An Ugly Pit Viper Drops by for a Visit… Let’s go backpacking: Part 2

I heard a noise and looked up. A Diamondback Rattlesnake had come to visit.


Today’s post finds me out on a backpacking trip I went on last week. Friday’s post introduced the trip and took me off into the woods by myself.


I decided to remain camping where I was and go day hiking. That way I could explore the surrounding area early in the morning and late in the afternoon, while hiding out under a shade tree during the hottest part of the day. I had a number to choose from including incense cedars, ponderosa pines, white firs, and lodgepole pines. There was even a large sugar pine in the neighborhood with its 18-inch-long cones.

The Sugar Pine.

Staying in the shade involved moving as the sun made its way across the sky. This was a good thing; it forced me to get up every so often.

I create a very comfortable nest for myself in the woods, the type I can snuggle down in and read a good book, or write, or prepare a quick snack, meal or cup of coffee. My ‘kitchen’ is always on my right; my ‘living room’ and ‘office’ on the left. The Therm-a-Rest mattress converts to a chair and my backpack forms a great back rest. Everything is easily reachable from where I sit. Moving’s a bit of a bother (grin). It involves two trips and about five minutes to transfer everything. I quickly establish which trees provide the best shade and breeze for the time of the day.

Here’s my home away from home in the woods. Everything I need from entertainment and food to water and mosquito repellent is conveniently located. My clothes bag in the front rests behind my knees and adds comfort. My journal is resting on my chair.

I was in my five o’clock spot under a lodgepole pine when a movement caught my eye. I looked up from my Baldacci book and saw a Diamondback Rattlesnake slithering toward my tree through the pine needles. An ugly pit viper had dropped by for a visit! Keeping a close eye on my guest, I quickly pulled out my camera. The Diamondback kept coming. When it was about 10 feet away I said, “Ahem, Ms. Snake, do you see me? Do you even have a clue I am here?” (It might have been a male, but how in the heck do you tell the sex of a snake? I looked it up, actually, since I knew you would want to know. Male snakes have a couple of tiny penises under the skin inside their cloacal opening (vent under their tail.) You shove a snake probe up there. It goes up farther for a male than a female. Now you are an expert. I don’t think my snake would have cooperated.)

Ms. Snake came to visit me when I was sitting under one of the Lodgepole pines behind my tent.

The rattlesnake was close to four feet long and had ten rattles which suggested she was around five-years old. Note the triangular-shaped head that is typical of pit vipers.

She stopped abruptly as her neck and head rose into the air. Out came a forked tongue. Her spade shaped, pit viper head and yellow-slit eyes pointed in my direction, checking me out, fangs poised for action. Who or what had invaded her territory? Was I food or foe? Heat seeking facial pits that work something like infrared detectors determined that I was too big to eat and might be trouble. So, she started slipping off to the right. Naturally I had to get up and follow. (This is where Peggy normally urges me to do something else, anything else, but she wasn’t along.)

She raised her head and checked me out.

I walked a respectful few feet behind. You never want to get within striking distance. The Diamondback is responsible for the majority of snake bites in the US and its toxin loaded injection can be fatal. The snake kept twisting her head back Linda Blair-like, watching me. Her rattles were pointed up, ready to explode into the loud buzzing sound rattlers are famed and named for. Twice she almost coiled. I could have forced the issue— it makes for a great photo-op. A timely prod with a stick would have had her coiling and buzzing in a flash. But I figured she wasn’t bothering me so I wouldn’t bother her. At least not much. Finally, she slipped off into some brush and waved goodbye with her tail. I wished her good hunting. I think I heard something like “fat, juicy mouse.”

Her rattles were pointed up in the air, ready to start buzzing. The circles on the tail and diamond shapes above them identified the rattlesnake as a Diamondback. The pinecones are from a Lodgepole Pine.

While I wasn’t particularly bothered by the visit, I did move to a different shade tree on the other side of camp. Had Ms. Snake returned, she would have slipped up behind me. I was also more careful about watching where I stepped! Immediately afterwards, I called Peggy and related the story. She laughed. She knows my ways. Or maybe she was laughing from relief that I hadn’t been bitten.

Speaking of ‘my ways,’ one was that I would never carry a cell phone while backpacking. It was more or less written in granite. I go to the woods for tranquility, not the hustle, stress, incessant noise and constant connectedness of modern society. And nothing represents that more than cell phones. And yet, here I was with cell phone in hand. There was even a decent signal from a cell tower on I-80. My decision to break with my long-standing tradition was something of a compromise for my wife. Not many 74-year-olds go wandering off by themselves backpacking. In fact, the number of people who backpack alone at any age is limited to a relatively few adventuresome souls. Peggy is 100% supportive of my backpacking, even when I ramble off alone. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t concerned. My checking in on a daily basis— and being able to check in, if needed, in an emergency— helped allay her worries.

Cell phone service isn’t a given in the wilderness, however, especially in the US where profitability plays an important role in determining where service is offered.  So, I went one step further. I picked up an emergency Gen 3 GPS tracking device named Spot. It’s kind of like Spot, the family dog of Dick and Jane repute, or Lassie, if you will, able to track me down when necessary. But all I have to do with the Gen 3 is hit an SOS button and it immediately sends out a message to local rescue groups that gives my exact location and the fact that I am in a dire emergency situation. Help’s supposed to be on the way within the hour.

There were other steps I took as well— carrying trekking poles, for example. They cut down on wear and tear on the knees and add a degree of balance. More importantly, I did everything I could, minus eliminating my creature comforts, to reduce weight. Modern equipment makes a huge difference. When I first started packing in the late 60s, my pack for a week trip was normally in the neighborhood of 55-60 pounds. By the 90s it was 45-50 pounds. Now it is down to 35-40 pounds.

This is a photo of what I was carrying on my trip. Everything is organized in bags. So there is a kitchen bag, a bathroom bag, a ten essentials bag, etc. Each bag has its place in my pack which is organized for access and weight distribution.

Here’s my stove ready for packing, which will give you an idea on how compact and light backpacking gear is today.

Everything I carry is designed to reduce weight. A plastic spoon, bowl and cup are my dishes. I’ve been carrying the insulated cup for over 40 years. Once it was lost beneath 20 feet of snow. I found it when the snow melted.

Here’s another example of going light. This is my neckerchief, handkerchief, and topographic map. It also serves as an air conditioner! On a hot day, I dip it in a stream and wrap it around my neck.

There is great beauty in the wilderness, if you are willing to slow down and look around. It ranges from expansive vistas down to plants, rocks, and wildlife.  Following are some more photos that reflect what I saw this past week. Enjoy.

Fordyce Creek was a half mile away from where I was camped and filled with snowmelt. The hiking bridge provided a way across the otherwise unfordable creek.

I captured this photo from the bridge. One of the challenges of backpacking early in the season is the amount of water flowing in the streams. Great caution is required when no bridges are available, which is usually the case in the Sierras. It is best to cross early in the morning before the sun begins to melt the snow.

The broken side-boards on the bridge made me wonder about its overall condition!

Thunderheads provided a dramatic backdrop but threatened a thunder and lightning storm. All of my gear was packed away in my tent, just in case.

These circling clouds would have made me think ‘tornado’ had I been in the Midwest or South. BTW… all I had was a few drops of rain with no thunder or lightning.

A small reflection lake was located a hundred yards from my camp. It came with its own water snake. The snake didn’t cooperate for a photo shoot, however.

I’ll close today’s post with this photo that provides a perspective on the size of the lake. Glaciers once worked their way through this portion of the Sierras, carving hundreds of such lakes from small to large.

NEXT POST: Native American rock art at Lava Beds National Monument in Northern California that dates back over 4000 years.


51 thoughts on “An Ugly Pit Viper Drops by for a Visit… Let’s go backpacking: Part 2

    • Thanks Wendy. Glad you are enjoying my tales. 🙂 I’ve encountered lots of rattlesnakes in my life. They live in lots of places that I like to camp. My experience has always been that they are more than happy to leave me alone as long as I leave them alone. –Curt

  1. He’s pretty, albeit not a guest I want in my campsite. He’s also deaf so he didn’t hear your message but did sense your vibration. Gorgeous captures here and what a wonderful adventure. I think you might really like the book, “The Stranger in the Woods,” by Finkel. Check it out.

    • Interesting, the vibration bit, and the infrared capability. My voice obviously caught its attention. Peggy agreed that it was pretty. 🙂 I’ll check out the book. And thanks. –Curt

    • Thanks, Katy! The Sierra Nevada Mountains are packed full of beauty. I am very luck to have spent a lifetime wandering through them. And that reflection lake was a gem. –Curt

  2. Sounds like a fine time Curt, but I’m not sure I would have handled a rattler with such nonchalance. Growing up in Australia I kind of take for granted poisonous snakes and spiders. Spiders you watch out for. Snakes feel your vibrations and take off. But a rattler? Hmmm. That would be scary for me.
    I want your camping gear!

    • Rattlers much prefer to avoid people as well, Alice. As long as you don’t step on one by mistake, or corner it, they are more than glad to be off and about their business. I’ve met snakes, like mambas in Africa that are more aggressive.
      Nice gear, huh. 🙂 –Curt

    • Me too, Peggy. At least with this one, I saw coming. There have been several times when the buzzing is my first warning. Then it is freeze or jump 20 feet! 🙂
      That small pond was great for reflection shots. Thanks. –Curt

  3. One of the many jobs I had while in school was as a laborer/assistant to a carpenter who as a sideline gave shows with snakes. He took me snake hunting. He would pick up rattlesnakes and copperheads and let them curl around his neck and down his arms. He told me they would not bite as long as you were not afraid of them. It was a barrier I could not overcome.

  4. I love the landscape and I really love your little stove and how organized you are and how efficient. I am dead scared of snakes, even though I grew up on a remote hillside! My father taught us that if you stamp your feet loud enough while walking (as we had to navigate the hillside to get to school each day) then the snakes will be more scared of you than vice versa. It seemed to work.

    Your post really made me think of that advice, and the realization that if you are sitting down you are somewhat a great target, or I guess if you step on a snake by mistake, thinking it just part of the ground….

    Nonetheless I admire your courage and tenacity and fabulously efficient backpacking abilities Curt.


    • I never worry about rattlesnakes as long as I can see them Peta. I’ve stepped on logs a few time had the experience of the warning buzz that sends my heart, and me scurrying. Once, a basset hound I had, climbed out on a granite outcrop that had a nest of rattlesnakes down in the cracks. My dog started barking down in the cracks and wouldn’t come off the rock. I had to go out and retrieve him with the whole nest buzzing at us. That wasn’t fun. 🙂 Your dad was right. Vibrations usually send the snakes slithering off.
      I’ve learned over the years that organization in backpacking is critical. Otherwise I spend forever looking for things. It’s like having your house on your back. So that is how I organize it. Thanks. –Curt

  5. A brave walk Curt. Last week I waved my son and his wife off from Manchester airport as they set off on a two year back-packing adventure around the World. They started at a wedding in Charleston and are in the Blue Ridge Mountains right now. Next they fly to Calgary and then make their way down the west coast of USA!

    • You are right up there with Peggy and Cindy on the ugly business. 🙂 Fortunately, I addressed her respectfully as Ms. Snake. Otherwise I would have been bitten for sure! No, the snake wasn’t ‘ugly.’ But there is something about pit vipers that creates a visceral reaction in me… Now I find a nice boa constrictor pretty. Hmmm. –Curt

  6. I love camping and I love solitude, but I don’t love them together any more. I just feel too vulnerable out in nature alone overnight. I was a snake-loving girl growing up, but I’m not so brave these days, and I worry about bears and even bad people when I’m all alone in the woods at night. I loved reading about your stay, though, especially the way you set up your camp because that’s how I am! My tent is always organized the same way, and when my husband has shared it with me, his random mess always irks me! Thanks for taking me into the woods for your lovely backpacking time away!

    • I once had a friend tell me Lexi if bears wanted to eat people, they’d move into cities where there are lots of people to eat. 🙂 I realize it is still easier for a guy to go off in the woods by himself than a woman, which makes me sad. It is a beautiful experience. I can get messy, too. 🙂 Ask Peggy. Glad to have you along on my adventures. –Curt

  7. Oh jeez louise, you’ve scared me off camping for life. I couldn’t even look at the snake pics. Luckily you had some gorgeous nature photos in the last half of the post to neutralize me. 😄

  8. What an adventure! I’m not afraid of snakes as long as I see them before they see me. I think they’re beautiful, but I try to keep a healthy distance. Although last week I was hiking with my husband. It was late evening, the trail was dark, and I stepped on a copperhead! I hope you are enjoying your wildnerness adventure.

    • Stepping on a copperhead (or any poisonous snake) is guaranteed to send your blood pressure skyrocketing, Cheryl! I trust you escaped without a bite. Rattlesnakes at least do you the courtesy of rattling at you. 🙂 Thanks for commenting.

      • It was a strange experience. I guess primitive brain instincts kicked in quickly. The very second I stepped on the snake I yelled to my husband, “A copperhead! I stepped on a copperhead!” And dragged him forward with me away from it. He wasn’t convinced I stepped on a snake; he thought it was “something” a dog left behind on the trail, that an owner failed to scoop up and bag. He wanted a closer look; I convinced him otherwise. We turned the flashlight on and it was a copperhead, to hubby’s great surprise. He said, “How in the world did you know that was a copperhead without seeing it?” I just knew. I did feel something whip up and smack my lower shin. I’m assuming that was a tail because there was no bite! I consider myself lucky for that! I actually remained quite calm, but was super cautious the rest of the trail. Ah, nature…

      • I’ll bet you were cautious Cheryl. I responded to another follower that I am convinced their is a primitive part of our brain that teaches us to fear snakes, that we have an instinctual reaction that doesn’t have to be taught. My cat in Africa had an instinctual reaction that would send him leaping into the air when he saw something that resembled a snake. I’ve done the same for sticks. 🙂 Liking snakes and appreciating how they benefit nature has to be learned. Have you ever heard anyone exclaim, oh, what a cute baby snake? 🙂 –Curt

  9. A wonderful celebration of the wild, Curt, a real window on the world. I can’t resist copying this DH Lawrence poem, hope you don’t mind:


    A snake came to my water-trough
    On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
    To drink there.
    In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob-tree
    I came down the steps with my pitcher
    And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before
    He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
    And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the edge of
    the stone trough
    And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
    i o And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,
    He sipped with his straight mouth,
    Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,
    Someone was before me at my water-trough,
    And I, like a second comer, waiting.
    He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
    And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
    And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a moment,
    And stooped and drank a little more,
    Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth
    On the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.
    The voice of my education said to me
    He must be killed,
    For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.
    And voices in me said, If you were a man
    You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.
    But must I confess how I liked him,
    How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough
    And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
    Into the burning bowels of this earth?
    Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him? Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him? Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
    I felt so honoured.
    And yet those voices:
    If you were not afraid, you would kill him!
    And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid, But even so, honoured still more
    That he should seek my hospitality
    From out the dark door of the secret earth.
    He drank enough
    And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
    And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black,
    Seeming to lick his lips,
    And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
    And slowly turned his head,
    And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
    Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
    And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.
    And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
    And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered farther,
    A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that horrid black hole,
    Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
    Overcame me now his back was turned.
    I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
    I picked up a clumsy log
    And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.
    I think it did not hit him,
    But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in undignified haste.
    Writhed like lightning, and was gone
    Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,
    At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.
    And immediately I regretted it.
    I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
    I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.
    And I thought of the albatross
    And I wished he would come back, my snake.
    For he seemed to me again like a king,
    Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
    Now due to be crowned again.
    And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
    Of life.
    And I have something to expiate:
    A pettiness.
    Taormina, 1923

    • Thanks so much for sharing the story, Dave. It captures a deep instinct within us. I don’t even know if we have to be taught. A fear of snakes is natural. I’ve seen it in animals as I have seen it in people. It is only through our logic and through our understanding that we can learn to appreciate and enjoy them, and recognize them as fellow creatures. –Curt

  10. I’m no expert on snakes, but live and let live seems to be a decent strategy for wild creatures in general (as long as they’re not pissed off or frightened).
    I suspect with all your years of backpacking you could write a how-to book. Do ever give guidance or classes to newbies?

    • The less the space, the greater the need to minimize, especially when you have to carry it on your back. 🙂
      A positive part, as long as you don’t step on them. As for the last picture, That little lake was hardly more than an overgrown puddle, but wow could it produce reflection shots. –Curt

  11. I have never had so much trouble reading a blog post in my life. I am PETRIFIED of snakes! Even pictures of snakes. Even just THINKING about snakes. So to see that first picture and then another of it squiggling along the ground… (I feel faint, typing this.) And then to read that it dropped by your campsite?! I am not sure I can even go outside now.

    • Ah, Juliann, that was not my purpose. I had fun with the snake even though she wasn’t having fun with me. My point is that I found her/it fascinating and knew that no harm would come to me as long as I kept my distance. I do recognize that there is an instinctual fear of snakes. I have my share. And when a rattler lets go with its buzz and I don’t know where it is I can leap as high as anyone! 🙂 –Curt

  12. Wow! Only you would follow the snake, Curt! The rest of us would run the other way – fast! Ahh..I like your home from home. It looks just the perfect set up, cosy, comfy and with the all important note-book.😀😀 Never having camped it was interesting to see all your gear, everything so neatly packed and little, the stove is miniature and so cute! Although not going on long hikes my son has just started going on camps with friends so a whole new world for me and lots to learn about an unfamiliar life! I’m trying catch up quick. 😀❤️ Phew, glad you’re keeping in contact with the Peggy and have access to emergency help if needed…it must bring her very welcome peace of mind as you head out. Wishing you much continued joy and peace on your travels and treks.

  13. I think snakes are beautiful and fascinating but am very intimidated by them. When we used to visit the Laurel Highlands in Pennsylvania, black snakes would lay out in the open sunning themselves on large rocks. I loved watching them. Your viper was very handsome, but I was glad to read you moved your campsite! So enjoy your stories Curt.

    • The secret is in knowing which ones are poisonous, Sylvia. When I lived in Africa, the tribal folks believed all snakes were poisonous. Not knowing which was which, I adopted the attitude of my cat, leap first and ask questions later. 🙂 Glad you enjoy my tales. Thanks. –Curt

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