Split Rock’s reclusive rattlers
By Phil Brown
Jaime Ethier saw a timber rattlesnake here once. It lay coiled in the grass, just off the trail. “I almost stepped on it,” he recalls as we walk through the oak-hickory forest on Split Rock Mountain.
Now he’s looking for another. Every so often, Ethier goes off the trail to poke around the cliffs and talus slopes, hoping to catch the foul whiff of a snake den. We’ve been hiking for two hours. So far, no dice. This time, though, he stops dead in his tracks.
“Something smells,” he says.
“Does it smell like snake pee?” asks Mike Virtanen, a wire-service reporter.
“You picking up on it?” Ethier asks. “It’s something dead or urine.”
He’s right. Something does stink. We don’t know what it is, but it’s bad enough to convince us that maybe we just got lucky. Yet after 15 minutes of scrambling around the talus, peering into rocky crevices, we abandon the search.
Split Rock Mountain, overlooking Lake Champlain, is believed to be the timber rattler’s northernmost range in the eastern United States. The snake is on the state’s list of threatened species, though it seems to be holding its own these days. Al Breisch, a state herpetologist, estimates that more than 3,000 timber rattlers live in New York. Yet little is known about the Split Rock population. Apparently, it has never been studied.
Ethier, who works for the Adirondack Council, worries that a recent decision to permit mountain bikes on some trails in the 3,860-acre Split Rock Mountain Wild Forest will put the rattler at risk. “I got within two feet before I noticed a snake, and I was just walking,” he says. “If you’re biking, there’s no chance for the snake or the biker to react.”
Ethier argues that mountain bikers can pursue their fun elsewhere. In the Adirondacks, most trails on state land designated as Wild Forest are open to biking. (Mountain bikes are prohibited in all Wilderness Areas.) Instead of riding on Split Rock Mountain, he suggests, bikers could explore the trails in the Wilmington Wild Forest or the Taylor Pond Wild Forest, both located farther north.
This spring, however, the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) approved a management plan for Split Rock Mountain that will permit biking on five of the tract’s 11 miles of trails (old logging roads, actually). At the time, APA spokesman Keith Mc-Keever said the biking routes will not be located near snake habitat. Also, the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) will keep an eye on the situation to make sure rattlers are not harmed.
Ethier, though, points out that the snake he saw two summers ago lay along one of trails that will be open to biking. He also questions whether monitoring will be effective.
As a further precaution, DEC plans to erect trailhead signs reading, in part: “Timber rattlesnakes are found in this area. A timber rattlesnake will not attack, but it will strike if stepped on. Do not approach or molest a timber rattlesnake. If you see a timber rattlesnake, stay away from it.”
Biologist Bill Brown, who has been studying timber rattlers for nearly three decades, had urged DEC to post warning signs at Split Rock Mountain. Brown is protective of rattlesnakes, refusing to reveal where dens are located or how many snakes they contain—out of fear that people will harass or kill them.
So what does he think about opening Split Rock trails to bikers?
“Mountain bikes won’t do a damn bit of harm to the snakes,” he told the Explorer. He said the chances of bikers seeing a snake are slim. Even if they do, he added, they should be able to steer around it. (He feels bikes do pose a threat to plants, however.)
A retired professor from Skidmore College, Brown conducts most of his research on Tongue Mountain near Lake George, which harbors the Adirondacks’ largest population of rattlesnakes. “There are thousands of hikers on the Tongue Mountain range every year, and my rough sense is maybe 1-2% of them might ever see a rattlesnake,” he said. On occasion, he has seen mountain bikers on the Tongue trails, but he knows of no instance where one has run over a snake.
He says of the Adirondack Council’s stance: “They’re concerned about the snake, and I appreciate that, but I have a slight difference of opinion.”
None of the other environmental groups that monitor the Park has echoed the council’s concern. But Ethier stands by his position, contending that it accords with common sense: If the rattler is a threatened species, protected by law, why should the state do anything that might put it at risk?
We turn off the main trail and follow a short path to the top of cliffs that rise 300 feet above Lake Champlain. We gaze across the lake to the farmlands of Vermont and the Green Mountains beyond. A couple of ravens fly overhead, announcing their presence with guttural croaks. Peregrine falcons and bald eagles also have been seen in this area.
Far below, the silver water is as smooth as a mirror. Appropriately, it’s called Snake Den Harbor. Leaving the lookout, we wander around the rock-strewn woods. We see lots of deer scat, but no rattlers.
Later, John Sheehan, the council’s spokesman, dismisses any suggestion that our failure to see a snake on a cool day in May weakens the case against mountain biking.
“It might just be too early in the season,” Sheehan says. “This is just at the time they’re starting to emerge from their dens. But it was a nice day for a hike to see their habitat.”
Size: Adults usually measure 3 to 4½ feet. The record length is 6 feet 2½ inches.
Appearance: In yellow phase, black or dark-brown bands on a lighter background of yellow, brown or gray. In black phase, dark bands on a dark background.
Life History: Active from late April till mid-October, but in the Adirondacks they may not emerge from dens until mid-May. Migrate up to 2½ miles from den in summer. Mating occurs in spring and fall. Every three to five years, females give birth to 4-14 young in late summer. Average life span is 16-22 years. Adults shed skin every one or two years, adding a rattle segment each time.
Habitat: Rugged terrain in hardwood forests. Dens usually on steep, south-facing slopes with rock crevices or talus. In Adirondacks, the snakes are found on Split Rock Mountain and Tongue Mountain. Also found in Catskill Mountains, Tug Hill and the Southern Tier.
Prey: Primarily small mammals, such as chipmunks and mice. Occasionally small birds, amphibians and other snakes. Venom can be fatal to humans if untreated, but no snake-bite deaths have been recorded in New York state.
Exploring Split Rock Mountain
Hikers can explore the Split Rock Mountain Wild Forest along an 11-mile network of old logging roads, although most of the trails have yet to be marked and signed.
Without a map and compass, it’s easy to get turned around. If you’re worried about getting lost, I recommend following a snowmobile route marked occasionally by orange disks. From the trailhead, it leads two miles to a stony beach with a view across Lake Champlain. On the way back, you can take a short spur to a spectacular overlook.
A short distance from the trail register, the snowmobile route passes a trail on the right. Keep going straight. In a few minutes, you’ll reach a fork. This time, bear right. From here on, just stay on the main trail till you reach the lake. You’ll pass two or three other trails, but ignore them for the time being.
The forest along the way is largely hardwood and still recovering from years of logging. Because of the Champlain Valley’s mild climate, you’ll see more oaks than in most of the Adirondacks. The trail is fairly level, but just before reaching the shore, it dips sharply to meet the water.
From the beach, you can see the impressive cliffs of Split Rock Mountain rising straight out of the water. This is part of the wildest stretch of Lake Champlain shoreline, much of it acquired by the state in 1994. Looking across the water, you see Camel’s Hump Mountain looming above the farms of Vermont.
On the return trip, look for the first path on the left—less than a half-mile from the lake. This leads in a few minutes to 300-foot cliffs overlooking Snake Den Harbor, with a sweeping vista of Lake Champlain and Vermont.
After taking in the view, walk back the way you came. Depending on how fast you hike, the entire round trip should take two to three hours.
From the intersection of NY 9N and NY 22 in Westport, go north on NY 22 for 0.4 miles, turn right onto Lake Shore Road and continue 4.3 miles to the parking lot on the right.