Forget the “Lions, and tigers, and bears…oh my!” last month we had a real encounter with what might be the scariest critter in these parts, a rattlesnake.  I have to preface this story by noting that this was not my first rattlesnake in the wild, but it was the first one to be really threatening.  And not just threatening to me, but to the children in my care.  Fear was struck in my heart–and is still stuck there in a big way– when it comes to this poisonous snake.

It was an idyllic March Sunday and we’d gone to pick citrus fruit from a friend’s trees.  The kids were loving the two-handed tugs that it took to pull grapefruit from the branches, and were delighted to find tangerines and lemons all within their reach.  After picking our fill we set out for a hike along the foot of the Box Springs Mountains, a trail we’ve walked a handful of times.

For late morning it was already getting hot, but it was beautiful and still green, and the kids were mostly eager to explore the path ahead.  We stopped once on this “resting rock” so that everyone could catch their breath and enjoy the scenery.

resting rock

up the hill

up, up, up

Our little group of five kids, two dads, and one mom made it all the way to a giant Eucalyptus tree that displays clear evidence of being a destination site for groups of kids and teenagers(lots of graffiti & a ladder hammered into the massive tree trunk).  Our kids couldn’t believe their luck when they saw the swing attached to the tree and no one else in sight.  They took turns, and swung, and swung, and swung.


Just as we arrived at the swinging tree someone spotted a huge hawk perched on a rock up the hill from us.  Beyond the hawk, an agitated chirping chipmunk was skittering around another rock with its tail in the air.

hawk on a rock

Now when I look at this picture, and with hindsight, it is easy to imagine the snake in the grass that must be just below the hawk.  Because that is the exact spot that the two youngest kids and I practically stumbled upon the rattlesnake.  The little two, bored of waiting for another turn at the swing, were exploring their own rock perches, and wanting to go further up the trail.  I was happy to keep them occupied and started up toward the rocks with them.  My husband, who hardly hesitates to say I told you so, called up to me as I stepped up the trail something along the lines of “remember the rattlesnakes!”

grafitti rock

I should have been listening harder, but was focused on the moving kids at hand.  My dear 4 year old friend, El, was trundling a step ahead of me when she saw a flat rock in front of her.  She said “Look, a resting rock!” when simultaneously I saw something move in the grass, the way that only snakes do, and heard an immediate rattle.  My mind racing a million miles a minute and my heart in my throat I yelled the first thing that came to mind “No! Stop! Back El! Back!”  And I am so unbelievably thankful that she did just that–stopped and reversed in her tracks–and practically fell headlong as she raced back down the hill, scaring me twice.  I followed suit, pulling 3 year old T with me as quickly as I could, back the way we came–his arm probably hurt in its wrenched socket afterward.

We could all hear the snake rattling from the swing at the tree, poor El, crying and scared, me with my heart pounding, and Paul shaking his head.  To say “WHEW!” would not even come close to expressing my relief that we were all o.k.  When Paul made a move to try to get a look at the snake, I said, “No way, I think we should just go.”  The snake was still rattling, and kept on for what seemed to be at least 5 minutes.   He asked “How big was it?  Was it coiled?”  For the life of me, I could not describe those aspects of the snake, just that it was big enough, and orange-ish, and rattling.  That was all I needed to know.  A friend later told me that it was probably a Southern Pacific rattlesnake, and they can be sizable, though with a few rattler varieties living in our area it is hard to be sure.

my friend El

Later, when I repeated my version of the story to El’s mom Heather, who sat out the hike with a headache, I told her that El and I were now bonded for life.  Somehow this feels true to me–she and I faced a very scary and potentially deadly creature together.  We’re pretty sure that El saw at least as much of the snake as I did, and though she might not have had the same thoughts racing through her head (the only rattlesnakes she’d have seen in Chicago live in the zoo), she had the same instinctual reaction– get away, and fast.

The proper fear of the rattlesnake was a good lesson for me to learn, as much as I am out and about with the kids, and a good reminder that this particular snake’s habitat is all around us, with their most active season beginning  in the spring.  We’ll be walking gently, avoiding rock piles, sticking (close) together, and being very careful and respectful when we are in their territory.  It turns out that two different sets of friends had close calls with rattlesnakes that same week, with everybody telling the tales afterward.  Here’s to hoping that’s as close as we ever get.