Noe Valley Voice September 2003

Florence's Family Album: A Rattling Wilderness Experience

Florence Holub recalls an encounter with several striking creatures in this tale originally published in the July 1992 issue of the Noe Valley Voice.

With vacation time drawing to a close, my thoughts have again strayed to our many exciting bygone summers. As a family, we Holubs enjoyed a great variety of group outings, and as city dwellers we were especially attracted to national parks and preserves. One vacation, however, stands out among the rest--our 1964 backpacking trip to the wilderness area of the Sierra foothills.

Participating in the adventure (in addition to myself) were my man Leo, our youngest son, Eric, who was 10 years old at the time, and our next-door neighbors Pat and Jim Hackett, the owners of two friendly and devoted shaggy dogs named Zen and Haiku. We chose the Sierra National Forest because dogs were allowed, and also because this particular forest was only a few hours away from the city.

On departure day we traveled through the Sacramento Valley and wound our way up into the foothills on a two-way road. When the road dead-ended, we parked the cars and set out on foot--with everything crammed into and tied onto our backpacks. Then we made our descent to a fork of the Yuba River, following a narrow deer path that led through chaparral, pine, and oak woodlands.

Upon reaching the bottom of the ravine, we crossed the stream by stepping from boulder to boulder while balancing our heavy loads. The dogs had difficulty following us because they kept sliding off the slippery rocks into the shallow stream. In the process, Zen and Haiku not only soaked themselves, but dunked the "sidepacks" that Pat had rigged to carry their dry dog food--thus rendering it instant Gravy Train!

When we reached the other side of the water, we hiked downstream until we found a suitable site to set up camp, on a sandy beach next to a swimming hole formed by a series of small rapids. Here we settled into our beautiful surroundings, at the base of a rocky cliff that overlooked the river and the green wooded slopes of a V-shaped canyon.

We had brought along steaks for our first dinner, which we barbecued that evening on a portable grill over an open fire. They were served with French bread and lettuce salad topped with blue cheese dressing. The pre-moistened dog food required no preparation.

As the day grew dark and cool, we huddled around the dying fire in our sleeping bags, looking upward in amazement at the luminous display of stars. A broad band of glitter, our Milky Way, arced across the night sky from mountaintop to mountaintop, and every so often a brilliant shooting star flared and burned out as it hit the earth's atmosphere. Watching with heavy eyelids, we fell asleep lulled by the sound of the rippling stream and the wind in the pine trees.

The next day, awakened by birdsong, we swam in the river, sunned on the beach, and did a little exploring. We followed a tributary of water until we came to its source--a mountain spring that nurtured a lush crop of watercress. Pat and I gathered as much cress as our hands would hold and brought it back to camp. To keep it fresh, we scooped out a basin at the water's edge.

A tiny green frog made this his home, but whenever we approached, he hopped away, only to return the instant we departed. That night we enjoyed watercress salad, as an accompaniment to our canned beef stew. The dogs got their soggy dog food.

It took about two days to shed the cares of civilization and relax into the quiet of the wilderness, unmarred by the city sounds of traffic, TV, sirens, and indoor plumbing. With star-filled nights and sun-flooded days, we drifted like the stream, feeling our oneness with nature.

The third day, it got so hot that we walked up onto a bluff where the breeze cooled us as we ate our lunch of cheese and rye tack. Eric returned to camp to fetch his canteen, and a short time later we heard him call out loudly, "Dad, there are two snakes doing a funny dance. I think they're rattlesnakes. Yes, they are!"

Leo put down his camera, picked up a rock with which to defend his son, and hightailed it down the hill, with the rest of us at his heels.

Just as Eric had said, two large snakes, rearing half-upright, were facing one another only five feet above where we had been sleeping so peacefully the previous night. Oblivious to us, they swayed from side to side, and then, suddenly, one or the other of them would throw his upper body at or around his opponent, almost as if they were Indian wrestling.

Eventually they became aware of our presence and turned their attention our way, scanning us from left to right. They did not rattle in warning or retreat in haste--they just surveyed us for what seemed like an eternity, as if they knew we were not going to harm them. Then one of the snakes lowered his body and leisurely slithered upward over the rocks, disappearing into a crevice. The remaining rattler stood his ground for a while, but then he too began to make a slow retreat, halting intermittently to turn his head and coolly check us out.

We were standing, frozen at attention, when the sharp point of a leaf pricked my bare leg. My reaction, commonly known as "jumping out of one's skin," felt exactly like the description.

After Jim and Pat gently reprimanded the dogs--"Well, you are a fine pair of watchdogs!"--we retreated to the bluff to finish our lunch and reevaluate our situation. Our deliberations were interrupted, however, by a loud thrashing sound coming from the underbrush and descending down the slope on the other side of the river. Expecting to see a bear, we were surprised to observe a shouting man, wading across the stream toward us, his gun held high above his head. When he reached us, he said that after hunting all day with no luck, he had become completely disoriented--lost, in fact. Then he had spotted us from above.

Leo knew the area well and was able to give the man directions to a settlement one mile downstream. But unable to restrain ourselves, we first had to blurt out the story of our hair-raising encounter with the snakes.

As the hunter turned to go, he declared, "I'd like to get a shot at them!" His statement appalled us all, but it was compassionate Patricia who actually cried out, "You won't hurt them, will you?" The man turned and gave us a withering look, evidently not accepting the value of these snakes in the ecosystem--how they kept down the rodent population. After he left, we listened intently for the sound of his gunshot, but to our relief heard nothing.

Although we felt kindly toward the rattlers, we lacked the lunacy to spend another night sleeping next to a den of vipers. That afternoon, we packed our gear and trudged back over the path we had traveled four days prior. On the way, we passed a rustic cabin where the owner spoke to us. We told her of our adventure, but she was unimpressed. Only the day before, she said, she had almost stepped on a six-foot rattler sunning himself on her porch.

She also informed us that a group of boys with guns had been through the area several years before, shooting at every snake they saw, which happened to be the conspicuously marked king snake. Since the king snake is the rattlesnake's mortal enemy and helps keep the rattlesnake population under control, the boys' extermination of this species had led to an explosion of rattlesnakes.

Next we sought out the local forestry outpost and related our experience to the ranger there. He told us he had read about, but never actually observed, the snakes' "combat ritual," a contest to determine which male wins the female.

Although this camping trip happened 28 years ago [now 39], it has left an indelible impression--and we all have souvenirs. I have my sketches, Leo took photographs, and Jim composed a number of nature poems. Patricia, a music educator, has retained the musical sounds of the Sierras. And our son Eric will forever be imbued with a reverence for nature and all its living creatures.

That vacation remains the most memorable of our summer sojourns. But would we ever wish to go back to that wild and beautiful garden of Eden?

I know I speak for all concerned when I say: Not on your life! h