Travelogue from the early 1990’s:
Today we wrap up the adventures of Your Humble Servant on vacation. Last week’s column described the joy and wonder of diving in a pristine spring with gentle marine mammals. Now we will discuss the tail end of our week spent visiting relatives near Charleston, South Carolina.
My father-in-law Bill now lives near Charleston, having moved from Indiana after retirement. As an avid sportsman, he is almost overwhelmed by all the exciting outdoor opportunities the Low County region offers. During our visit, he offered and I accepted the invitation to one unique adventure: fossil hunting, specifically for pre-historic sharks teeth.
If remembered correctly from biology class, the southeastern United States has not always been covered with video rental stores and illegal immigrants. Millions of years ago oceans covered the area, which made it much easier for fish to rent videotapes. Many of these fish were giant sharks, a similar but much larger version of the creatures that terrorize swimmers today. When the sharks died, the teeth were eventually covered in sediment and ultimately fossilized.
Now, due to erosion, the teeth can frequently be found lying on the bottom of local waterways, along with other fossils such as whale baleen. Finding the teeth is simply a matter of poking around bottom sediment and gravel until one is found. In our case, we used cheap plastic spaghetti colanders to sift away sand from the tooth-bearing gravel.
Our party consisted of my son, 17-year-old nephew Brad, Bill and Yours Truly. The scene of our great discontent was a small freshwater tidal creek next to a shopping center right in the heart of Suburbia. After winding through the tall weeds bordering the stream, we stepped into the cold, tea-colored water as Brad pointed out that a snake had just dropped from the overhanging brush and entered the water.
I greeted this news with little enthusiasm and it was then that Bill mentioned the large number of poisonous water moccasins that live along the creek, a fact he forgot during the pre-trip discussions.
The tide was dropping rapidly and the soon the water was only ankle-deep. Our party began stretching along the creek as we each found pockets of gravel to work with our trowels and colanders. Thus we stood along a hundred yards of water, working like a party of Alaskan sourdoughs panning for gold.
An hour later, Brad was working around a rock pile and suddenly shouted, “Snake!” Walking downstream, I was prepared to good-naturedly chide him for such a reaction to a harmless member of the local reptilia. After a few seconds of looking where he was pointing, I suddenly saw not an ordinary water snake, but a viper as thick as my forearm with the triangular head of a poisonous snake. It was the dreaded Cottonmouth.
I whistled for Bill and he rejoined our group. As I tried to hustle the youngsters up the creek bank, he considered the options then selected a stout stick lying nearby. As a veteran of other adventures with Bill, I knew where events were headed.
A thick chunk of granite about the size of a cabbage lay at my feet, so I hefted it as a last-ditch weapon to repel possible unauthorized borders. Meanwhile, Bill slowly moved forward and stabbed at the snake with a stick, trying to pin its head to the creek bottom. He announced himself successful until I pointed out that the snake’s head was now next to the stick and appeared to be coiling like a spring.
I have seen snakes strike on television. However, the real event is unbelievably fast, like an uncoiling steel whip shooting forward and then returning within the blink of an eye. It was impressive.
Probably more impressive was Bill’s response. Moderately burdened by bad knees, he still managed to move backward with ballet-like skill as the snake lunged towards his legs. Recovering, he went on the offensive, stabbing at the snake until it pressed the attack and began a series of feints. For a few seconds, Bill and the snake thrust and parried like a deadly fencing match.
Other fossil hunters were in the creek at the same time and must have wondered why the large man in boots appeared to be doing some variation of the Flamenco dance with an extremely thin partner. During a lull in the action, the reptile saw an opening and retreated upstream, swimming with incredible speed.
Deciding that enough fun tickets had been punched for one day, we gathered our teeth, washed out our undergarments and left the scene. During the ride home we talked and chattered, giddy with the adrenaline-fueled good cheer that comes from escaping serious injury at the hands of self-induced misfortune.
Yes, once again we had escaped serious injury; that is, at least until the kids told my wife and her sister the story.