by Charly Heavenrich
Nature is full of surprises.
In the early days of my work as a river guide in the Grand Canyon the subject of rattlesnakes rarely came up. If we saw them it was a treat, never a threat.
With the advent of urbanized adventure travel, I have received more questions about them. Are they here? Yes. What if we encounter one? Chances are you won’t; but if you do it’s important to know a few things: They have to be coiled to strike (unless you step on them); they can strike only about a third of their body length (and a four-foot snake is unusually large down here); and even when they strike, they release their venom only a third to a half the time. Most people are respectfully curious about snakes, but some are very wary of them. One of my passengers was so snake phobic she couldn’t even look at a photograph of one.
On day nine of our trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, we were camped at Stone Creek, mile 132. Located just below a large rapid, it has a long beach that has been substantially reduced from its former grandeur through dam-induced erosion. I had heard past reports of snake sightings here but had personally never seen any.
After dinner, as dusk was removing the brilliant warm rays of the sun, one of our passengers reported a possible snake sighting near the “groover,” the name we have given to our bathroom location. We had located it downstream from the main camp area behind some rocks to provide a modicum of privacy without interfering with the view of the Canyon. A couple of us went down to investigate, came up empty, and turned our attention to sleep.
Night comes quickly in the Canyon, and we were making a game out of staying “up” until at least eight o’clock when word came from upstream that a rattlesnake had been sighted cruising close to a campsite. We grabbed our headlamps and hurried to the area where the affected passengers were gathered. A Grand Canyon Pink rattlesnake, three feet long, moved slowly over the soft sand, inconvenienced by the bright lights of curious humans but intent on continuing its hunt for a late-night snack. We watched as it headed away from the beach into some basalt rocks still radiating heat from the day, and we thought it would disappear under one of them. Instead, it changed directions and moved towards the nearest campsite—ground cloth, thermarest, and sleeping bags laid out awaiting human warmth. When it continued its march and cruised right through the campsite, we decided to relocate it.
Grabbing two buckets and a paddle, the trip leader softly hoisted the snake onto the handle of the paddle and dropped it into one of the buckets. I placed the second bucket on top, being careful not to harm the snake, and we walked up a rock-encrusted slope towards the Stone Creek drainage. Once in the drainage we removed the second bucket and watched as the snake casually emerged, thrust its body away from the bucket, and slithered away. As we walked back to camp, we passed several of the passengers curious about the snake’s behavior. We told them it hadn’t rattled, didn’t seem perturbed, and probably wouldn’t be a further bother. We said good night, and headed back to our respective campsites.
In the morning I heard a few comments about the snake sighting during breakfast, but most people were focused on the food in front of them and the events of the day to come. We had been together for nine days and had become a very efficient tribe. After breakfast the kitchen was quickly broken down and I attended to the daily rigging of my raft in anticipation of an up-and-over hike up Tapeats Creek, into Tapeats Valley, up fifteen hundred vertical feet to Thunder Falls, through Surprise Valley, and down into Deer Valley. I hadn’t been on this hike for several years, and was eagerly looking forward to it when I heard my name being called. It was Tom, the trip leader, shouting to me to bring my camera. He was in the area of the groover, and without questioning I grabbed my camera and headed downstream. When I arrived there, Tom simply pointed to a group of polished boulders twenty feet below and thirty feet from the river’s edge.
Once I saw postcard with two snakes intertwined in a very provocative mating-dance. I envied the photographer fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time, and never thought I would find myself in a similar position. But there they were, two Grand Canyon Pink rattlesnakes swaying in an eternal dance of procreation. Both had the typical “V-shaped” pit viper head. The larger of the two sported a thicker body and a light brown cast. Dark brown borders laced its entire back in jagged elliptical rings. The smaller snake had a similar pattern with more of the usual pinkish cast common among these un-aggressive cousins of the Western Diamondback.
I began snapping images from some fifteen feet away and was able to fill my lens with the swaying, undulating images of these two magnificent creatures, aware that I was witnessing something that few others had had, or would have, the privilege to see.
Before long the entire group, twenty passengers and six crew, stood around mesmerized as the snakes continued their stirring movement, at times mirroring each other’s postures while swaying sensuously, at other times intertwined like clenched fists, demonstrating a strength not seen in any of their normal movements. In a ritualistic pattern the snakes would separate and move to opposite corners, feigning indifference, only to return to the dance floor to resume their foreplay. At all times they seemed to be fully aware of each other’s presence.
Meanwhile, Tom, a middle school science teacher, began reading from a book he just happened to have with him. How They Do It by Robert A. Wallace details the mating habits of various members of the animal kingdom: slugs, snails, and yes, snakes.
Once the male has found the female (which shouldn’t be too hard to do since both sexes have powerful musk glands opening near the anus), he may begin things by rubbing his sensitive chin along her back, which probably turns him on more than it does her. She may later get her own chin stroked, and ultimately they will stimulate each other’s anal openings.
Comments from the gallery ranged from the sacred to the profane. Several wondered which was the male and which the female. I watched through my lens, waiting for the telltale stroking of the female’s chin. Both snakes seemed oblivious to the transfixed voyeurs while clearly being aware of each other. At times they would rise up in unison, fully two-thirds of their bodies swaying back and forth as if connected to a beat unheard by us. Other times one would travel across the other, and then suddenly they would become entangled as if ecstatically charged. We watched in awe as one would rise up, its body forming a variety of sensuous shapes, and the other would follow suit.
Our lovers moved toward the river, and I moved with them, positioning myself with a direct view as they continued their dance, bracketed by polished igneous and sedimentary boulders. I silently wished for my tripod but didn’t want to leave for fear that the music would stop. I considered asking someone to retrieve it from my raft, less than a hundred feet away, but it didn’t feel right to deprive them of this spectacle, even for a couple of minutes. I felt incredibly energized, and could have stayed there all day, but knew we would have to leave shortly. Would we be there for the “moment of truth?”
If you should walk up on a pair of copulating rattlesnakes and they try to slither away, the stronger of the snakes will drag its mate along by the anus (actually, the cloaca).
The reason the snakes aren’t able to separate is because of the horrendous design of the snake penis. Its end is soft and pointed, but its base is a forest of stiff, backwardly directed barbs.
At copulation, the male lies alongside or slightly under the female, and at the moment of truth he extrudes his bizarre penis from his cloaca. The penis itself is not a tube, by the way. Instead it is essentially a fleshy, grooved organ, and the sperm flows along the deep channel into the female. He probes her anal area until he finds the opening, whereupon he quickly inserts it. The penis is erected by turning inside out, and because of the hooks and barbs which hold it in place, it must be withdrawn by carefully reversing the process. It would obviously be in poor taste just to jerk it out, even if he could. The snakes are in no hurry, though, and they may lie joined together, occasionally thrusting or undulating, for an entire day.
Finally the snakes made our departure easy. They broke off their dance and slithered slowly away to neutral corners in the shade of nearby boulders. Was this just teasing behavior, or the beginning of a protracted dance resulting in new life? We would never know. Almost as an afterthought Tom read on.
The females are able to store the sperm, somehow managing to keep them alive almost indefinitely. In fact, some females have given birth up to five years after their last affair.
Amazing. What was the probability of happening upon two snakes in a mating dance and simultaneously hearing a reading from How They Do It?
As I rowed downstream I couldn’t stop thinking about our great fortune. Our crew had been on well over three hundred trips in the Canyon. Some of our passengers had decades of Outward Bound experience. No guide, in spite of some four thousand days and nights in the Canyon, and none of the former Outward Bounders, despite many thousands of days and nights spent in the desert had ever been a witness to such a natural event.
For more than twenty-eight years it has been my privilege to share the beauty, power, grandeur, and life-changing experiences of the Grand Canyon with people from all over the world. Every trip offers a new hike, a new camp, different passengers and crew, weather, wildlife, unparalleled vistas and views, fresh images on the pallet of Canyon walls, and opportunities to go where we’ve never been before and witness the unimaginable. I enter each trip with a commitment to release the expected and embrace the unexpected. And I’m never disappointed. As we embarked on our up-and-over hike, I thought back to the gift those snakes had bestowed on us, aware of the awe I felt in the presence of nature that in the desert is so often hidden from us.
As a raft guide in the Grand Canyon, author, master storyteller, speaker, photographer, and Possibilities Coach Charly Heavenrich has helped people expand their possibilities by tapping into a deep reservoir of courage and ability they often didn’t know they had. His purpose is to do whatever it takes to support his clients in having a successful experience, whether it’s physically going where they’ve never been before, creating the vision of their preferred future, developing the strategies to go from where they are to where they want to be, or finding more meaning and value in their lives. He can be reached at www.charlyheavenrich.com and www.launchyourdreams.com.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.