always the case. How this bear failed to see me standing in the upper Sacramento River (at Pollard Flat) as he approached on the other side baffles me to this day. It wasn’t a wide river, but it was fairly deep and with a strong current. This bear apparently wanted a drink, and came lumbering down the steep, almost cliff-like face of the hill directly across from me.
I knew bears are good swimmers because I had seen them in the water before. But so was I. Many years as a competitive swimmer had inflated my confidence. I also knew this bear would have to want me pretty badly to swim the river, and I thought I could elude him by jumping in if I had to and floating downstream. It was a bet worth taking.
The late Robert Traver’s writing has always meant a lot to me. He wrote of a bear encounter in upper Michigan that suddenly came to mind while watching this clueless bruin, and I decided to do what he did.
The bear was lapping at the water like a big dog. “Hellooo, Mr. bear,” I cried in a booming voice while removing my hat and bowing with great ceremony. The effect was like jumping out from behind a door and yelling, “BOO” at an unsuspecting human. The bear did a classic double take. A visible jolt rippled across its body and he turned tail and almost flew back up the steep bank and back into the woods. Part of me must have felt a little shameless for taking advantage of an unobservant, thirsty bear, but instead I realized it was the perfect end to my evening. I waded back to shore and headed for my car parked close by singing a happy song (perhaps slightly louder than usual) and watching my surroundings closely.
That’s a wise thing to do, watching closely, that is. Rural Northern California is rattlesnake country, and I admit to having an acute revulsion toward snakes of any stripe. Of course snakes might be just about anywhere in rattlesnake country, but the most likely places to encounter them are as far away from man as possible, the very places I am drawn to.
Rattlesnakes are the victims of nothing shy of propaganda at the hands of Hollywood. Rattlesnake encounters on the silver screen portray these gentle creatures as Satan’s own spawn as if they lay in wait for any opportunity to attack humans. Not only is this completely untrue, but it is also the direct polar opposite of how these creatures really are. I’m not saying rattlesnakes will not bite. Under certain circumstances, mainly when they have no other choice, they will attack. But if humans were anywhere near as shy of violence as rattlesnakes are, the world would certainly be a more peaceful place. The rattlesnakes I’ve encountered, and there have been quite a few, could be rightly called “gentlemanly.”
One rattlesnake in particular comes to mind, one of the two I’ve seen in the wild that stretched to at least six feet long. It was in the northwestern section of Yellowstone National Park not far from Gardiner, Montana. Of course I had read all the literature about the Park, which claimed to be too high in elevation for rattlesnakes. Well, guess what?
Even in a place as large as Yellowstone, I confess to wanting to get as far away from other people as possible. Generally speaking, this means hiking only a few miles, but it’s enough to leave the vast majority of casual visitors behind.
I was there to fish a fairly remote section of the Yellowstone River, and followed a faint path that headed down into the Yellowstone canyon. My problem was that I had taken the Park literature as Gospel, actually thinking I need not worry about snakes. It looked like rattlesnake country to me. I knew I was off the beaten path as I topped a hill and disturbed a lone antelope that loped away in a flash as if it were attached to coil springs. The path began to descend into an area where lush, green grass stood out from the otherwise brown landscape.
Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh went the snake, and I knew the sound well and froze. Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh went the snake again and I traced the sound to a fairly narrow opening in the grass. The head moved and I caught sight of it. My gaze followed the languid, brown body back, back and further back until I spied the rattle, which much have been six inches long. Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh went the snake, but it never took an aggressive stance. It never coiled, and a snake cannot strike without coiling first. The snake obviously had no intention of causing me harm, and was merely issuing a warning to prevent being stepped on. Who could blame him? In fact, it was a considerate thing to do. I tipped my hat to him and kept hiking.
One very likely place to encounter rattlesnakes is on the Nature Conservancy beat of the McCloud River, one of my very favorite fishing venues. There are several miles of remote river to fish, and the Conservancy limits the number of rods on the water to ten at a time.
One day I was there fishing, and a big guy had apparently fallen and broken his ankle. The Nature Conservancy caretaker asked if I could join a group trying to carry him out on a stretcher to a place paramedics could get to him.
It was brutally hard work, and the four of us could only negotiate about fifty feet of trail carrying this huge guy between rest stops. At one point we had laid him on the trail and were catching our breath, when someone said in a soft voice, “Don’t anyone panic. There is a rattlesnake about two feet to our right.”
There sure was. It was only about a three-footer, not coiled, watching us curiously as its tongue slipped in and out of its mouth. We moved as if in slow motion. Down, down, down I bent never taking my eyes off the snake. I grasped my handle and couldn’t help but notice how close our patient’s face was to the snake. On three we slowly lifted and began moving as one, each man stiffening as he passed in front of the snake.
Of course, once you know there is one snake around you begin imagining them everywhere. Unfortunately, Hollywood has made this genuinely passive, reclusive creature into something else entirely. While I’ve seen at least a hundred rattlesnakes in the wild, I’ve never seen an aggressive one. They do not seem to want to bite anyone. They do seem like they want to get the hell away from humans and be left alone. They act just as horrified by our presence as we sometimes do by theirs. They must think all we know are four-letter words.
Chip O’Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California’s Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.