Adventures from Back of Beyond

Saturday, November 17, 2007


Relocated a large rattlesnake today.

Around here, many of not most people tend to automatically kill rattlers. They're considered to be nothing more than a potentially deadly threat to people and pets, good for nothing.

That attitude has unfortunately and unintentionally resulted in an overabundance of rodents, all kinds. Infestations of vermin caused by upsetting the natural predator-prey balance of life. You name the rodent -- mice, rats, rabbits -- and we're overloaded with them, and they cause property damage and carry disease.

This particular snake was a good size Western diamondback, maybe 3 feet long and about 5 years old, counting the black and white bands and number of rattles on her tail. She was strong and fought hard when I grabbed her, making a surprisingly quick twisting motion that moved the 4-foot stick and my whole arm up to the shoulder, but I held her tightly from just behind the head.

She rattled like crazy, turned her head around several times, then opened her jaws wide to bite down hard on the smooth round aluminum of the stick, trying to inject it with venom.

Found her just outside my house, mid-day. I walked by her, only about 3 feet away, when she started rattling. There was absolutely no way I or probably anyone else would have ever spotted her if she hadn't rattled. She was coiled and well camouflaged in the shade of a bunch of snakeweed below a catclaw bush, just off the path.

She was upset about something, probably stumped as to how to get around the house, and back to her den, which I'd guess is located somewhere in the foothills. So when I walked by she rattled, which is somewhat unusual. More often than not, rattlesnakes around here just hide and won't rattle unless they feel directly threatened. I'm sure I've walked right by them many, many times without knowing it.

But seeing this snake answered one of my questions -- are they still out, or now hibernating in their dens? This is always a question of interest around here, because once they're in for their winter sleep, we can walk around with impunity.

For us, days have been very pleasant so far, with highs generally in the 70s, and overnight lows in the lower 40s. Overall we've had such a mild season that it appears the rattlers are just now in the process on the moving back to their dens from their hunting grounds.

In another month they'll probably be gone, at least until next April or May when the ground warms up enough for them to emerge from their dens.

A couple of months ago I attended a seminar at Montezuma Castle conducted by a woman employed by the USGS who specializes in rattlesnake behavior. She explained that a rattlesnake lives it's entire life within a range that's possible as small as a mile or so in diameter, if that.

According to her research, if a rattlesnake has to be removed the best thing to do is gently move it 15 or 20 feet away from anything developed, and release it into some brush or cover. The snake learns from this -- they don't like being handled -- and will not return.

Or so she says. 15-20 feet wasn't quite far enough for me. So I hiked her dangling from the stick about a quarter mile out into the forest, well away from any development. And I let her go.

I watched with great interest to see what she'd do once released. At first I thought she was injured from being held by the snake stick, which caused a sort of a flap of skin to hang from below her head where I grabbed her. But her tongue immediately flicked out several times, sensing the air, after I let her go.

She sat motionless for several minutes. I then tested her by taking a couple of steps toward her, to see what she'd do. She immediately rattled strongly and moved away, looking quite healthy as she slithered.

Hopefully she makes it back to her den soon. As dines on rodents aplenty for a long time to come.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Ferry to Prince Rupert

This as a VW bus story. And there's quite a few of these, but let's start with one of the best. The Alaska trip of 1979.

At the time I drove a 1966 VW bus, the old kind with the split windshield. Air cooled, it had a 6-volt electrical system, which just about assured a dead battery if the overnight low dropped below about 40. The valves had to be adjusted every 3,000 miles. I had tools and did it myself. It's comfortable cruising speed was 48 mph, providing there was no headwind. I once drove it cross country and passed only two other cars on the interstate the entire time, and they were both exiting.

But this particular trip was to Alaska. Returning from, actually, after driving the 1,600 miles of gravel through Alberta, British Columbia, and the Yukon Territory into the 50th state.

It was April, and I was working in Denali National Park. Ranger Bob Butterfield, one of the best NPS supervisors I've ever had, offered me a better job at Grand Canyon, so after only about 2 weeks in Alaska I was off back to the lower 48.

I didn't want to return the same way I came, so after a little map study I determined to return by way of the Alaska Ferry, through the fabled inside passage, from Haines to Prince Rupert, BC, where I'd hit pavement all the way to Arizona.

Haines was absolutely beautiful. The Ferry was fantastic too; at times we saw bears walking along the shore, that's how narrow the inside passage is. Not to mention more bald eagles than we could count, plus whales and dolphins cruising around.

The state of Alaska runs regularly scheduled car ferries up and down the passage, connecting such towns as Skagway and Haines all the way to Seattle. The ferry boat has a tapered bow, unlike the big Washington State ferries in Puget Sound, and on the car deck they pack it full.

On this particular run, my bus just happened to be the very last vehicle parked, right in the nose of the ship. Several lanes split off behind me. I would be the first off.

But I made sort of a mistake. I left the radio on for the entire time of this 2-day voyage. The thing had a weak battery anyway, and the next day when it was time to rumble off the boat in Prince Rupert, it was dead as a doornail. I couldn't start it.

Imagine this now, there's dozens of cars idling behind me, waiting to drive off, and I'm blocking every single one of them. Nobody could move until I got out of the way. And imagine my embarrassment when I had to report to the crew that I had a dead battery. They took one look at my old piece of junk, and I heard one guy mumble something about pushing overboard to get it out of the way.

But I had a better idea. I ran off to find the Air Force guys I had met the previous day up on the deck. We had become buddies, so I asked for a little favor. Would they be kind enough to give me a push start?

I knew this bus well, in fact had to push start the dang thing most every morning. Which is why I always parked it on the lip of a hill.

But I only had one chance. The boys would push, and there was one fairly steep downhill ramp off the boat, then a short level section, and then a steep fairly long drive up to the dock level. If it didn't start, I'd be stuck at the bottom of that long hill, and everybody'd want to dump my poor ol' bus overboard.

So these guys pushed, I pumped a couple of times to get some gas into the carb, pushed in the clutch, and put it in second. They let go and I coasted a bit down the's my chance...**pop** that clutch...and she roared to life, up and out.


After I blew the fifth of 5 rebuilt engines in that old bus, I finally sold it. More stories there.