In the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, a woman from Minnesota descends Yucca Trail from its clifftop parking lot toward Flat Rock Beach with her young daughter. She says it wasn’t until they began their hike this morning that they were told about the incident that occurred near here on Aug. 19, when a 33-year-old woman was bitten by a rattlesnake and airlifted by San Diego Fire-Rescue to Scripps Hospital.
But they’re not that concerned, the woman from Minnesota says, because “the snake’s no longer here, right?”
A passing hiker who overhears the conversation informs the woman from Minnesota that the hills around them are home to thousands of rattlesnakes. In fact, there are no fewer than six signs posted on the Yucca Trail stating that “rattlesnakes may be found in this area” and that “they are important members of the natural community.”
The woman suddenly changes direction, back up to the parking lot, tightly grabbing her daughter’s hand.
Her voice quavers as she shouts: “I don’t like snakes!”
Few people know more about Southern California snakes than herpetologist Steve Bledsoe. Founder of the Southwestern Field Herping Association, the San Clemente resident lives, breathes and sleeps reptiles.
Bledsoe meets the Light at the top of the trail. He wears a hat adorned with the rattle from a black-tailed rattlesnake he once found dead on an Arizona road. And he pulls from his car a terrarium of museum-quality snake replicas that he hand-crafts from plastic resin molds at home, which impresses the Torrey Pines docents so much, they offer to display it at their welcome table.
Bledsoe was on hand to help determine what, if anything, the hiker who got bitten did wrong and if there’s anything all hikers can learn from it.
During the daytime in the summer, Bledsoe explains, rattlesnakes usually hide in the shade. “Snakes are cold-blooded but don’t have that same high body-heat tolerance as lizards,” he says. “If their body temperature gets over 100 degrees, they can die.”
The problem is, a snake’s idea of shade might be beneath a shrub you brush against or underneath a step on the trail in front of you.
“If somebody gets too close, it might panic the snake and they bite,” says Bledsoe. “They’re very unpredictable — especially the Southern Pacific Rattlesnake.”
Bledsoe says this species, common in San Diego, is considered one of the Top 5 dangerous snakes in the U.S. One reason is simply that they get up to four feet long — all of which gets converted to striking distance. Also, their venom is high on the toxicity scale. And, if that weren’t enough, they’re very quick to bite.
“Basically,” Bledsoe says, “they’re crazy.”If it was a Southern Pacific Rattlesnake that bit the hiker on this trail, therefore, she may have actually done nothing wrong.
The good news, Bledsoe says, is that 35-40 percent of rattlesnake bites in the U.S. are dry (venomless).
“Rattlesnakes aren’t trying to eat us,” Bledsoe says, “so they are not likely to intentionally inject venom. They just want us to go away.” (The surprisingly low human death rate from rattlesnake bites bears this out: 0.1 percent, or one death in every 1,000 cases.)
Bledsoe said they probably airlifted the hiker out just to be safe.
“Snakebites are serious wounds,” Bledsoe adds. “If left untreated, they can result in the loss of a digit or limb, or in permanent muscle or nerve damage. But honestly, you’re more likely to die from the hospital bill than from the bite.” (Bledsoe says anti-venom, which is supplied exclusively by a British company that holds the U.S. patent, can cost upwards of $400,000.)
This morning, there are zero signs of snakes along the trail, rattlers or otherwise.
“They’re hiding,” Bledsoe explains. “They hide from bigger animals. The rules are the same whether you’re venomous or not: If you’re a little animal, you fear anything bigger than yourselves because it may eat you.”
Ranger Dave Richards offers the missing piece to solve the puzzle that bought us here. He tells us why he thinks the woman got bitten.
“I wasn’t on the call, but from what I heard, she may have gone slightly off-trail,” Richards says, adding that she “may have stepped around a barrier” blocking off the closed Broken Hill Trail Loop, and that the rattlesnake “may have been hiding on the other side of it.”
Too bad the hiker from Minnesota didn’t stick around to hear that.
FOR SAFETY’S SNAKE
Based on information from herpetologist Steve Bledsoe and Torrey Pines Park Ranger Dave Richards, the Light offers this handy checklist of how to avoid rattler run-ins:
1) Stay in the center of every trail and never wander off-trail.
For that matter, never go or anywhere you can’t see the ground in front of you.
2) Wear closed-toed shoes.
The unlucky hiker was bitten on the toe, according to Richards. A snake probably assumed the digit was a mouse.
3) Wear jeans.
Sturdy long pants can absorb more than half the venom a snake attempts to inject.
4) Never listen to music or read texts.
Look and listen only to what’s in front of you.
5) If you have to step over something or down a stair, check where you’re stepping first.
6) Wavy tracks means a snake has recently crossed and could be hiding just off the edge of either side of the trail.
7) If a snake blocks a trail in front of you and doesn’t move, stay at least 10 feet away, turn around nonchalantly and go back the way you came. (If you’re in a park, do the same and then call a ranger.)
Remaining motionless is a snake’s favorite defense mechanism. (The camouflage that makes this trick work so well in the bush doesn’t work on a trail, but the snake isn’t smart enough to realize this.) Once it can no longer see you or feel your vibrations, it’ll continue where it was going before you surprised it.
8) Always let a hiding snake think you can’t see it.
If you walk toward it and then suddenly freeze and stare, you are perceived as a predator who has seen and is stalking it. The snake is likely to graduate to its next defense: coiling and rattling.
9) Even if a snake is coiling and rattling, turn around and walk away if it’s in front of you, or walk past it if doing so brings you no closer to it.
You can still escape unbitten — because the snake wants you to.