Ranger Trails: Rattlesnake sighting can be adrenalin rush, but keep safe distance

When a great white shark showed up near Cape Cod this summer, human herds flocked to the beach in hopes of glimpsing that big dorsal fin knifing through the surf. And “Jaws” remains one of the most popular movies ever.

There’s a sort of fatal attraction people have with sharks, grizzlies and other wildlife atop the food chain. Nothing to be ashamed of. We acknowledge the fact that when Homo sapiens leaves its seat belts and smoke detectors behind, Mother Nature will call the shots. Our safety is not guaranteed out here. Isn’t that how it should be?

Thus far, sharks have wisely avoided Colorado National Monument. But we do have our own feisty attractions. A few weeks ago a surprise guest, better known as the midget faded rattlesnake, showed up at the park’s visitor center. A curious flock of visitors and rangers drooled at the sight of this magnificent animal, not unlike those Cape Cod shark-seekers.

Based on all the excitement and picture-taking at the visitor center, you’d have thought Mick Jagger was coiled up there on the back steps.

Many humans derive an adrenalin rush in the presence of voracious carnivores and poisonous snakes. It’s human nature, as they say.

Mountain lions rarely attack people. The last fatality in Colorado occurred 14 years ago in Rocky Mountain National Park. Just a month ago, a lion attacked a 63-year-old California man inside his tent. He survived with puncture wounds to his scalp, and then drove himself to a hospital. Such tragic incidents remind us that the freedom to enjoy wilderness carries with it certain risks. It’s a tradeoff that not everyone is willing to accept.

When a mountain lion crossed Old Gordon trail ahead of me a few years ago, it was almost like a religious experience. Almost. I did not exactly see God in the lion’s tawny coat, but the experience recalibrated how I approach the outdoors. Scared the daylights out of me. For weeks, I avoided Old Gordon in fear that a lion waited to sink its teeth into my hide. Of course, that didn’t happen when I resumed running up that trail. Now I hope for another chance to see a lion (scientific name: Felis concolor). It’s no death wish, just a healthy desire to glimpse wildlife being wild.

You had to wonder what would possess a midget faded rattlesnake (Crotalus concolor) to leave its quiet nest somewhere in the pinyon-juniper woodland for the noisy habitat of the visitor center.

The visitor who first discovered the rattler there on the back steps was lucky that he hadn’t scared it to the point of provoking a strike. The midget faded’s venom, more toxic than many larger rattlers, targets the central nervous system. Worst-case scenario: paralysis and death.

For the record, rangers strung a tape around the steps to keep rattler and people at a safe distance. One visitor was outraged and loudly announced that the feds once again had overstepped their bounds. Whatever. At the other extreme, of course, are folks who’d just as soon shoot a snake as not.

Three hours after it arrived at the visitor center, the snake had sufficiently warmed up in the sunshine. It moved off the steps and into the trees. It made our day.

Sandstrom is a park ranger at Colorado National Monument and teaches at Colorado Mesa University. If you have an interesting story to share with readers, he can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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