Knocking on Heaven's Door
Knocking on Heaven’s Door
The badlands that border the South Saskatchewan River in Alberta are hot, dry, rattlesnake infested – and utterly captivating.
At least, that’s what I thought when my family moved there when I was fifteen years of age. A confirmed tomboy, the last thing I thought about was fashion and boyfriends. There was a whole world down at the river to explore. I had to walk a mile and a half to get there, but I loved poking around in the hoodoos and rugged canyons that ran back from the river. Although well aware they were full of rattlesnakes and scorpions, I just couldn’t bring myself to wear shoes. I’ve always been a barefoot person.
One blistering August day when the temperature must have been over 35 degrees Celsius, I was exploring wearing only shorts and a t-shirt. I was climbing around the hoodoos alone (as usual) and I’d gotten myself into a bit of a spot. My toes clinging to a cliff face, I looked for a handhold to use to pull myself onto the ledge above. A glance to my right into the eroded gully filled with jagged rocks made me move with care. I didn’t like to get myself into positions where falling into canyons was a likely consequence – but I was in one now. I had the choice of climbing down from my spot and taking another route, but I had a tendency to be a bit impatient. I peered around again, the sweat running into my eyes making them burn. To my left and just above my head was a ledge. I could use it as a stepping stone if I could pull myself onto it. Unfortunately, it was also a perfect spot for a rattlesnake to curl up on. I looked around for other options. I never liked to put any part of my body onto anything in the canyons without looking first. I couldn’t afford to grab a rattlesnake while it was sunbathing. They get a little testy if you touch them.
My legs were beginning to tremble with the strain. I had to decide soon. I glanced up at the small ledge again. What were the chances? My mouth got dry at the thought of reaching up and placing my hand there. If I got snake bit, I probably wouldn’t make it home – and nobody knew where I was – as usual. It was long before the days of cell phones so I was really on my own. Surely there was another choice. I looked for a higher foothold . . . nothing. And there wasn’t another handhold. I was beginning to bake with the sun scorching my back and reflecting off the cliff face. Sweat ran down my back and soaked my shirt, and I knew I was becoming overheated. I needed to get cooled down soon. I glanced at the river far below. Maybe I could cool my feet off in it. I had strict instructions not to drink from it, and I’d never gotten into the habit of carrying water with me. Considering my hobby of cliff climbing, you’d think I might have been smarter than that . . . you’d think.
Sometimes you have to take a chance. Holding my breath, I loosened my left hand, reached up, and grabbed the small rock ledge. I felt something give under my fingertips . . . odd. At least it wasn’t wriggling and biting. But it wasn’t normal either. Slowly I pulled my face level with the rock so I could see what was there. I gulped as I recognized the skeleton of a rattlesnake all coiled up tidily in the middle of that rock. My hand had grasped half the coil. It must have died there sometime earlier in the year. I closed my eyes and blew out a long breath. If not for the passage of time . . . I looked around for living snakes before hauling myself up and scrambling to the ledge that was my target. I sat and examined the little skeleton. It was perfect. I almost wished I could have taken it home, but I’d have had nothing but a pile of little bones by the time it got there. I carefully repaired the damage I’d done. A small being had had a life here. I wondered what had happened and how it had died. It wasn’t that big. Probably not much more than three feet long. Rattlers in the old coal mines along the river can grow up to 8 feet in length. We called them old granddaddies. We avoided them. And we didn’t explore the old coal mines where they live.
Rattlesnakes like their privacy, and you don’t see too many even if they’re around. But I was surprised I hadn’t run across one yet that day. The canyons were usually swarming with them. Maybe it was too hot, and they were hiding under the rocks in the shade. But didn’t snakes love the heat? Who knew? Regardless of the reason, I was okay with not running across any, especially in my bare feet – but it did seem odd . . .
I sat for a bit getting my wind back and absorbing the scenery before me. A hot wind lifted the hair that had loosened from two long braids, creating just the slightest bit of cooling. A slow river and wind-shaped hoodoos surrounded me with other-worldly eeriness. I was separate from the world down here. Nothing intruded into my solitude but the sound of a golden eagle skimming along the cliff edge and the occasional sweet song of a meadowlark. Ever-present crickets chittered and sagebrush lent a pungent aroma to the heated air. I had the feeling I was communing with or a part of something profound. Almost alive. Perhaps it was. The rocks, the river, the snakes, the fish – all combined to create a sentient whole. And I was a part of it for awhile – a visitor they were kind enough to allow, if not welcome. I felt at home alone in that parched river valley. Odd when you consider I was brand new to the area and grew up in the boreal forest east of Edmonton. But there it was. I’d come home.
The beating of the sun finally convinced me to make my way down to the river and cool off a bit. I’d wade along the edge and stay away from the strong currents. I was well aware of the power of that river having ridden across it on horseback on a number of occasions. It wasn’t something to fool with. I wouldn’t go deeper than my knees, but at least it would cool off my blistering feet. I wound warily through the hoodoos following a faint game trail, and after twenty minutes or so, reached the level of the river. I was over-heated and parched, and nothing had ever looked so good. I sped across the sand at a full run and charged straight onto a sandbar that ran out for quite a ways, practically salivating at the thought of cool water – even if I was only going to stand in it. I splashed liberally as I ran, welcoming the cooling droplets. I reached down and wet my hands, then rubbed them over my face. Aahh . . . Heaven!
I stood there luxuriating in the feel of the current against my legs and the cool sand between my toes. All I needed to make it perfect was a drink of water. But I was well trained. I’d wait until I got home. I sighed and looked around. At least my feet were cool. What a beautiful spot! I didn’t understand why people wouldn’t flock to the river. This was private property, but there was a lot of river in Southern Alberta. I looked around at the sandbar I was on. It was dotted with small rocks and some kind of plant. I frowned. Strange. This was something new. I’d never seen plants like this. My curiosity was piqued. One of them was about eight inches from my ankle so I leaned down for a better look . . . and it looked back at me!!
I froze, and bits of observations began to click into place. I learned something new right then.
I learned that rattlesnakes can get too hot. And when they get too hot, they’re smart enough to cool off in the river.
The snake had its . . . chest??. . .anchored against a small rock on the shallow sandbar, its head sticking out of the water about three inches. The rest of it undulated with the current. It continued to eye me – knew I was there. Probably wasn’t too happy about it either. There it was having a nice cool bath and some idiot comes charging in making a lot of noise and stirring up the mud. I still hadn’t moved. I flicked through my memory. Hadn’t I seen these plants all over this sandbar? My heart sank, and I rolled my eyes to look around keeping my head perfectly still. My stomach clenched into a knot. I learned something else.
I now knew where all the snakes had gone.
There were smart enough not to be on hot cliffs at this time of day. Apparently we’d had the same thought.
I peered around without moving any part of my body except my eyes. Now this was a nasty position to have gotten myself into! Sure enough, each of those strange little plants had a pair of eyes that looked at me – at least it seemed they were all looking at me. Considering the ruckus I’d made running into the river, they were probably all glaring at me. But with a snake, how can you tell? They look like they’re glaring all the time.
All the old western movies I’d seen had advised that when confronted with a rattlesnake, don’t move! They hadn’t covered what to do if you were surrounded with dozens of them. There were little heads poking up from the water everywhere! My head swam. Couldn’t say if it was from dehydration, heat stroke – or fear. Take your pick. Any or all. But I couldn’t afford to faint. If I did, I would die. Drowning or snakebites – or both. Not a pretty option.
What were my choices? I could stay where I was for the next few hours until the temperature dropped and all the snakes swam around me and slithered back into the canyons for the night. That would take only about five more hours. Was I willing to stand there that long? There must be another way. Plan B. Was there a Plan B? I’d better come up with one, and soon. My small neighbour continued to stare at me and casually undulate his sinuous body with the current. It was like he was saying, “I’m actually pretty comfortable and would rather not move, but if you make me . . .”
I decided to count those closest to me. The one I already mentioned that was snuggled up close to my right ankle, two in front of me, one to the left and slightly behind. I turned ever so slowly to look at the track I’d taken. It was easy to see because of the foot-sized swirls of mud. Little heads dotted either side of it. Damn! Only the fact I’d been running so fast had prevented the snakes I’d run over from retaliating . . . but they had lots of time now . . . I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. I couldn’t decide if I was the luckiest person in Alberta or the dumbest. I looked for the least concentration of little heads. There were too many to count. There was no way I’d be able to sneak through by going ahead. I examined my back trail again; glanced at the shore. It seemed a long ways off – probably because it was. Perhaps if I just backed out very slowly and very carefully, stepping in my tracks . . . but I immediately could see a problem with that. The problem was I could see the heads but not the bodies.
I stood and thought. I had a light bulb moment at the realization I needed to be most careful of the snakes on my left. The ones to my right should have their bodies going with the current, which was away from me. The others would be floating towards me. I needed to be more wary of those that were upriver. The water wasn’t clear enough (now that I’d muddied it) to see where they were. But I knew for a fact that if I stepped on any part of them, I’d be sporting at least a couple of puncture wounds. I hadn’t lived there long, but I’d already figured out that snakes were neither forgiving nor patient.
What to do . . .
I was very uncomfortable having the snake only a few inches from my right ankle (to put it mildly). And I didn’t like the way it kept looking up at me. I didn’t know how fast it could coil and strike while in the water – or even if. Perhaps they were defenseless (even at 15, I wasn’t dumb enough to believe that).
I couldn’t go forward, left or right; I couldn’t fly; and I wasn’t willing to wait until evening. That left only one thing. Back the way I’d come.
I looked at my neighbor some more and noticed its head was only a couple of inches from the surface of the water. That should mean that a lot of what was in his field of vision would be moving. Perhaps I could use that to my advantage. If I moved verrry slowly . . . perhaps it wouldn’t notice . . .
I took a deep, steadying breath and began to shift my weight onto my left leg. Other snakes were close, but not as close as this one. We watched each other in silence. I engaged my right thigh muscle and, oh so carefully, began to take the weight off my foot. With infinitesimal movements, I began to pull it out of the sandy mud of the river bottom. As it barely cleared the sand, I ever-so-slowly began to move it backwards away from the snake. I didn’t dare pull it fully out of the water in case I startled it.
It took a full five minutes for that one step, my eyes glued to the triangular head beside me. When I got that step completed and had fully regained my balance, I looked around again. The snake to my left and slightly behind was closer now. And it watched me. Where was its body? I stared into the water. Its head was about a foot and a half from my left leg but swirls of muddied water blended with the sandbar and the sandy-colored snake. Even the little diamonds along its back blended with small river rocks along the bottom. I needed to separate reality from illusion and there didn’t seem to be much of a rush. I stood and stared. It stared back. I hoped I wasn’t challenging it.
Finally, I thought I’d identified a long form that flowed with the water. I hoped I was right. I counted heads around me again. I needed to face a few more facts. I could probably survive one snake bite – maybe. I had a mile and a half to go mostly uphill on foot , and snake venom affects the heart. As I climbed out of the river hills, my heart would be working overtime under the best of conditions. I can imagine how much more it would pound as I envisioned snake venom pumping though my veins and wondering when my heart was going to stop. I was small and light, probably not more than ninety pounds. It didn’t look good.
Another fact: I had good self-control, but I was pretty certain I wouldn’t be able to remain perfectly still if one of those heads struck out with lightning swiftness and latched onto my leg, pumping poison as it clamped down. I would be instinctive to jump away. Could I stand still, calmly reach down, grab it behind its head, pry it off and toss it away without making any sudden moves? NOT BLOODY LIKELY! I’d probably jump back and land on another one – which would retaliate – causing more jumps . . . You get the picture. So, did I. If I was bitten more than once, I wouldn’t survive. I may not even make it out of the river.
It was a stalemate. They weren’t moving, and I couldn’t. I stood another few minutes, evaluating my options and coming back to the same one time and time again. I needed to back out. And I needed to do it without alarming any of the rattlers. At least they were calm. Rather, I couldn’t hear any rattling, but every one of them could be rattling like crazy and I wouldn’t hear them because their tails were underwater.
I took a deep, calming breath – and slowly shifted my weight to my right leg, trying to will myself not to react to being bitten. I visualized it again and again, seeing myself standing still, reaching down, and detaching the snake without panicking. The chances of getting out without at least one bite seemed remote. My only hope was the river was cool and they were comfortable and (hopefully) in as good a mood as snakes ever experience.
Slowly, ever-so-slowly, my left foot lifted. It had to almost clear the water in order to avoid the snake’s body sinuously floating with the current and nearly touching my other leg. I held my breath, hoping I was lifting it high enough to get over the body without touching it. I slid inexorably backward beside the flat triangular shaped head with the beady black eyes that watched me. I hoped looking into my eyes would distract it from the slight movement of my leg. Isn’t that how magicians work? Use distraction? Its body appeared to be a couple of inches beneath the surface – but water refracts. I remembered a grade six science class in which the teacher said that if you were spearing fish, you needed to aim higher than where it appeared to be. I tried to remember. Did that make the snake higher than it seemed? I was getting confused. I couldn’t do math at the moment. Perhaps if I touched it lightly it would think it was the water . . .
A few minutes later, I’d managed another step and the snake’s body was still relaxed and floating. I sucked in a deep breath and blew it out carefully. I was making progress. Two steps. None of the snakes had moved. But I was still involved in a staring contest with, and was now straddling, a live rattlesnake. Must have looked like a smorgasbord to him – hmmm . . . this leg . . . or that leg . . .
I forced myself to continue to stand perfectly still. Then I slowly looked over my right shoulder hoping there was an open space to step into. There was. The couple of heads to my right were two or three feet downriver – which meant their bodies floated away from me. I checked again to my left. Other than the snake I straddled, I didn’t think there were any close enough to step on.
I took another deep steadying breath. The snake below continued to watch me. I regained eye contact for a full minute before starting to slowly shift my weight onto my left foot. The extra large step was awkward and I couldn’t afford to lose my balance. Nor could I be waving my arms around. They stayed glued to my thighs. I set my left foot as solidly as I could and incrementally lifted weight from my right. A couple of wobbles as my right foot cleared the mud caused me to quit breathing. I reached my toes down to steady myself. Waited another minute. Then started again. The snake’s body seemed to be close to the surface. I’d probably have to touch it. I lifted my foot as high as I dared without clearing the water. With the water moving, he might not notice a light touch. And then again . . .
My mouth was dry from more than dehydration as I eased over the snake’s tail. It watched me with a mocking stare and that snake smirk. Was he going to wait until I thought I was safe and then bite me? I couldn’t afford distracting thoughts. I focused on my balance. An eternity later, I was able to stand on both feet – and the snake hadn’t moved.
I checked behind again (the direction I needed to go). There were actually fewer snakes than I’d thought. Most were farther out. I surveyed the area looking for an open spot. There wasn’t a perfectly clear one, but I shouldn’t have to get as close to those between me and the shore as I’d been to those I’d sneaked past. Hope stirred. I waited a few more minutes, staring at the next snake I’d have to bypass. I’d have to go at least two feet from it which now seemed pretty decent considering where I’d been. Where was its body? I was a little further away so was harder to see, but I was in no hurry. I wasn’t moving until I was sure which way it floated. Making an assumption was what had gotten me into this mess in the first place.
The snake was pretty well facing me which meant that, in order to be comfortable (I was making another assumption here but I thought it seemed reasonable), its body should be floating on the other side of the rock. I’d noticed the others were stretched out so the current would flow along their lengths.
Time to take another step. I looked around again before I started. I wanted to be sure I hadn’t overlooked a little one. They’re really tiny, but their bite is every bit as poisonous as that of their older relatives. I scoured every square inch around me. Nothing I could see. I looked back at my new neighbor and locked eyes. He was to my left like the previous one so I needed to bring my right leg back before moving my left away from him. Luckily, there wasn’t a snake near my right leg. But I still didn’t want to make any sudden moves. He watched me (why do snakes look like they’re smiling from the front?). I don’t think they have a sense of humour in their entire slithery little bodies. I certainly didn’t have one at the moment. After getting my right leg stable, I began moving the left. I was too close to those poisonous little fangs for comfort. The snake moved its head from side to side. Was it threatening me? Or was it just enjoying the water? It smirked some more. Maybe it was playing with me. I think by this point, I was losing a little rationality.
It watched me back away without blinking.
I swallowed and found my mouth short of saliva. Be patient, I told myself. There was plenty of time. They won’t strike if you don’t disturb them. Don’t step on a tail! I wished again that the water was clearer. Unfortunately, I had no one to blame for that but myself.
I was getting closer to shore. It was about twenty feet away. There were fewer snakes, and I was able to mentally map out the way I wanted to go. I was now getting bursts of teasing optimism that I may yet get out unscathed, but now was not the time to get careless. Slowly, patiently, watching each little pair of eyes as I passed, I made my way towards shore.
When I finally stepped onto the hot dry sand with my bare feet, it felt like heaven (funny how perception changes things). I turned once to look at the sea of tiny heads protruding from the water, and it seemed like they were still watching me. I imagined I could hear their tiny little thoughts – we let you go . . . this time . . .
Suddenly, home seemed like a very good place to be. I sprinted along the edge of the river until I came to the trail that wound up the hills towards home, keeping a wary eye out for latecomers to the public bath.
I was beginning to wonder if my parents should be letting me out alone. I never told them about this narrow escape. They’d probably have tied me to the kitchen table.