The Snake Road
My husband's grandfather was quite a character, and as legend has it, would capture live snakes at Boy Scout camp and entertain the troop fireside in the evenings by milking the venom from its fangs for all to see. Now I understand this has its inhumane aspects, but that was in the 70s and 80s before those types of activities were frowned upon, and when I joined the family, I was captivated with the tales of such a folk hero and legend.
From here I must digress and tell another tale. You see, Tree Walker (my husband) watched this during his formative years, and while he is not afraid to handle, find, or touch snakes, he has a lesser known problem of awaking in the night screaming and flailing from snake nightmares. So when I came upon the Snake Road online.... I thought it probably would be a bad idea to pay it a visit. But on that warm spring day, somehow we were in the car headed west to Snake Road nevertheless.
The road itself is quite easy to find by driving to the end of Muddy Levee Road off of Illinois Highway 3. Along the Muddy Creek itself, you will see turtles and other amphibious animals as well as herons fishing the shore. Turing right onto LaRue Road, you will find parking in a small gravel lot right before the gates that close off the portion of Snake Road that is closed for the season. Parking there and hiking south for 2.5 miles and returning to the car makes it a full 5 mile walk on a flat, nicely graveled road.
We had no idea what to expect, only that there were venomous snakes and we could expect to see dozens and upward of 20 on our hike. With that said, I was a nervous wreck and jumped at the sight of every snarled twig or curled branch that littered the gravel for the first half an hour or so. Within our first 50 feet, we found an enormous, girthy cottonmouth just off the edge of the road sunning himself. He raised his head and opened his jaws in agitation at us, enough for us to see his fangs hanging down. My heart rate picked up as we moved on. Within another 200 yards, we had yet another cottonmouth in our sites, this time crossing the road and quite visible to us as we approached. For the next 2 1/2 hours, our eyes scanned the brush along the side of the road and searched for movement on the road and listened for rustling of leaves as we made our way up and back the Snake Road. We found 5 varieties in total, (Cottonmouths, DeKay's Brown, black North American Racer, Western Ribbon, and Ring Neck) and over 20 snakes on our hike. It did not disappoint!
We learned of our % chance of spotting for each was (Cottonmouths 63%, DeKay's brown 4%, black North American Racer 7%, Western Ribbon, and Ring Neck 2% ). -John G. Palis 2016 study We were certainly pleased and felt that the March 24th, 70 degree day was perfect. We hiked from around 11-3, right when it was starting to warm up to the peak temperature of the day. The snakes were definitely more mobile as the day warmed up. We also found the north 1/2 of the road to be where 80% of our sightings were. Online sources say October might be even better. We'll have to give it a try.
Highlights of the trail are when the high limestone cliffs closely adjoin the swampy wetlands. It is certainly is evident that this is the perfect amphibian habitat. Watching the Water Moccasins slither through the water and hide in the duck weed was chilling.
While it was thrilling and did pose a danger of sorts, I was pleased to see that the dangerous ones were lethargic and just wanted to be left alone. The smaller snakes were must faster and more active, so it didn't feel as life threatening as I'd imagined it would. A lot of the snakes were found in the leaf litter off the side of the road 5-8 feet. We never left the trail and are not expert snake watchers, so don't worry that you won't know what you are doing. We were certainly novices.
There were about 20 other people along the trail with us that day. It was nice to have extra sets of eyes to find (and avoid) the snakes. When we saw another set of people stopping and gathered, we knew there was something interesting in store for us. "Snake people" came in all sorts of ages and lifestyles and were fun to engage in conversation. There were the friendly old-timers who wanted to chat and the fully tattooed man that looked like a herpetology fanatic. Some people bravely walked up along the cliffs and reported of a snake falling off the cliffs down to the ground, but that was not our speed and we had all we could handle staying on the gravel. We even met an "undercover" federal biologist that was watching for people who might handle or even try to "collect" a snake.
As it turned out, I was a horrible spotter and was glad my eagle-eyed son was with me as I got within feet of a few snakes without even noticing them.
Needless to say, it has been 24 hours since our big adventure and there haven't been any nightmares...yet...
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