Don’t try to charm a stranger’s rattlesnake

Wisdom for exploring the West — and life in general

This photo of grizzly bears was taken by Inland 360 photographer August Frank at the Washington State University Bear Center in Pullman.
To summer travelers visiting Idaho and the Intermountain West, I offer this wisdom: You might not be aware of the danger that now surrounds you.

That’s OK. Don’t stay home. I am writing about the same danger lurking around everyone’s life in this enchanted land.

Years ago, I “met” a family along Alberta Highway 93 up in Canada’s Jasper National Park. I was sitting in my pickup truck watching a grizzly bear tip rocks and graze grass. The grayish-brown beast was about 150 feet away, a distance which, at 35 to 40 mph, the animal could cover in a few seconds.

The bear ignored me.

Soon, a shiny rental car jerked to a stop behind me, closer to the bear. An excited family of three clamored out. Mom, Dad and tweenage son laughed and oohed and aahed.

The bear did not ignore them.

Folks who grow up in bear country know you don’t have to outrun a bear if you can outrun the person next to you. So, I was safe. But I could see that the bear was agitated, swaying its great fluffy head as it quartered away from the giddy trio. The parents pursued the bear, pushing their kid closer for a better photo.

What could I do?

The tourists weren’t speaking a language I was familiar with. They also were clearly insane — or completely ignorant of the natural world. Or, I had stumbled onto a religious rite that involved sacrificing a child to a bear.

The grizzly was getting twitchy.

“Hey! Hey!” I yelled. “Get your kid back from that bear.”

They ignored me.

“Hey! It’s not safe. Hey, you! That bear is dangerous.”

Now I had their attention. The bear’s, too. The couple conferred, eyeing me. Since I had distracted them, now they all had their backs to the twitchy griz. Words had failed, so I tried gestures. I held my hands chest-high, curled my fingers like claws, bared my teeth.

“Danger,” I said. “Grrr. Danger. You’re all going to die.”

That did it. The trio were terrified. Of me. I swear they grabbed their kid and inched backward, nearer to the bear.

I windmilled my fake claws, growling, loud and slobbery: “Die. Die! DIE!”

Finally, the family hustled to their car and sped away. The bear, which had watched the travelers flee, cocked its head and considered me — just a few jumps away. I left, too.

Sure, I am the hero in that story. But, my ignorance has landed me in a bad scrape more than once. Take, for instance, the day I learned about rogue waves.

I grew up in Idaho, so I don’t know much about the ocean. To me, it’s a magical place. When our little fish swim from Idaho to the ocean, they swim back as big as coyotes. Magic.

One New Year’s holiday, I visited the stormy Oregon Coast to see gray whales migrate and to watch raging waves pound the shore. Truth be told, I felt smug about my foul-weather visit because I had the beaches mostly to myself. So, there I was, head down, exploring “my” beach, focused on strange critters and blooms in the tidal pools, when I noticed that the ocean was pooling around my ankles.

Water, water everywhere.

I was too far out to run for shore. So, like a duck running on water, I slip-rock-splashed to a van-sized boulder and scrambled atop. My lucky boulder stood 8 feet high, yet the waves surged higher. Foamy brine frothed at my waist. I had no time to panic or plan. My lifespan equaled that of the tiny bubbles bursting around me.

Smug no more, I scanned the empty beach. No one would see me go under. The ocean sucked at my legs as I leaned against the powerful tide tugging me toward depths even light cannot cleave. Alone. I resigned myself to becoming the sort of mystery coastal communities know well, the only clue to my disappearance an abandoned pickup truck in an oceanside parking lot.

Today, I never turn my back on bears or ocean waves.

Familiarity with danger does not make you entirely safe.

A great storyteller named Marion J. Kayler (1919-2013) told me the sad tale of a traveler to Peck early last century. (Find a full account in Kayler’s book, “Early Days in Big Canyon Country.”)

One day, a snake charmer came to town.

Back then, entertainers, hucksters and performers traveled the railways, stopping in towns to make a few bucks. Cold weather prevailed over the area, so the snake charmer found a group of men gathered by the general store’s pot-bellied wood stove. The snake charmer explained his vocation and told the men he needed a snake. The townsfolk agreed to help. Among themselves, the men thought it would be great fun to pluck a big rattlesnake from a den up Big Canyon — and so they did.
They stuffed the sluggish rattler into a gunny sack and set it under the roaring pot-bellied stove. Relishing their fun, they poked the sack again and again. Heat forced the snake out of its torpid brumation, a hibernationlike condition for reptiles. Prodding the sack antagonized the trapped creature.

The men involved in the prank talked about it in the years to come. But Mr. Kayler told me there was no mirth in the telling. Their devilish humor culminated when the snake charmer opened the sack. Quick as a snapping branch, the snake struck. Its fangs found the man’s neck. The snake charmer was killed.

Some stories just don’t have any heroes.

Summer visitor, you are fortunate. You are traveling in a beautiful land of clear, musical rivers and colorful, shifting mountains. As with the ocean, there is a magic here that creates gifts of delight amid the uncertainties of peril. So, you must always travel with care. Temper your joy with caution. Avoid oncoming cars. Steer clear of boulders and beasts hidden by sharp curves.

And even if wild animals are fluffy and cute, remember that not one of them wants to cuddle. Every beautiful thing may have teeth.

And, no matter who you are, never try to charm a stranger’s rattlesnake.

Ferguson, of Lewiston, is a former Lewiston Tribune reporter who’s trying to decide what to do with his life. He can be reached at