(WARNING: If you are afraid of snakes…do NOT read this article)
“Are there snakes there?” I demanded, prior to my first trip to the island.
“No-o-o-o-o-o,” my then-fiancé replied.
I knew by the way he drew out the “no” that he was lying.
“You’d better tell me if there are.”
“Well…there are a few garter snakes, but with the dogs around you won’t see any. I promise.”
He was wrong. My first week on Grenell, I saw 3 garter snakes. I remember telling my soon-to-be-husband that all three were right next to the cottage and all three times I had been with the dogs. At the time, it seemed traumatic. But now, forty years later, it doesn’t seem like a big deal.
Once upon a time, I used to be afraid of snakes. Okay, afraid probably isn’t strong enough; I was downright phobic about them. I was so afraid of snakes that I could not even hold the “S” encyclopedia in my hands because I knew it had pictures of snakes in it.
My fear of snakes kept me from walking alone in the woods. It kept me from doing a lot of things. I did not want my kids to be afraid of snakes, so I tried very hard not to shriek and scream or carry on when I saw a snake when my kids were little. I worked hard to hide my fear, but once I started spending the season on Grenell, I knew I had to do more than mask my fear.
On Grenell, there seems to exist two distinct groups of people: snake lovers and snake haters. I was hoping for some position in the middle, perhaps edging a bit closer to the snake lover camp. Through the years, I’ve seen several species of snakes on Grenell. Once I saw a Hognose Snake. While gardening, I unearthed the very interesting looking DeKay’s Brown Snake—a tiny, mocha-colored snake, with a beautiful diamond pattern on its back. But garter snakes and northern water snakes are the most prevalent. I did my research and was relieved to learn there are no poisonous snakes in the Thousand Islands Region. “So nothing to be afraid of,” I told myself.
A friend suggested that I name the snakes I saw frequently—to help me think of them as friends, rather than scary monsters. In 2000, there were three water snakes I saw frequently, on Rum Rock: two large ones and a small one. I know now that larger snakes are female and the smaller snakes are male. But back in my uninformed days, I figured the big snakes were adults and the smaller snake was a juvenile. I named the big snakes,Bonnie and Clyde and the little snake, Carlos. Okay, I couldn’t really tell Bonnie and Clyde apart. They were just the bigger snakes. Instead of shrieking, when I saw them, I’d say, “Hello Bonnie, I see you’re sunning yourself on the dock this morning.” Or “Holy Moly, Clyde! You startled me!”
Carlos always seemed to be where I wanted to be. He would slither through the gazebo under my feet while I was having lunch. Or, he would squiggle through a flowerbed I was weeding. He didn’t seem to be afraid of me at all. “Oh, Carlos! You silly thing! Move along and play somewhere else,” I might say. This, I thought was much better than screaming.
Several years ago, a neighbor asked me to water the
flowers on her dock during the week while she was at work. Sure, no problem! She even had this ingenious water thingy, crafted from an old coffee container…cords on the top and holes in the bottom. All I had to do was dip it in the river, and then sprinkle the flowers. As soon as the water drizzled on the first flowerpot, a huge snaked flopped out and landed right on my feet. I was so proud of myself; I laughed. The snake was only on me for a second, before it slid into the water. Just in case, I stood a little farther back, when I watered the next three pots.
Good thing I did! Three out of the four pots were housing napping snakes. I continued to water the snakes (I mean the flowers) for the rest of the week and didn’t feel the need to bring my husband as back up. I was maturing.
My proudest moment was on a sweltering hot day, a few years back. A bunch of us were floating in the cove on air mattresses. It was hot and I was dipping my arms in the water, when I came up with a water snake draped over my right arm. I was startled, but I didn’t scream; I simply shook it off and the snake swam away. Could it be? Was I really almost a snake lover now?
My efforts seemed worthwhile. Last summer, my granddaughter was running down to the dock, stopped, giggled and called out. “Hey, Dad, I just stepped on a snake and I’m barefoot!” Her father is almost as bad about snakes as I used to be. Perhaps finally, a generation of snake lovers!
But then…I had a major snake relapse earlier this season.
I arrived on the island with a huge boot, after foot surgery. It was the last sunny day before a week of rain and my husband encouraged me to get out there and get those annuals planted. The first thing I saw when I hobbled outside, were two snakes sunning themselves on the leaf litter, covering my flower garden. Didn’t take much to scare the first one off; Snake #2 would not move. I raked near it; I waved my arms, stomped my good foot. Nothing; it sat like a statue, wrapped around a row of rocks, in the middle of my flower garden.
Finally, I broke down and asked husband, Gary, to chase it away. After several scare attempts, similar to the ones I’d tried, Gary picked the snake up with the rake handle and relocated it for me. Meanwhile, Snake #1 returned and I chased him off…again. I was still clearing leaves and pulling weeds—hadn’t planted my first annual yet—when Snake # 2 returned to the exact rock, where he had been lying before.
When husband Gary offered to help, I asked him to get rid of Snake #2 (again) and rake the area that the snakes seemed to be interested in; I was clearing things by hand and, in my immobile state, did not want to encounter more snakes. Good thinking on my part.
Gary had been vigorously raking for a while, before he said, “Whoa!” Tucked in behind a row of rocks, was a large female snake; Gary had raked over the top of her several times, but she hadn’t moved. Not a scale.
Gary tried to nudge her to get her to move. She slowly raised her head; after a few more nudges, she reluctantly left her spot behind the rocks—the same rock Mr. Persistent (Snake #2) had been lying on like a statue. As soon as she slithered out of the flower garden, five or six smaller male snakes pursued her. There was another female snake on the front rock, being chased by three or four male snakes.
Love was in the air, among all those that slinked and slithered. I’m on my hands and knees, encumbered by a huge surgical boot, and around me are about a dozen snakes. The females moved slowly; the males darted here and there in an excited frenzy.
Despite the fact that the female was evicted from my flower garden, the males still found that spot appealing. I kept chasing snakes away, as I tried to plant annuals. Every time a leaf fluttered or an ant crawled across my leg, I jumped. I was reduced to that little girl, afraid to hold the “S” encyclopedia. I was a nervous wreck; I finally asked Gary to come stand by me and guard me from snakes.
The garden was planted. The snakes eventually finished their orgy, and life on Slithering Rock—I mean Rum Rock—continued on. My position between snake lover and snake hater, dipped back a little that day.
Perhaps someday, I can be in the middle of a snake orgy and not be freaked out.
By Lynn E. McElfresh, Grenell Island
Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to TI Life, writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life. You can see Lynn’s 80 articles here (This month we number 80…) Lynn helps us move pianos, fix the plumbing, walk with nature and yes, learn to appreciate snakes… well maybe not!
All Photographs by Lynn McElfresh