by Ken Sands
Every spring in our region, snakes emerge from their hibernation dens looking for food and water and to mate. And while snakes are not abundant in Rock Creek Park, they are present in sufficient quantities to be spotted regularly by particularly lucky (or unlucky) hikers.
According to the National Park Service website for Rock Creek Park, there are four species of snakes known to be in the park, none of which are venomous: the ringneck snake, the
brown snake, the northern water snake, and the black rat snake.
The biggest and most impressive is the black rat snake, which is commonly four to six feet in length. So far this spring, I’ve seen black rat snakes three times in different locations in the park; twice on, or adjacent, to trails, and once on the section of Beach Drive closed to motorized traffic.
A year ago, along the Valley Trail, I took pictures and a short video of two rat snakes entwined and hanging from a tree limb, in what looked like a mating embrace. (Please pardon the narration.)
And what may perhaps be the most surprising to Forest Hills residents, I’ve seen the impressively large snakes twice on the Soapstone Valley Trail. Two years ago a six-foot snake was slithering across the trail only 100 yards from the trail entrance on Albemarle. And a week ago, a snake was resting on the trail on the lower half of Soapstone Valley. It refused to move, so I gently nudged it along with a (very long) tree branch.
According to a National Park Service ranger who was performing maintenance on the Valley Trail on Saturday, June 19, the black rat snakes often will freeze when they feel the vibration of a large entity moving toward them. They are not aggressive, but will strike if provoked. It’s best to simply walk around and leave them alone.
They are an unappreciated part of the park’s ecosystem, remarked the ranger, because they eat rodents and cicadas, helping to keep nature in balance. They also climb trees very well, and sometimes feast on birds or bird eggs.
Because they sometimes cross roadways to get to a food or water source, they are routinely killed by cars, he added.
In my experience, the best time to see snakes is on weekday mornings, when few people are out and about. (So the best time to avoid snakes would be afternoons and weekends.)
The best place to see snakes is anywhere near water. Most of my sightings over the years have been on or near the Valley Trail, or along Beach Drive. I’ve never seen snakes along the Western Ridge Trail. The Western Ridge does, however, cross Pinehurst Creek, and I heard of an overly curious dog being bitten on the nose there by a black rat snake.
If you’re a snake fan, they are even more abundant along the C&O Canal Towpath. As a spring hiking exercise, I’ve hiked the first 40 miles of the towpath, in about 10 separate outings. I’ve seen snakes on nearly every hike. The further you go upriver, the more likely you are to see all kinds of wildlife, including turtles, buzzards, deer, and, of course, a variety of snakes.
Like the fictional movie character Indiana Jones, I hate snakes. But I love hiking and Rock Creek Park even more, and these confoundingly routine snake sightings seem to be gradually lessening my phobia.
So if you see one of these large but gentle creatures, don’t be afraid, and let it go about its business. Mother Nature thanks you.