What do Hoover Dam, a rattlesnake, and cold water have in common? They’re all elements in a story that confirms the wisdom of a good rule for any outdoor trip: let sleeping snakes lie.

Many people who enjoy the Great Outdoors worry about snakes. While it certainly pays to be cautious when it comes to any type of wildlife, the risk of being accosted by a snake is very small. You can greatly improve those odds by following three basic rules about snakes: (1) just leave them alone; (2) don’t put your hands, feet or any other body parts anyplace without looking first to ensure it isn’t already occupied by another life-form; (3) don’t assume that an immobile snake will remain in that condition if you violate rule number 1 or 2.

Based on those guidelines, the two guys in the following story failed to receive any points toward their snakemanship badge.

Our little drama took place downstream from Hoover Dam, in Lake Mead National Recreation Area. The water released through the dam is quite cold by desert standards: about 52º F, and that chilly water played a key role in this tale.

Occasionally, rattlesnakes are spotted swimming in the river below the dam, and the cold water affects their metabolism. If they stay in the water very long, the reptiles fall into a stupor and end up floating on the surface. If they had any feet, these critters would appear to have gone “toes up.”

Two fishermen came upon such a slumbering serpent and assumed that the snake had gone to the great desert in the sky, or wherever reptiles go for their final destination. The men decided to take it home, intending to use its various component parts to make belt buckles, hat bands, necklaces and other works of folk art.

One of the anglers retrieved the hapless reptile with a boat paddle and tossed it into the bottom of their boat. They then went back to the business at hand, which was drifting down the river and fishing.

As was often the case when something had gone awry in the park, my first inkling of trouble came when a couple of visitors flagged me down as I was on boat patrol. “Hey, Ranger! We’re not exactly sure what’s happening upriver, but maybe you’d better go check on …”

The visitors’ curiosity had been aroused when they spotted a boat drifting down the river, more or less unoccupied. It contained the normal assortment of fishing gear and a couple of partially consumed cans of beverages, but strangely enough, no people. It did, however, contain one unusual passenger: a rather feisty rattlesnake.

Keeping a close eye on the snake, they towed the boat to the bank and shoved it up on a sandbar.  Recognizing a situation that hinted someone might be in difficulty, they sent their buddies in a second boat upriver to investigate while they headed downstream to look for a ranger.

Our erstwhile fishermen had been reunited with their boat before I arrived, and it didn’t take long to get to the bottom of the story.

The cold water had put that snake into suspended animation, but once it was fished out and tossed into the full sun on board the boat, it didn’t take long for a revival to take place.

A few minutes after the boaters retrieved that snake from the water and went back to fishing, they heard an ominous noise. If you’ve ever heard the warning “buzz” of a rattlesnake, you probably won’t ever forget it. I’ve had that experience quite a few times, but thankfully never while sitting in a small boat in the middle of a river, with that chilling rattle coming from the immediate vicinity of my feet.

It didn’t take these two reptile wranglers very long to come to a consensus: their boat wasn’t big enough for them and the snake–and it wasn’t showing any interest in leaving. Fortunately, they were wearing their life jackets, which allowed this tale to have a comic rather than a tragic outcome.

Thus prepared for a “man overboard” drill, the fishermen abandoned ship and started swimming to the nearest bank, only about 50 feet away. Their boat, which had been drifting along with the motor off, continued on its way downstream until it was intercepted by the nautical Good Samaritans.

By the time I reached the scene, the snake was nowhere to be seen. The explanation related to me was that it must have vacated the boat of its own accord before the fishermen returned to reclaim their craft. Applying my own three rules for dealing with reptiles, I elected to avoid a search of the thick undergrowth for any serpents, slumbering or otherwise.

So, keep in mind that when it comes to snakes, things are not always as they may appear. Wherever you find them, just let them lie!

Jim Burnett

Life – it’s an adventure…. Find something to smile about today!

This story is adapted from the book Hey Ranger! True Tales of Humor and Misadventure from America’s National Parks © Jim Burnett and Taylor Trade Publishing, used by permission.

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  3. Bob-

    Sounds like a pretty accurate profile for a high-risk snake encounter!

    My experience has been that people who meet those same 3 qualifications tend to find themselves in a whole variety of melancholy situations.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  4. Bob Difley

    I was told a story that the U of Arizona did a lot of research on people bitten by rattlesnakes to see if they could come up with any helpful data. Their research turned out to be an overwhelmingly distinct profile of those who get bitten: (1) Young male, (2) Member of a group at the time of bite, (3) Had been drinking alcoholic beverages. The conclusion was that if you aren’t a half-drunk young man showing off for your buddies, chances are you are pretty safe.

  5. Nick and Mac –

    I was told a story about a similar situation involving two guys who were hunting in a flat-bottom boat. When the snake “revived” one of them reportedly said something like, “Move back, Bubba, I’ll get ’em!” When the smoke cleared, the second man supposedly said, “Nice shot………..Hey, where’s all that water coming from?”

    Makes a good tale, but since I couldn’t verify it, I didn’t include it in my post on the blog.

  6. Hey Nick,

    Are you saying you’d have put a few holes in that snake, and in the bottom of the skiff 🙂 LOL

  7. If I had been in that boat when the snake rattled, neither man nor reptile would have wanted to be in there very long!

  8. That sounds like some more good advice! Thanks for the comment.

  9. Gary Hauck

    Its like that song Tom T. Hall made, “watch out for Sneaky Snake*.