In that both of my parents were school teachers, we used to spend our summers up at the Canada Creek Ranch during the summer break from school. Many of the other kids that were up there for the duration of the summer were also children of school teachers. Sure, there were other groups of kids that would come and go, but the one’s that tended to be up there for the entire summer tended to all be teacher-kids and thus we ended up hanging around together a lot more than any of the other kids.
One such kid was my friend Mark. He was an outdoors dork like me. In fact, Mark could be a bit more of an outdoors dork than me sometimes. We were both skinny little guys at the time, but Mark had dark, thick rimmed glasses, brown curly hair and was seldom seen without wearing a fishing hat like something you’d see Marty Stouffer wearing.
That particular summer, Mark had picked up a nickname. Both his older brother and my older brother got to calling him ‘Ulee’. Mark had taken to reading any magazine on fishing, hunting or the outdoors that he could get his hands on, and doing whatever the article said.
He drilled out all his crank baits and put BB’s inside. He started re-painting all his jigheads in flame orange and chartreuse. He broke the barbs on some of his fish-hooks to make it easier to set the hook. He stuck reflective tape on his spoons. He started building special rigs for perch fishing even though there were very few perch in any of the lakes. He even started learning and tying all sorts of knots for practice.
“…and this here knot used to be used to tie indians to posts for target practice…” (ok, that’s a tad of an exaggeration, but you get the idea)
Someone – it may have been his dad, one of his many older brothers or maybe even my dad – suggested one day that if Mark saw one of Ule Gibbons TV shows that told you how you could eat tree bark, Mark would be out there scraping at the trees with his pocket knife inside of 10 minutes. My brother Tim and Mark’s brother John were within earshot of the comment and the nickname stuck.
Mark’s and my families both had canoes. With a little coordinating, we figured out how we could canvas any of the three main lakes in the cabin area by keeping each of our canoes on a different lake and fishing together. For example, we found out one day that it wasn’t horribly difficult to carry my family’s Michicraft up over the hill between the Lake Geneva beach and down to Wildfowl lake. From there, it was a short paddle over to the docks and then just a short portage across the road over to Horsehead lake.
On this particular day, we had a plan and we were on a mission. I’m not sure which one of us had gotten the crazy idea first, but we had both seen a bunch of snakes hanging out sunning themselves on a beaver mound near the back corner of Horsehead lake. Neither of us had seen any rattles on any of them so we determined that they must be northern water snakes. The only snakes with any kind of venom to worry about were the rattlers. (Massasauga rattlers are the only pit viper in Michigan)
Northern Water Snake
Our idea was to clobber one of those water snakes to get it’s skin. I was already diddling in leather work at the time and Mark kinda liked the crazy idea as a change of pace. It was like huntin!!! And we were frankly getting bored with fishing every day.
So we hauled the canoe across the hill, then over to Horsehead and set off for the Beaver mound. We weren’t disappointed either. Even before we got close we could make out a whole slew of snakes already slithering down into the branches or off into the water.
We pulled up along side the mound and scanned the remaining visible snakes. We wanted to make damn sure we didn’t see any rattles on any of them. After looking good and hard but not seeing any rattles, we picked out a snake and proceeded to clobber it over the head ‘but good’. (of course, not without a few misses, a whole lot of splashing and nearly tipping over the canoe twice)
The snake ended up in the water just off the edge of the beaver mound. Since I was the one that would likely get the job of skinning it, I got stuck with the job of scooping it up in the net.
I got the snake into the net and picked it up out of the water, pausing to let the water drip out of the mesh, then moved the net into the boat. The next thing you know, the snake starts to move around. Both of us panic!
Even though the idea of a northern water snake didn’t really skeeze either of us out, the thought of a snake squirming around inside of a wobbly canoe wasn’t the most pleasant notion to consider. Of course, the first thing that came to my mind was to donk it over the head again. But I didn’t want to rip a hole in my net either so I told Mark to get his paddle ready because I was going to dump the snake out into the bottom of the boat.
As I flipped the net over, the snake’s “fangs” hung up in the net.
Mind you, I already mentioned that northern water snakes don’t have fangs. Massasauga rattlers have fangs. Massasauga rattlers are the only snakes in Michigan that are considered deadly poisonous. So, obviously, this snake must be a Massasauga rattle snake and not a northern water snake.
This is approximately the same thought process that was running through both of our minds at that very moment; me holding a fish net out at arms length with a half stupefied snake hanging off it by it’s fangs, Mark holding his paddle dangling out over the side of the boat. Both of our eyes scanned down to the tail at the same time as we continued our thought process in sync with one another. Nope, no rattle – what the…. ?!?!?
Now is about the time a real panic started to set in. Now is also about the time it would have been appropriate for someone, anywhere nearby to start the song ‘Dance of the Cuckoos’ because events quickly degraded into a bad scene from a Laurel and Hardy movie.
“Ahhhh, why does it have fangs?” I said.
“uh… uh… crap! THROW IT OUT – IT’S STILL MOVING,” stuttered mark.
*wobble wobble* said the canoe.
“No wait, I have an idea!” I responded as I slowly lowered the snake’s body back onto the floor of the boat.
“What the heck are you doing?!?!” cried Mark, “Get it out!”
“No trust me…. He’s stuck in the net. I’m going to stretch him out see?” Realizing the snake was still somewhat out of it, I stretched his body out in a straight line using the net to keep him ‘hung up’ so he couldn’t move – much.
“If I stretch them out like this they can’t coil to strike. Right?” I asked the question in part to put Mark a bit more at ease, in part hoping he might answer it and do the same for me ” He’s still dazed anyway!” I added, hoping that if it wasn’t so, that saying it might just make it so somehow.
At that point I grabbed for my paddle with my other hand. Before I completely set the snake down, I stuck the blade of the paddle right across the middle of it’s neck behind the head.
“Just like that see? Now hit my paddle.”
"OK, now hit my paddle with yours!"
Before I could say anything, Mark swung his paddle out to the side and gave a hefty lateral swing. In his panic state he almost took out my fingers in the process, not to mention that he made me lose my hold on the snake with the end of the paddle.
“DAMMIT ULEE!!! NOT FROM THE SIDE YOU IDIOT!!! FROM THE TOP… FROM THE TOP!!!”
I quickly moved the blade of my paddle back onto the neck of the snake. My shouting seemed to snap Mark back to a reasonable level of sanity and he made sense of the idea. He gave the top of the paddle a good 4 to 5 thumps with his.
We both stood back as I released the pressure off of the paddle and placed the net over the top of the snake, keeping it’s fangs hooked up in the net for ‘additional safety‘ I thought. After a few seconds we looked at each other and nodded. Without needing to say a word, we quickly sat down and paddled back to the dock.
I’m not sure which one of us landed on shore first, but we were leaping out of the canoe at the same time without any need for further instruction.
After a few minutes passed, we determined the snake was really a goner this time but still didn’t have the nerve to take it back to skin it right away. Instead we stuck it down in a shallow marsh puddle behind where we pulled up the canoe up and resolved to go hit the ‘Trading Post’ for a pop. Then we would see if it was still wiggling by the time we came back.
It was a good 15 minutes, even from Horsehead lake, up the hill to the front gate of the Ranch on foot. So we figured that would be more than enough time to make sure it was dead.
Now I don’t know if those 4-5 whacks didn’t do the trick or if someone (or some critter) came by and spotted the snake, but there was no trace of it when we came back a half-an-hour later! For the next few weeks we were extremely wary any time we fished Horsehead lake for fear there was an irked off rattlesnake wearing a neck brace lurking somewhere back in the bushes!
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