RARE ENCOUNTERS – REALLY? (Musings on the Massasauga Rattlesnake)

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I hopped from rock to rock as I meandered. Tessi darted all over, stopping every so often to stick her snout in a gap or opening, sometimes lingering at particularly engaging smells. She was enjoying her freedom from the leash. I didn’t have to worry about her bothering anyone; we were alone. The pleasant day was warming up enough that I’m glad I wore my sandals and crop pants. I reveled in the azure sky overlooking us and Georgian Bay's crystal-blue water alongside us. It was a perfect outing. Later, I was flabbergasted when Carol, the family friend we were staying with, recommended that I should wear solid shoes and long pants, and keep Tessi leashed beside me.

The rare and endangered Massasauga rattlesnakes aren’t as scarce as I understood them to be when I previously read the scant bits of information provided in Bruce Peninsula’s (called the Bruce by locals) assorted tourism pamphlets. Population numbers have dwindled; nevertheless, the creatures are out there. They’re reportedly shy and reclusive, however, and prefer to avoid confrontation. They’ll either lie in silence hoping you pass by or they’ll offer a stern warning with their rattle.

If surprised, a snake may lash out to bite the nearby foot, leg or canine snout invading its space, and, though the result isn’t as nasty or necessarily fatal as that of its southern cousins, the bite can be more unpleasant than I originally comprehended. I was unnerved when Carol told me of a friend of hers – a full-grown person, who had been bitten on her leg a number of years ago. It still troubles her to this day. Tessi, on the other hand, due to her smaller size and the probable location of the bite – on the snout because of her tendency to stick it into anything of interest - could suffer a lot worse.

Bites to people are uncommon. I, as most people, would heed a rattle warning – Tessi, as most dogs, not likely. To them, the sound would be a tempting investigation. I know my girl - an unusual utterance from an unusual creature would incite her curiosity. And because she is loose, I may not be close enough to hear it and entice her away. She’d be bit before I’d even realize what was happening.

Since Carol’s revelation, I’ve often wondered about the remote spots we’ve ended up at, such as Wingfield Basin at the Cabot Head Lighthouse. Getting back to civilization would have proved tedious and time consuming. I can’t imagine having to carry Tessi back over the rocks that took us at least a half hour to climb over in the first place, just to get back to the pathway, and then we’d need to reach the car to make the long drive to town.

When I contacted the Wiarton Animal Hospital, they told me they see snake-bitten dogs every year. I was relieved to hear they’ve never had a fatality in the six years since they took over the practice. (To add: They’ve never dealt with really small dogs – under 9 kg or 20 lbs - either.) The treatments used are proven to be quite effective.

I can count many safe hours, in which I let Tessi run free on the Georgian Bay shores. Would clocking additional hours tempt fate? I still mentally shudder when I think of the chances I took, though I feel better knowing a Massasauga’s bite is not an automatic death sentence. I’ve toured enough of the Bruce to satisfy my soul. I’ve gaped at its stunning sunrises and sunsets, admired its majestic lighthouses and hiked its beautiful trails.

I would like to venture beyond the Bruce to explore more of Georgian Bay’s rocky shorelines, stretches of which the Massasauga snakes also inhabit. (And I have to remember their small numbers occupy other pockets of Ontario, such as the Ojibway Prairie area in Windsor, which is closer to our home.) I’ll have to leash Tessi and more than just revel in our surroundings – I’ll have to be mindful of them too.

For Further Reading

Enjoy an assortment of pictures of the Bruce in my Travel and Outdoors – Ontario photography section. (Those who don’t like snakes will be relieved that I have no pictures of them.)

(c) Cheryl Smyth, 2013

Comments

I have encountered the rattlesnake at my sister's cottage on Georgian Bay.  They are near Killbear Park and there is a research station there.  People from the Park tracked the snakes with some sort of electronic device...guess they had implanted something in the snakes.  Interesting but not a lot of fun to know they were around.  They must have moved on (one way or another) because we haven't seen them for a few years now.

-Janet

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