Mar 10

stalking the snowsnake

Had a call the other day from Mikey, my barber, at the popular Log Cabin Barber Shop in North Syracuse, NY, about Snow Snakes. We had been discussing the snow snake recently, and he brought up the subject in his shop among a number of his customers. Now most of those guys are hunters, ice fishermen, snowmobilers, and such, but they insisted that the snow snake did not exist. Perhaps they will learn the truth the hard way.

My experience with the elusive snowsnake goes ‘way back to when I grew up on the Tug Hill.  You could always find signs of their passing in the snow covered forests.  Then we spent a lot of time snowmobiling the Tug in the ’60′s and ’70′s, and tracks of the snake were everywhere.  I think they were drawn to the trails of the snowmobilers, maybe by the garbage and empty containers.  Or maybe it was just that more and more humans were invading their wintry lair with those noisy machines.  And at our Montague hunting camp, there was usually snow on the ground, and you always saw the snow snake tunnels near camp in the mornings.  Were they searching for food scraps, or perhaps lurking to accost the unwary hunter who stepped outside in his longjohns to look at the stars?

For those who have never encountered the snowsnake, let me tell you that you are very unlikely to see one, but you may see evidence of his passage.  Look near the trails for a round or near-round hole in the deep snow, surrounded by a yellowish border.  If it is very fresh, you may detect a faint sulpher odor.  The elusive snow snake has been and gone.  This tunnel may be his trail thru the snow as he hunts for food, or the entrance to his undersnow lair: I have never stuck a hand in to explore it.

What does this mysterious reptile look like, you may ask?  I am not sure that I ever actually seen one, but those who claim to know describe it as being anywhere from 1 to 6 feet long, and covered in a shiny fur of white or pale yellow.  You will see his beady black eyes, and perhaps a black tip on his tail.  It is easy to see that the snake could easily be mistaken for an ermine or weasel in his winter phase.  Do not be fooled.

I have read reports of the snow snake in many of our northern regions, including Manitoba, Michigan, Northern Ontario, and of course, Northern New York.  No doubt they also inhabit New England as well.  Early Native American tribes , such as the Abenacki and Haudenosaunee, apparently knew of the snake, and even had a winter game that involved throwing a 6-foot sharpened stick or spear thru the snow.  Or were they actually throwing it AT the snowsnake to drive him from his snowy tunnel?

I have read other reports, and seen vague photos, of alleged snowsnakes lurking in trees, coiled around snowy branches, perhaps basking in the sparse winter sun, or waiting for an unsuspecting victim to pass underneath.

Is the snow snake dangerous, you may well ask?  I can find no record of human fatalities involving this reptile, but over the years there have been any number of snowmobilers, snowshoers, skiiers, trappers, and such, found frozen in the snow in remote areas.  Did they freeze to death, were they victims of physical ailments, or perhaps victims of snakebite?  Who can say?

With so many more snowmobilers and other outdoor adventurers out in the forests today, I am surprised that there are not more reports of snowsnakes coming in, maybe even some photos.  (I did have a photo of a snowsnake tunnel somewhere in my 35mm slide files, but don’t seem to be able to find it.  Hmmmm.)  My theory is that everyone seems to be traveling so much further and faster these days, with the 100 mph snowmobiles and all, that they just don’t notice all that goes on around them.  Or is the snow snake no longer there?  Perhaps a victim of global warming?  Perhaps this elusive critter does not exist at all.  Like the mythical Saskquatch and the mysterious black panther, we want to believe he is out there, even if there is no hard evidence that he exists.  This demands further studies.  I would love to hear from anyone with experience with these mysterious reptiles.