Words and Images from Ed Felker

A Tough Hike, A Great View and a New Snake

The white blaze of the Appalachian Trail is more than a directional marker. It is an icon for an American resource steeped in history. I can’t say I’m one of those who feels the calling to hike the trail’s entire reach from Georgia to Maine, but every time I hike a short stretch of it, I gain a little more respect for those thru-hikers who make the entire trek. Today Team Orange and I did the 5.5 mile out and back Raven Rocks hike not far from where we live.

It had been a while since I hiked this stretch, and I had forgotten how strenuous it was. After a span of regular exercise and some notable weight loss I thought it would be a breeze compared to my last visit. So I think I started off with a brisk and unsustainable pace that tired me out early. But it was a beautiful day, and the dogs and I all needed the exercise, so we pressed on.

Unlike my regular hiking routes which typically are uphill at the beginning and downhill at the end, this hike goes up and down several times. This makes it a challenge to ration both water and energy. The trail itself is very rocky, which feels like a lot more exercise than a flat dirt path. The payoff, just across the West Virginia border, is a spectacular view of the Shenandoah Valley.

I brought a lot of water for the dogs and it’s a good thing. They worked hard. For much of the year this hike has two beautiful little stream crossings, but the current drought has dried both of them up. I love this new collapsible water bowl from REI, by the way.

I felt like I had used up 75% of my energy on the first half of an out and back hike. Which isn’t a problem if it’s all downhill on the way back, but it is most certainly not that. So after a little stalling and a few photos, we all had some more water and then we headed back.

Crossing back into Virginia, I couldn’t help but think how many levels of fitness there are above my own. The thought of driving to Tennessee makes me tired.

About half way back to the car, Winnie came within inches of stepping on this snake with all four of her feet. For a dog who will lock up and point a stationary chipmunk at thirty paces, she was curiously oblivious to this snake. I could not immediately identify it. We have three poisonous snakes in Virginia: the Northern Copperhead, the Eastern Cottonmouth and the Timber Rattler. None of which I’ve ever seen in person. It didn’t have a rattle, but beyond that I had no idea what it was. It had markings I had never seen, and displayed some intimidating behavior when threatened by my camera. He flattened his head out like a hood and became very agitated. I sent a picture to my wife, waited for the family hiking behind me to arrive at the scene to warn them just in case, and continued on. Before long, Sandy had accurately identified it – behavior and all – as a harmless Eastern Hognose snake. But the incident made me think about a blind spot of sorts when I’m hiking a rocky trail. I had to watch where every foot landed on the uneven path, so my concentration didn’t extend more than four feet in front of me much of the time. And the dogs are on six foot leashes. I actually encountered a few people on the trail, noticing them for the first time when they were only 20 feet away. If this were a dangerous snake, Winnie could have gotten bitten and I would be right on it before I knew what happened. If it were a snake, as the saying goes, it would have bitten me.

Anyway, I recommend the hike. We pushed as hard as I could and made the round trip in exactly three hours. And with good visibility like we had today, you can see forever from the summit. I mean, if you bother to look up.


9 responses

  1. It’s funny…in all the years I’ve lived in Virginia, walking round and riding in the woods, I’ve seen exactly zero poisonous snakes. A few black snakes, a corn snake, but the only poisonous snakes I’ve seen are three copperheads that showed up near our barn and were quickly dispatched.

    Nice blog post and photos as usual. I think I have asked this before, but have you read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson? A hilarious (mis)adventure of hiking the Appalachian Trail.

    Those collapsible bowls are nice. Hug Winnie for me, and Finn too!

    August 13, 2012 at 12:02 am

    • I was just saying the other day, as much time as I spend exploring the outdoors, two things surprise me: That I don’t see more snakes, and that I’ve never seen a bear in the wild. Hugs issued, thanks!

      August 13, 2012 at 8:39 am

  2. James Romanyak

    Ed, here in AZ, you don’t take a dog “out” unless it has had snake avoidance training. Best done by a skilled dog person and the avoidance should be tested for scent, sound and sight. Also, a good idea to retest yearly as, like us, dogs, especially young ones, forget. Nice extra, the dog’s behavior warns you of a snake’s presence ( a friend of mine was so warned when taking the garbage out — there it was, right by the can!) whew!

    August 13, 2012 at 12:15 am

  3. Ilene Smith

    Wow, what a beautiful snake. Hognose snakes are seldom seen even though they are ubiquitous to Virginia. You are lucky to get such a good picture of it. I’ve held a juvenile Eastern Hognose and it played dead in my hand, even to the point of sticking out its toungue. I wish we had snake avoidance training for dogs in the East, like James mentioned. Our dog came upon a huge (6 footer) Black Rat snake in the woods, and before we knew it the snake had clamped onto her nose, and she couldn’t get it off. Finally, after several minutes of yelping and shaking, it let go. However, this occured when she was a pup and recently we encountered several more large Black Rat snakes and she didn’t seem to remember what happened, as she ran up to it and tried to sniff it. This time we got her away before a strike occured, but I was surprised that she displayed the same behavior as before, even though it had such a negative result.

    August 13, 2012 at 6:50 am

    • Neat! I have definitely never seen one before but wasn’t sure how common sightings were. This one was most certainly also a juvenile, as I’m typing this it seems he was about as long as a computer keyboard, 16″ or so. I wish I had known he was harmless when I encountered him, I would have gotten better and closer pictures!

      August 13, 2012 at 8:44 am

  4. WOW ! That hognose snake is crazy. I’ve hiked this section of the AT in Maryland a few times and it is considered the most strenuous stretch. So happy I never came across that snake. Now to train the team to recognize them ahead of time.

    August 13, 2012 at 7:32 pm

  5. The snake is very pretty. I do like snakes, but admire them mostly from a terrarium enclosure! I can’t imagine how you’re supposed to have eyes all around and watch for snakes while also keeping track of two dogs! You get your exercise on top of exercise! Great photos…again! 🙂 Debra

    August 14, 2012 at 2:11 am

  6. cool snake. Yeah, the tree snakes you mentioned look very different from that one. Except the rattle snake, similar but still some huge distinct detailed differences

    cool story

    August 21, 2012 at 6:27 pm

  7. Ed,
    Just found this post and had to comment. The view from Raven Rocks takes me back to four years in the 1970s when I lived below the rocks near the banks of the Shenandoah River. We used to do that stretch of Blue Ridge many times, but we never saw a hognose.

    September 27, 2012 at 8:50 pm

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