The Adventure Ranger’s History of Surprises

My hands shook, not so much from holding a dead rattlesnake as from the possibility that the snake wasn’t dead. Not all the way. A ranger found it on the road, its head flattened by a tire. The length of it, however, looked undamaged and so the ranger put it in a Tupperware tub and told me to go show it to the bored kids camping in the north loop.

My job was to teach kids about nature. Sweating and afraid of whatever venom might still lurk in the snake, I approached the playground. It was just past noon and over ninety degrees. The heat, radiating off of the concrete, had driven everyone into the lake. I called to the swimmers and waited. The Tupperware, so light in my hands, seemed too artificial. I couldn’t help imagining the snake stirring and rising again, slithering over the edge and—if we were lucky—away.

The Massasauga is Michigan’s only venomous snake, a fairly rare find. Sluggish, mottled, perfectly camouflaged for a pile of dead leaves, the Massasauga—like all snakes—appears when you aren’t expecting it. You’re rummaging through old boxes in the shed or running out behind the swing-set when you notice an unlikely looking leaf. You lean down and it strikes. Or lifts its rattle and seethes warning. If it gets you in the thumb, your hand will swell up like a winter glove and stiffen. If you stay calm, there’s plenty of time to get to a hospital, to be treated and soon released. If you’re younger, say five, and it gets you on the thigh, then the outcome is less certain.

“Massasauga means ‘great river mouth,’” I said, dripping sweat and holding out the Tupperware. The kids, barefooted, swim-trunked, and so much quicker than me, had gathered at a safe distance. They stood on tiptoe and leaned for a better look. I invited them to step closer, to touch the skin beginning to reek. I touched it to assure them. My stomach sank. The feel of a snake tugs the whole body, the whole spirit toward the ground. The kids closed in around me. First a finger poked out to stroke the sunbaked scales, then a palm. Someone lifted a section into the air, weighing the limp body. Someone ran a thumb along the underbelly. I could sense the hairs rising on the backs of all of our necks. A slight breeze fished up the rattle and twitched it.

~Jacob Boyd