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Don't be rattled!

  • A yellow phase timber rattlesnake lies curled up in the sun. A hike along the Lehigh Gorge Trail offers an opportunity to see snakes, especially in late spring and summer.
    A yellow phase timber rattlesnake lies curled up in the sun. A hike along the Lehigh Gorge Trail offers an opportunity to see snakes, especially in late spring and summer.
Published April 14. 2012 09:01AM


TN Correspondent

This summer, the Carbon County Environmental Education Center is planning a run along the D&L Trail in Lehigh Gorge State Park. They are calling it the Rattlesnake Run.

CCEEC chief naturalist Susan Gallagher lives near the Rockport access to the trail, and it is one of her favorite places to run. As an organizer of the race, she named it-here's why.

"I do a lot of running on the Lehigh Gorge Trail," she said. "It is probably one of the few places in Carbon County, where if you are patient, you will eventually see a rattlesnake because it's a good habitat for them. The park has left them relatively undisturbed and so they're there-copperheads as well, but also our native timber rattlesnakes."

She's seen a dozen over the last five years. Mike Dinsmore, assistant manager at Lehigh Gorge State Park saw "twenty or so last summer-but I have mostly an office job, so I only get out on the trails on weekends."

Gallagher and Dinsmore agree that if you see a venomous snake, give it a wide berth. The snakes are outside soaking up the warmth of the sunlight, necessary because they are cold blooded. Snakes are more likely to be found alongside the trail rather than on the trail itself.

"There have been a few occasions where I've seen one outstretched across the trail," Gallagher said. "That's kind of exciting, but you have to give them a wide berth and treat them with respect-as you should all the time."

"If you come upon a rattlesnake, stay away at least the length of its body as it can strike half its body length," Dinsmore noted. "They do not see people as prey. People only get bitten if they try to pick it up or antagonizing it."

"Snakes are usually coiled up, so it's hard to judge their length," added Gallagher. "If I have to guess, I would say don't approach a rattlesnake any closer than four or five feet."

Snakes emerge from their dens in spring when the nighttime temperatures are above 50 degrees. When it's still early in the season, you are more likely to see them in the afternoon when temperatures approach 70. Later, in the summer, when the daytime temperatures go into the 80s, they tend to sun in the morning or in a shaded location to avoid overheating.

There's only been one snake bite recorded in Lehigh Gorge State Park in recent years. "This was definitely an instance where a person was trying to hold the snake or doing something that he wasn't supposed to be doing," Dinsmore said.

"He was MedEvaced to Allentown where he was given anti-venom. He recovered and was fine. It's my understanding that he was prosecuted by the Fish and Boat Commission after the incident. After that incident, he was caught again and cited for harassing the snakes."

The timber rattler is a protected species. "We don't want anyone killing them," Dinsmore said. "There are people out there with an old attitude that the only good snake is a dead snake. Snakes serve a role in the ecosystem."

Snakes eat rodents and one of their favorite foods is the white-footed mouse-a host for Lyme Disease. "If there are fewer white-footed mice, fewer ticks will be carrying the Lyme Disease bacteria," Dinsmore said.

The timber rattler is distinctive because of its rattles, which in most instances will warn you if you are getting too close. Young snakes begin to form the first nub of a rattle within days after birth and add a rattle every time it sheds its skin which for juveniles can be several times a year.

The timber rattlers in the Lehigh Gorge are of two breeds, a black phase and a yellow phase. They are the same species but a different breed. Their mature size ranges from 36 to 54 inches. It is believed that rattlesnakes can live approximately 30 years.

Gallagher likes the way rattlesnakes bring strangers together. "Sometimes when people are coming my way on the trail, they stop to tell me that there's a snake, maybe they put a rock or stick on the trail to mark it. They'll say there is a rattlesnake down where I put the rock."

"I think that's cool because many times we don't even stop to say 'Hello' or make eye contact, but here's the snake, and people are forced to communicate with one another. I think it's an interesting side effect of having the rattlesnakes there."

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