Whistling for snakes

An unwanted friend tried to join me one day long ago when I canoed alone on the Tuscarawas River. None of my usual friends must have been around, because I drove to Bolivar, rented a canoe at the livery on state Route 212 and paddled alone. I didn’t mind a solo canoe trip, but I did mind when a snake tried to keep me company.
I was floating east on the river on one of its wide loops toward the Interstate 77 bridge when a snake came skimming along the surface of the water toward my canoe. I tried to slow the canoe with the paddle, but the snake headed toward the front anyway and raised its head over the gunwale, trying to enter the canoe. I saw geometric patterns and thought, “water moccasin,” and I used my paddle to try to push the snake out of the canoe. Canoes are precarious craft, and my panicked paddle-wielding dumped me into the water.
I didn’t see the snake again, the water was about chest deep, and my only concern was getting the canoe upright and empty of water. I was having no luck until a couple came along, and the man jumped from his canoe and helped me right my craft. While he was in the water helping, I told him I dumped myself warding off a snake. “A snake?” he asked with apprehension in his voice. But we got the canoe flipped, I got back in and I never saw the snake again.
After I returned, the canoe livery owner, an avid animal lover, told me that it was probably a water snake. They get friendly from knowing the fishermen who fish from the shore, she said.
Another time I canoed with some friends when the Tuscarawas was high and fast. We roared around the bend where the river turns from east to south and came to the confluence with Sandy Creek. Trying to slow ourselves so our friends behind us could catch up, friend Brian, in the front, reached out to a pile of driftwood that accumulated at the confluence. He suddenly yelled “Snakes!” and I saw that several snakes lay lounging on the pile of wood. I tried to grab a large branch that lay overhead to slow us, but that only made the canoe tip dangerously toward flipping, so we gave up and continued on.
When my cousins Kevin and Ray, friend Dave and I canoed on the Clarion River near Cook Forest in Pennsylvania, lightning began the minute we hit the water, so we took refuge under a bridge shortly downstream. We pulled to shore, exited the canoes and walked into the woods. One of my cousins said that whistling scares snakes away, so we walked through the undergrowth whistling. We saw no snakes, so I don’t know if the whistling worked or if the snakes had already left. It’s one of those things that you can’t prove with a negative result. You can only prove it doesn’t work if you encounter a snake.
While camping at Mammoth Cave National Park in 1997, I walked barefoot with no flashlight after dark to the campground entrance to read the information posted on the bulletin board. On the list of precautions I read that campers should be careful when walking the campground roads at night and should carry flashlights because rattlesnakes like to lie on the warm blacktop. On the walk back, without flashlight, every dark spot on the dark road was a rattlesnake lying in wait just for me, but I returned to the campsite unscathed.
I walked barefoot on the Ohio and Erie Canal towpath trail in the 1980s, before the trail was widened and paved with crushed limestone. At places I had to fight my way through briars, and at others I walked in hip-high wild mustard. I thought about snakes and watched where I placed my feet but saw no snakes. In 1988 I followed a friend, again walking barefoot, on the Santa Rosa Island nature walk in Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola, Fla. Rattlesnakes live in that park, and I hoped that my friend would scare them off. Again, I saw no snakes.
Years before, at a family gathering in Winona someone spied a snake lurking in the tall plants behind the house. Some cousins pursued the snake and killed it while it tried to escape, and that same day, a couple cousins killed a bunch of black beetles that were harmlessly enjoying themselves in a tree stump. My mother was disgusted and remarked that they killed the beetles just for being beetles and the snake just for being a snake.
I am cautious about snakes, but I don’t automatically view them as enemies. And if I return to Santa Rosa Island or Mammoth Cave, I’ll wear shoes.

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