The Great Timber Rattlesnake Hunt, part 1

Monkey Business

The life and times of Roger Repp

Excerpted from the Tucson Herp Society Newsletter (June 2008)

In respectful memory of Ron Humbert: Turtle guy, naturalist, and a born leader of people who normally can't be lead. Our world is not the same without you, Ron.

I'm convinced that I came out of my mother's womb a herpetologist. I was probably thinking about rattlesnakes at the point in time that the doctor slapped my mother for her part in creating me. But of course, I remember nothing of my thought patterns at that point--mainly because being a zero-year-old carries the consequence of the ultimate case of Alzheimer's.

Now how is it that a congenital herpetologist, bred and born in these here great United States of America, can live from zero-year-old to the advanced age of fifty-two years without ever once seeing a living timber rattlesnake?

The answer to that question is complex. To say that I tried to find a timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) at various points in my life would be an understatement. I spent my summers in Arkansas throughout my Junior High and High School years. Right on the eastern edge of the Ozarks, I was. But when doing this, I was also engaged in a pastime that the youth of today might not understand: I WAS WORKING!!!! That's right, youngsters, I was working. The concept seems foreign, maybe even cruel--doesn't it?

But when the long days of hauling hay, pumping gas, or washing dishes were over, there were enough trips to the bluffs and the swimming holes that a horridus should have crossed my path. It didn't, and I've been paying my psychiatrist weekly visits ever since. (She keeps telling me it was because of the work thing....)

Nowadays, I'm connected enough that a horridus could have happened ten years ago. I'd have done it the way most of the readers on this list operate. A nice emailed leg-hump to one of the heavies back east would eventually land me in front of fifty of the gorgeous brutes. But ANYBODY can be lead by the hand to the promised land.

Nope, I wanted to do this timber thing the hard way--my way! I wanted to be with friends who are special to me. I wanted to pick the spot--not have the spot chosen for me. The spot I chose was my own home state: Sweet Home Illinois. A good place, with good people, seeking a cool snake--on my own terms.

This is our text. Let it be said, let it be done, amen................
Wednesday morning, 27 September 2006

The frantic packing for a flight to Chicago is 99% done. A few items remain. I look long and hard at my somewhat bulky but efficient flashlight, and decide "Nah, I won't be needing this."

I also dig into my truck box, where I keep a bunch of double A Duracell Batteries. ("Dura--as in durable. "Cell," as in battery cell). I pull a package of 8 of them out--and promptly forget to pack them in my suitcase.

Both misdeeds will come back to haunt me in the days ahead.
0400 Thursday, 28 September 2006

Gery Herrmann knocks on the door to his guest room.

Normally, whatever time Gery knocks on his guest room door matters less than nothing to me. But with this particular knock, I'm the person in the guest room.

"Rise and shine" utters Gery. I rise, but any shining is out of the question. But curses scorching the interior of the guest bedroom DO brighten things up. The name of Steve Barten is taken in vain numerous times. Poor Doctor Barten--the plan he dumped on Gery and me at 0030 Thursday was as follows: "We need to get an early start. We will be by to pick you up at 0515."

At 12:30 in the morning, Barten tells us he'll be by at 5:15 that same morning. And oh--let's not minimize this misery any. 0515 HIS time is 0315 MY time. Does the reader begin to understand why there was no hot surge of joy running up and down my spine with Gery's 0400 knock on the door of his guest room?

Hence, the 0400 (0200 MY TIME) wake up call, and hence, the name of Barten being the recipient of relentless verbal obliteration was an inevitable consequence. The soliloquy was impressive in both content and duration. Before everything simmered down a bit, one last murderous threat was issued to no one in particular.

"If he's late, I'm kicking his backside up to his ears."

But alas, Barten's hearing was not to be impaired by his butt cheeks engulfing his pinnae. On the dot of 0515, he arrived, with the last member of our party, one Jenny Vollman by name, at his side.

From our end, Gery and I were also 100% ready. Five minutes later, 14 tons of gear was packed in the back of Barten's Mighty Ford Explorer, and we were whistling southward. We circumvented the Big Windy just ahead of rush hour, and were in the clear for the longass haul down the impressive north-to-south length of the great state of Illinois.

As the sun arose, we had the gigantic cesspool of humanity behind us, and were on the wide open stretch of route 57 that continues to southern Illinois and beyond. Throughout this stretch of road, Arlo Gutherie's song "City of New Orleans" was burned in my brain.

"All along the southbound odyssey
The train pulls out of Kankakee
And rolls along past houses, farms and fields............."

For the next six hours, our train was pulling out of Kankakee. And as the song implies, we were rolling along past houses, farms and fields. The clickity-clack melody, and cheerful lyrics kept my disposition in a mellow state, UNTIL I got to the chorus:


It was at this point that the lyrics went south on me:

"Hey don't you know, stick a fork in me--I'm done
Mine's the brain that's dead, I think I need a new spleen
I'll be gone 500 miles 'til I'm having fun"

Yup! Gentle reader, for the next six hours, keep repeating "rolls along past houses, farms, and fields." Keep repeating this until you become little more than a blithering idiot. Congratulations! You have just experienced a road trip from Northern Illinois to Southern Illinois.

But a trip through Illinois with Roger Repp, Herp King of Arizona, perched in the back seat is never a dull affair. There were many things to bitch about, and bitching is a pastime the King has perfected to an art form. The first three hours were spent bitching about the unchristian hour of the morning upon which we embarked. Just as this epic tirade was finally winding down, one misguided occupant of the vehicle made the mistake of inquiring at what point we would stop at "The Fish Farm." The thought of a visit to said Fish Farm was unwelcome news to the ears of the King, who launched into an entirely new bitchathon about the finer nuances of the place.

For those unfamiliar with the Fish Farm, it is a series of about 50 perfectly square little ponds, set in a massive, flat, freshly mowed pasture of sorts. Apparently, the proprietors of the Fish Farm feed their fish Beano. Hence, there is not enough fish flatulence to aerate the water of the ponds properly. Instead of controlling the problem with diet, each pond has its own sputtering mechanical device, roughly the size of an outboard boat motor, that adds the proper amount of aeration to the water. These devices are on pods that allow them to float, and each have a square, box-like cover that weather proofs their working innards. The fine art of herping this place involves wading crotch deep into each pond, lifting the cover off, and finding the scads of Watersnakes that seek shelter within.

Kings do not seek coal when trying to find diamonds. And Herp Kings do not seek Watersnakes when there are timber rattlesnakes to be had.

Do Eagles soar with starlings? Do Wolves frolic with field mice? Do Salmon swim upstream with carp? Of course not! And neither do timber rattlesnakes profane their flanks by cramming into tight quarters with filthy, musk-slinging fish eaters!   

Eventually, several tirades later, the view was no longer houses, farms and fields. There were rivers, there were lakes. There were heavily forested limestone bluffs, with babbling brooks undulating through their loving flanks.

In short: We were there! Southern Illinois. Home to over 70 species of herps. The northern extent of many of the southern species, and the southern extent of many northern species. A herpetological Mecca of sorts, perhaps the greatest stomping grounds in the entire US of A. A herpetological oyster, and we were going to do a LOT of pearl diving for the next three days.

Along with the impossible dream of a timber rattlesnake, I also had high hopes for seeing a red milksnake, a copperhead, and a probable "gimme snake"--a cottonmouth. But with so many other species of herps available, a surprise find might blow the doors off anything on my personal want list.

Our first stop was at a Super 8 Motel, to unload 7 of the 14 tons worth of gear that we were carrying. The "Fab Four" then morphed into the command center of the trip, for many others were to join us in the upcoming mission to seek and find our crawly friends.

While Steve, Gery and Jenny manned their cell phones, I found a bottle of tequila and an entire army of full beer bottles. Since there was no real food available, it seemed like a reasonable proposition to start drinking my lunch. Many brave soldiers gave up their bodily fluids to support my effort in what was to transpire next.

In the meantime, Jenny, Gery and Steve managed to gain knowledge of the whereabouts of the rest of the incoming herpers. Ralph Shepstone was driving alone, and was 40 minutes away from our Motel. Mike Dloogatch and Erik Williams were also in that 40 minute window of arrival. John Archer and his daughter Grace were still rolling along past houses, farm and fields, as were Andy and Linda Malawy and Betsy Davis. Both parties were still several hours away--hence they were abruptly dismissed from phase one of the herp trip.

Phase one was to involve Gery, Steve, Jenny, Mike, Erik, Ralph and me hitting all the good spots, leaving the crummy places for the remaining five late comers. It was at this point that I began to better comprehend Barten's plan for an early start to the adventure.

With this group--you snooze--you lose!

With but maximum fumbling and flandickery, the seven of us eventually got our act together, piled into two vehicles, and jetted toward a place that was known as "The Car Hood." According to my guides, the Car Hood was a place that they had found every species of snake known to mankind--all under one downed automobile hood. Surrounding said hood were many sheets of tin and boards, each with very good potential.

As we arrived at the area containing the car hood, I prepared to make mad a dash for it. I wanted to go for the throat. Two obstacles kept me from this goal: 1). I didn't know where it was, and 2). A series of elbows and body blows knocked me to the ground, and six varying sizes of foot apparel kept me there.

By the time I was on my feet again, I witnessed a melee so dreadful as to make it difficult to put into words. There was tripping, there was punching, there was eye gouging--and the tackling that was going down would make the Chicago Bears Defense envious.

Such was the angst of my six counterparts to get to this car hood, I could have quietly walked around them and arrived first. But being the good guest that I am, I instead busied myself by checking the outermost perimeter of the dump, seeking the objects less known to flip. A few pieces of cardboard, railroad ties, and tin sheets were found and flipped--with my personal score for herps found remaining at zero.

It then became time to rejoin the group who had made for the car hood. Normally, finding them might have been a problem. But the fresh trail of blood, tears, and broken teeth--not to mention the occasional eyeball that had been ripped from its moorings, allowed me to easily locate them. Jenny was observed holding a snarl of about a half dozen snakes, and Ralph had a couple more. Mike held a smallish western ribbonsnake in his hand.

The group magnanimously allowed me to flip two pieces of tin. Under one of them was a kingsnake, and under the other, a blacksnake. The Car Hood and its many satellites had proven to be an absolute herpetological turkeyshoot.

While most of the group engaged themselves with photographing all their prizes, Gery and I ambled off to ground thus far unexplored. I managed to find another car hood that had been welded into the ground by years of neglect and ignorance of the Chicago crowd.

It was my very own virgin car hood!

For a half hour, I huffed and puffed and dug and cussed, trying in vain to pry the hood out of the thick layer of grass and dirt that clung to its perimeter. One by one, members of the group began trickling over to join me in the effort to the get stubborn monstrosity flipped. Eventually, we hot half of it up--nothing. The group then went after the other half, and three men and one boy later, up it came. Somehow, some way, a hatchling blacksnake was under this second half of the hood. Why we didn't scare it clean out of the county with our efforts is unclear, but we did manage to not only capture it, but get some breathtaking photos of the little guy as well.

My notes for this entire trip are below par. With so many eyes moving so many different directions, and reports received sporadically--often long after the fact, I'm sure that a few details were missed. My own scorecard for the Car Hood Dump is as follows: 8 blacksnakes--~300mm S-T hatchling to 1400mm S-T adults, a nasty, one-eyed black ratsnake--~1400mm S-T, 2 kingsnakes,--~900mm S-T, and 1 western ribbonsnake--~350mm S-T.

Not a bad start!

Our next stop was to involve more dump ripping. We went to a place called the Olive Garden, which is an abandoned mining camp set deep in forest that carries the name "Evelyn Wood." There was none of the jostling for position as we entered Evelyn Wood, for the Olive Garden is a well spread out, wide open dump. There was more than enough flippables to go around. The forest was soon filled with merry sounds of sreeching tin sheets being hefted in the air, and the thumpings of old refrigerators being rolled.

My only personal score to speak of was finding two five-lined skinks between a pair of damp sofa cushions. Other finds included yet another blacksnake, a kingsnake, 2 eastern fence lizards, and 2 slimy salamanders. Coming from a land devoid of REAL salamanders, I was most impressed with the two slimys found here.

The next place we visited was a place that I had fearlessly forecasted as being the Holy Grail of all dumps. I had informed the group that my "spidey sense" had tingled while there last year. I was convinced that they had missed much by not scoping the outer limits of this dump, as well as some adjacent roads, more thoroughly.

Upon our arrival, I informed the group that henceforth and hereafter, this place was to be known as "Roger's Dump." I further embellished the pre-dump ripping festivities by informing them all that they would be thanking me profusely for my persistent insistence that we go to this particular spot.

When all was said and done, our meager total of herps here was one blacksnake, and 2 eastern box turtles. The roads that had looked so promising the previous year were gated, and gaily festooned with "Illinois welcome signs" (No Trespassing.) But the group DID agree to name the dump after me. They only changed one word in the process. Somehow, "Roger's Dump" evolved into "Roger's Folly." Chicago folk can be heartless when dealing with visiting Herp Kings.
As we assembled to plan our next move, Ralph piped out an inquiry as to when we were going to check out the Fish Farm. Poor Ralph had not been one of the occupants in the southbound vehicle who had endured the three-hour rant about Herp Kings, coal and diamonds, eagles, wolves, salmon, and where horridus do not choose to roost. Hence, the delighted Herp King started to rewind his jowls for a replay of the soliloquy. But Gery put a stop to the soliloquy before e'er it started by begging the hapless Dentist to drop the idea:
"Please Ralph, not this trip. Trust me--it just isn't worth it!"
Mike suggested that we next visit a place that he described as "scenically beautiful." There were a few grumbles emanating from other members of the group about his suggestion. But if my buddy Mike wanted to show us a scenic spot­ we were going to said spot. If Mikey likes it­, then good enough for the likes of us that was!
Mike led the charge westward along the dirt road that had taken us to "Roger's Folly." To either side of this road could be seen lakes, ponds and swamps. Each offered a glimpse of turtles basking on logs, or herons wading ankle deep in still waters. The urge to explore every inch of the terrain here was strong, but for now, our job was simple-keep following Mike. At length, the road hooked a sharp right hand turn. A stream flanked the left side of the road here. The road continued to parallel the stream until such time as we crossed a bridge that spanned it. A pullout was utilized just after the bridge, and the magnificent seven began their assault.
No lies were told by our guide. This was the kind of place that I could hike all damn day, and not even care if I saw a herp. The tranquility of deep forest was upon us as we began our slow roll downstream. The crystal clear waters trickled downslope over limestone bedrock. In places, the stream divided into deep mini-cuts in the bedrock, in others, it fanned outward to form a shallow flow with multitudes of little waterfalls tinkling over the lumpy bottom of the streambed. In some places, deep, wide "swimming hole" types of pools formed. All was immersed in a dense canopy of Oak, Hickory, Bald Cypress, Pine, and other varieties of trees too numerous to mention here.
The first major find in this hallowed place proved to be some ancient petroglyphs inscribed upon a limestone boulder. It was discerned that the primitive savages used a device known as a black Magic Marker to enshrine their words for future generations to behold. The words were strange of speech pattern, but reflected that good, clean fun has always been a timeless proposition. My knowledge of such things as petroglyphs allowed me to quickly decipher the wording, which I gladly pass on to the readership of this column:
"For a free good time, call Lucy and Chasity."
There were two phone numbers below these words. I will not share these phone numbers with you herpers, as I don't want poor Lucy or Chasity to be suddenly assailed by thousands of phone calls from a bunch of randy herp geeks.
 I copied these phone numbers in my notes, and took a digital shot of them as well. I figured that with all my bad mouthing of Fish Farms, as well as the endless bitching about everything else, I could easily be voted off the island. This would leave me friendless in a strange land. Knowledge of Lucy and Chasity might prove beneficial.
Just as the petroglyph incident was behind me, the second and last find of the area ensued. A small, rectangular packet was viewed laying on the ground nearby. Lettering on this package indicated that it had at one point had contained a Trojan. A rip to one side of the packet indicated that he had escaped. (They must have really been itty bitty people to fit into such a small package.)
What with being about to be kicked off the island, knowledge of what the locals used for birth control might prove beneficial. It could certainly help with Lucy or Chasity. I picked the package up to read the fine print, and uncovered a Folwer's Toad in the process. Why a toad would choose to reside under a discarded condom package is not my job to comprehend. Perhaps there is a study in that? One the Trojan company might be willing to fund? Gogettum herpers!
End part 1.