How many times can wild animals surprise you in one day?
Stretched across the trail, a large snake lay motionless. Its scales shined prettily in the early morning sunlight. Yet the creature’s checkered pattern helped it blend into the moss, fallen leaves and pine needles. I nearly stepped on it.
Expecting the snake to slither off at any moment, I crouched down and snapped a few photos. Then I sat back on my heels and waited, and waited, and waited. It didn’t move a muscle.
My breath rose in clouds as I laid down on my belly and inched closer, within arm’s reach. Nothing. The snake — a harmless garter snake — made no indication that it saw me. I started to get the sinking suspicion that the animal was dead, perhaps frozen. There had been frost coating my windshield that morning.
I studied the eye that was facing me. It was reddish bronze, with a thin ring of gold circling a wide, black pupil. It was vibrant, seemingly full of life. Yet the snake remained still.
For a few minutes, I just laid there, my fluffy down coat insulating me from the cold ground. Then, as a final test to see if the snake was indeed dead, I reached out and gave it a gentle tap about halfway down its long body.
It instantly coiled up, forming an “S” before sliding a few feet away and settling back down. It flicked out its tongue — a snake’s version of sniffing the air. Perhaps it picked up the scent of the French roast coffee and pumpkin muffin I’d had for breakfast.
Surprised and pleased, I scrambled back to my feet and continued on my way. But I was still a bit puzzled. I’d seen snakes lounging in the sun before. But I’d never seen one remain so perfectly still. Had it been sleeping?
Snakes don’t have what we think of as eyelids. Instead, they have transparent, disc-shaped scales that cover their eyes all the time. So it looks like they sleep with their eyes open. But that seemed like a particularly open place for a snake to snooze.
During the winter in Maine, garter snakes gather together in group hibernation areas. I hope the one I saw makes it to its communal wintering spot. From my past experience on that particular trail — the Esker Trail in Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument — I think the snake will have plenty of company in its hibernacula.
Last time I hiked the Esker Trail, I was with my friend and fellow writer John Holyoke. It was summertime, and I spotted so many garter snakes along the way that John started calling me “snake whisperer.” (I think him assigning that title to me was more an accusatory gesture than a congratulatory one.)
The wilderness certainly quiets down in the fall. As birds migrate south, they take their songs with them. Frogs and turtles disappear into the mud. When it gets cold enough, even the crickets stop chirping.
On the other hand, some animals are especially active in the fall. Squirrels and chipmunks gather acorns and dry mushrooms by hanging them in the boughs of trees. Bears wander around consuming as much as possible before retreating into their dens. And deer are fighting and running after each other in an effort to mate.
Farther down the road on that cool October day, I spent some time watching yellow-rumped warblers harvest seeds from swaying plants. Nearby, in the same small wetland area, I spied a palm warbler, its plumage fading with the season. Before long, both species would migrate south to escape the cold.
As I drove along the Katahdin Loop Road, I continued to search for wildlife. A blue jay flew ahead of me, perching in trees along the way. I felt bad because it seemed like I was chasing it, so eventually, I just parked and waited. The blue jay flew back, settled on a branch and peered through my rolled down window. “Sorry?” I ventured. It flew away.
My legs were sore from biking and hiking more than 20 miles in the monument the day before, so I’d decided to only walk easy, short trails that day. That included the Deasey Pond Trail, which ended at a large observation deck at the edge of the pond. There I sat on a bench and basked in the sun – not unlike a snake.
I also walked the Lynx Pond Trail, which was designed to be wheelchair-accessible. It, too, ended at an observation deck.
In another parcel of the monument, I hiked the easy Twin Ponds Trail and Kimball Deadwater Trail. My hope was to find a big mammal like a moose, black bear or lynx. There are plenty of them in the monument, I hear. But that day, I had to settle for smaller creatures, including red squirrels, ruffed grouse, Canada geese, warblers and snakes.
When approaching the shore of Deasey Pond, I was nearly clipped in the head by a duck. It was flying through the trees, away from the water. I actually felt the wind from its wings.
Can you imagine if I’d been hit in the head by a duck?
My first thought would have been: Ouch. The second: This will make a great column. Back at home, I would have read “Understanding Waterfowl: Ducks in Motion” by Dale James, in which he breaks down the biomechanics of waterfowl movements.
You never would have heard about the sleeping snake.