Battling snakes on the Ghost River

DSC01617 DSC01622  DSC01656 DSC01660 DSC01705 DSC01716 DSC01717  DSC01731 DSC01732 I back-stroked my cheap orange kayak up to the bridge and away from the beached kayakers, including my own family. A quick scan of the bridge under surface revealed cliff swallow nests, vines, and a few lovely wasp nests. The big wasps jerked left and right, shuddering their large bodies across the heavily parasitized nest face. It seemed too early in the season for Chalcoela iphitalis to have so destroyed this lovely Polistes annularis nest. The parasitic moths could have come from the larger old nest right next to this new sprout, but that nest’s cells were unblemished by the cat eye slits the moth pupae leave in a wasp nest. I guess mid June really isn’t too early in the part of western Tennessee so close to Mississippi.

The start to any group river trip belies the tranquility to come. The trips always go from bridge to bridge. You park at the muddy take out, then wait for transport up river in those tippy 15 passenger vans. The drive for a day of paddling seldom takes more than 20 minutes. Loading into the kayaks is a confusion of life jackets, paddles, awkward attempts to hook water bottles and dry bags under elastic, ending with the struggle of beginners getting their soft bodies into the hard plastic and pushing off from the mud.

DSC01650Paddling the Ghost section of the Wolf river is one of those things my daughter wanted to do before leaving Memphis. We had a whole year to say goodbye to Houston, but Anna has only a few months to say goodbye to Memphis. She has done a lot more than we have, but we have also enjoyed Memphis, a 5 hour drive from St. Louis the way we do it. We have eaten at Fuel, Cafe Society, The Beauty Shop, Sweetgrass, Cafe Eclectic right around the corner from home, and even Bari. We’ve been to the Civil Rights Museum but Graceland, Beale Street, and all music we’ve missed, sadly. But now we can say we paddled the Ghost.

Much of the trip reminded me of the Cypress Wonderland, but that Texas treasure has a larger river, the Trinity, larger cypresses, and no clear route through without guides. A highlight of that trip was the history Tom and Linda told. We got no such stories on the Ghost, though it was in the Civil War. There was a still on it during prohibition, but is no more, though the folks at Ghost River Brewing take their water from it. We even ran into them at the lunch spot and were glad they shared a sour and a smoky beer from the kegs they canoed in.

Mark was our guide for the trip, from Ghost River Canoeing. The 8.5 mile water trail took me, Dave, Anna, Philip, and Becca nearly 6 hours, but we weren’t going for speed. We were looking for snakes and listening to birds. Birds included white-eyed vireos, parula warblers, prothonatary warblers, and blue gray gnatcatchers, with an occasional yellow crowned night heron, or murder of crows heard in the distance. On the river we saw none of the ominous hulks of social black vultures that we had seen on the drive along with the dead armadillos.IMG_6585

But what we really looked for was snakes, basking snakes, swimming snakes, water snakes, or cottonmouths, we wanted to see them all. I hoped Philip would not pick up a cottonmouth and he didn’t. The snake that bit him repeatedly till he bled, then showed its gaping and innocent snake mouth hoping for another bite was a water snake, some kind of Nerodia sipedon, most likely. Philip informed us we should not get too close to him, for the musk the snake released to stink him up was not water soluble.DSC01720

Mark and Philip were more clear on the differences between harmless water snakes and venemous cottonmouths, but my experience was not recent enough for me to feel sure from a distance. The one cottonmouth as promised did swim away heavily on the top of the water while the water snakes nearly submerged.

We paddled and paddled. We needed an early lunch break before the main lunch place takeout with a sandy bank, but it was after noon. We ate sandwiches and grapes and drank herbed water. We paddled as one should, pushing down with the top arm and pulling back with the lower arm. We dug deep and smooth into the nearly still water. We also fluttered the paddles, lazily pulling back with the lower arm. We twisted around the snags and ducked under poison ivy. We wondered how many parula and prothonotary warblers this swamp could possibly hold. We remembered the swamps have trees and marshes have only grasses. We dripped on our legs with every stroke, a welcome cooling, though it was not really too hot. We realized our whole family is gradually moving north and mourned for the dangerous Faulkner south of kudzu and torpid days. What is so interesting up there in the glittering north?

I paddled in the middle of the group, like bumper cars, my daughter said. I paddled to the tranquil front, hunting for snakes. I paddled in the back of the group on the second stretch when the ghostly channels had opened into a lake and we abandoned the trail as Mark took us past beaver lodges and through narrow cypress passages.

We had been competing for snake sitings and several of us were at about three when I saw them. Not any old snake siting, but an improbable one, massive 5 foot long coils as thick as ship rope hanging down from their tails like ripening meat. It was not one snake but a twist of two, evenly matched in size hanging so their shoving heads were just above the water. They twisted, they writhed, they ascended and uncoiled.

I called everyone back and rapidly they came, ungainly kayaks clunking together. Anna risked her camera and I risked my phone, unsheathing both from their plastic. The snakes continued to struggle, reminding me of what I love about animal behavior. It is so gripping, so real. That there is something to explain is clear, but what was it? Who were they? Was it love, sex, or war?

Philip quickly figured out that the snakes were not water snakes. But what would a rat or a corn snake be doing here on a tree in the middle of a swamp? We later identified them as gray rat snakes, famous for taking wood duck eggs, excellent at climbing trees, and even nesting in high cavities.

The snakes dropped into the water, swam away, then returned. One ascended before the other and dipped into a whole 15 feet up the tree. Oh, so that is the goal. But out she (or he?) quickly came. I guess it would take too long to eat an egg with the enemy snake right behind. They played the hanging and fighting game awhile longer, then swam away from the tree again. Clearly neither had forgotten about it. Neither thought to share.

We paddled on, noting the places where beaver had torn strips of bark from the cypresses. All too soon were were at the slippery take out. Mark refused a tip and urged us to instead make a donation to the Wolf River Conservancy. Without them, this timeless stretch would have been harvested in the 1990s, just as it had been half a century or more before.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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