Welcome back to Rachel Nederveld’s series on living on the disappearing Cajun swamp. Imagine leaving city life behind for an existence on a floating boat in the middle of nowhere. The place where living conditions—translation: no toilet or grocery stores—are simpler, the hazards are high: finding deadly cottonmouth snakes in your bed, and no access to technology or neighbors, and you’re right alongside her in the Atchafalaya Basin, if only in your mind. Enjoy.
I’ve been banking on never seeing a snake or gator because it’s winter. I don’t carry my gun with me when I go on walks, and I’m lenient with my dog, Pilgrim, running off into the shallow swamp after the scent of squirrels. Still, there are two kinds of poisonous snakes I should be looking out for: water moccasins and copperheads. From what I’ve been told, the copperheads are really small and tend to hide behind moss, so as long as I’m careful with my hands when messing around near that stuff, I should be fine. The moccasins are friskier and are often spotted along river banks, the area where I take Pilgrim to the bathroom several times a day. But since it’s winter, the snakes are hibernating, their bodies slowed. Alligators too. They dig holes or find places under fallen trees to hide in this cold time, and I love the stories people tell me of when they stepped onto one hidden beneath leaves, able to escape because of the gator’s deep winter trance.
I always bring Pilgrim to the same spot in the woods to run around and do her business, an area I’ve checked several times for gator holes and signs of snakes. To be clear, the “woods” here are all swamp—the dryness of the ground depends on the level of the water in the lake; what is a raised mound one day is the only dry place to step the next. On an unusually warm day in this regular spot of ours, Pilgrim and I ran into a moccasin coiled up on one such area. I was told that in winter, their eyes are covered with a lid that blinds them so they bite at any motion they sense. I wouldn’t have actually noticed the snake since he blended in with the dead leaves and cypress needles, except for the movement of him snapping violently at us, its head raised and teeth exposed, only feet away.
Though only about three feet in length, the threat of this moccasin staying in the place we visited several times a day sent my imagination running through the worst case scenarios: If I let it live and it decided to bite me the next day, it would force me to end up trying to use my snakebite kit while canoeing against the wind, hoping to find a ride to a hospital as it was getting dark… If Pilgrim was bitten, she’d be unable to communicate to me until she was already affected by the bite. I’d be unable to get in touch with friends nearby for help, and it would take so long for us to get to a vet even if they had picked up the phone… I couldn’t deal. I calmly paddled us back to the house, got my gun, and returned alone.
I was nervous. I hate the idea of killing for any reason but food, and I knew very little about dealing with poisonous snakes. But I shot it. And shot it again. In fact, I think I shot it six times because it turns out a snake covered in so much muscle will go on biting at you and scaring you even when its head is barely hanging on. This one’s muscle memory was so strong that hours later when I brought it back to the house and fully cut off its head to start skinning it, the body continued to move like it was still alive, headless. A nightwalker. I decided to give it another day.
Since I have no electricity on the boat, I charge my phone by solar power. By then it had been cloudy for almost a week, and battery was a very precious thing. I didn’t dare risk turning on the phone to find out how to skin a snake, if I can eat the meat of a poisonous one, how to preserve the skin till I am able to tan it properly, or even to find out if it was for sure a moccasin. Luckily, with my hunting experience and casual interest in tanning, I had some solid guesses. The next day I laid the body out on a stump on the back porch, using my kitchen knife to cut straight down its belly. As I pulled the skin back I found that it actually peeled off like a banana. Unsure if it was edible, I tossed the meat into the lake.
I think I shot it six times because it turns out a snake covered in so much muscle will go on biting at you and scaring you even when its head is barely hanging on.
Using the back of the knife, I cleaned off as much of the remaining tissue as possible, then I spread the skin on a piece of wood and tacked it open as best as I could. Then came the crucial decision: Do I use the wild porcini salt or the truffle salt for preserving? I chose the truffle.
Once the skies cleared a couple days later and I was able to charge my phone, my snake was dried and looked pretty botched. I found some tips for how to better tack the skin so that the edges didn’t end up full of holes and curled in between them. As I was straightening up a pile of rope the very next day, a small cottonmouth jumped out and into the water. Instead of swimming away, he kept returning to the boat to try to reclaim his turf. He was too close to the boat to shoot and only about 8” long, so I eventually crushed his insides against the hull with a paddle and went about to skinning again. This time I did my best to keep the head in tact and put some window screen (I had extra on the boat for repairs as needed) over the taught skin, nailing that in place instead.
I felt like a bayou warrior, my two snakeskins on display for anyone who dare come near.