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Journey to Snake Island!
In order to make your biggest, grandest, most epic dreams come true, you need to start somewhere—and that place is right at the beginning. Before Jacques Cousteau dove to extraordinary depths in the world’s great oceans, explored intricate shipwrecks and coral reefs, or taught the world about marvelous marine creatures like the sperm whale and giant squid, he had to first learn how to navigate the seas. Before the late, great Steve Irwin opened his own zoo or wrestled the planet’s fiercest and most frightening crocodiles using only his cunning and brute strength, he had to learn how to handle and care for the smallest reptiles. And before Bear Grylls traversed the vast, icy terrain of the Himalayas to conquer the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest, he had to first learn how to hike mountain trails.
All three of these famous, fearless explorers inspire me on my adventures, and I’m proud to include them among my heroes. But ever since I was eight—when I first dug my boots into the swampy Ohio mud and launched myself onto a snapping turtle’s spiked shell—I’ve never held the illusion that I could reach their level of expertise overnight. I always knew that my dreams of encountering the Earth’s most unique and exotic creatures, building a successful animal adventure channel, and teaching the world about conservation would take every bit of energy I had. Even with a great team, the right amount of luck, and lots of hard work and creativity, I knew I had to build up my most breathtaking visions from scratch.
Every big journey starts with a first step, but the great thing I’ve learned is that you can find inspiration anywhere. Your idols don’t have to be famous, and the peaks you wish to summit don’t have to be far away. Your dreams can start in the places you know the best, even right in your own backyard. For me and the Brave Wilderness team, I’m happy to say it all began in a familiar yet magical place. A place that’s always been near and dear to my heart: Ohio’s North Bass Island, or—as I like to call it—Snake Island!
North Bass is the northernmost US island in the Bass Island archipelago, which is a collection of small islands located in Lake Erie, near Sandusky, Ohio. Now, I know what you’re thinking: There are islands in Ohio?! There sure are! Lake Erie is home to more than thirty islands! Out of those, eighteen reside in the US, and fourteen are considered provinces of Ohio. This amazing chain of islands formed during the Pleistocene glaciation, when gigantic ice sheets gouged deep impressions into the continental bedrock that filled with freshwater as the ice retreated. The islands begin about three miles north of the Ohio mainland and span across the Ontario border into Canadian waters. On the American side, there are a handful of small, scarcely inhabited islands with names like Sugar, Rattlesnake, and Green, but the islands I’ll be talking about are the three larger Bass Islands.
At fewer than two thousand acres, the most populated of the larger islands is South Bass. Its main town of Put-in-Bay swells in the summer with plenty of fun-loving tourists who arrive there by ferry. Just north of it is Middle Bass, a lush, easygoing summer spot that was once so packed with wildflowers that it was nicknamed Île des Fleures, or “Island of Flowers,” by the explorers who discovered it in 1679. A mile and a half north of Middle Bass is the much smaller North Bass, which is mostly protected wilderness, and where only a handful of people live year-round. These islands are a modern-day Brigadoon—an enchanting, unspoiled world like no other—and when you step onto them, you feel as if you’ve traveled back in time. When visiting, I don’t even think to check my phone or watch TV, as the outside world and its fast-paced chaos seem to simply fade away. I don’t fret over urgent tasks or chores, because here, everything can wait until tomorrow. Instead, when the hot summer sun rises high in the sky and stays out long into the evening, you will find the residents of Bass Island strolling to the park, or out on their front porches, lemonade in hand, painting or writing, listening to classic tunes from the ’50s to the ’80s.
I started going to the Bass Islands when I was a teenager, and it was where I honed my love for adventure. The shores, wetlands, and woodlands are teeming with animals like Blanding’s turtles, fox snakes, chestnut-sided warblers, red-tailed hawks, and a menagerie of other creatures. Brave red foxes, white-tailed deer, and even coyotes cross the ice from the mainland to the islands when Lake Erie freezes over in the winter. Dozens of other mammals like cottontail rabbits and raccoons roam free across this contained—yet vast—expanse of pristine land. For me, the big adventure was kayaking from Middle Bass to North Bass—a forty-five-minute mile-and-a-half trek across water that can either be flat and glassy or peaked and choppy, depending on the Lake Erie winds. With the sunrise spilling in through the cloudless sky, cascading a golden light across the lake, I used to love rowing to North Bass in the early morning and landing on the shore alone. With no people in sight, it was just Coyote Peterson and the silent natural landscape. To this day, it is still one of my favorite summertime excursions. Making that row across the lake washes me with energy and fires up my senses, inspiring a rush of adventure and creativity from within me. It was on North Bass that I started taking photographs of wildlife, envisioning my life as an animal explorer.
Anything and everything seems possible on tiny, remote North Bass Island, and that’s why I had no doubt it was where Chance, Mark, and I would film our first episode for the Brave Wilderness channel in the summer of 2014. The question was, which animal would we spotlight? Would it be the Blanding’s turtle, a rare species with a spotted shell who eats leeches and snails and spends winters under the ice? Or maybe we’d pick the giant American bullfrog, a common amphibian that is quite plentiful in the small swamps found in the interior of the islands. When it came time to begin production, the choice became clear. The Bass Islands are famous for housing a reptile that is entirely endemic to this area—a magnificent yet misunderstood species who balances out the ecosystem and has fascinated me since I first learned of its existence: the Lake Erie water snake. This aquatic snake species has not only been the nucleus of my island adventures, but it was also the reptile whose episode helped to launch the Brave Wilderness channel!
Closely related to the northern water snake, the Lake Erie water snake is nonvenomous and ranges from about a foot and a half to three and a half feet in length. As juveniles, the snakes have starkly contrasting bands of black, brown, and yellow, which fade over two or three years as they mature. Though highly variable, the adults appear slate gray with pale-yellow bellies, their faint banding only slightly visible with a closer look. They hibernate underground in the winter, but during the warm summer months, they come out early as the sun rises and bask on tree branches, or on the massive limestone breaker walls that line an old dock on the south side of the island. Like all reptiles, these snakes are ectothermic, so they rely on the sun to heat up their bodies, storing thermal energy. Once they’ve warmed up, they become active, and at midday, they dive into the tepid lake to hunt for food.
Although once abundant across the island shores—and sometimes people’s backyards and boat docks—the Lake Erie water snake was listed as a federally endangered species in August of 1999. These snakes are nonvenomous but have adapted the unique ability to mimic the unmistakable triangular shaped heads of dangerous pit vipers. When threatened by predators, they flatten out their bodies and puff up their heads to resemble the venom glands on water moccasins, copperheads, and rattlesnakes. As new, uninformed residents flooded the islands in the early 1900s, they encountered these gray-and-brown banded, three-foot long slithering reptiles everywhere. The snakes’ defensive display and tendency to strike when handled instilled fear into the minds of incoming humans, and in an effort to eliminate the potential hazard, the snakes were destroyed by the thousands.
Fortunately, the tides started to turn for the Lake Erie water snake in the last few decades as inhabitants on the Bass Islands realized they were harmless, and, as early as 1977, put measures in place to protect them. In August 2011, they were removed from the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s list of threatened species, and since then, their population has continued to flourish. While certainly beneficial for the snakes, these conservation projects have proven to be even more beneficial for the well-being of the larger Lake Erie ecosystem. That’s because 90 percent of the water snake’s diet is made up of round gobies, an invasive fish species that’s damaged large populations of native fish like the Lake Erie perch and smallmouth bass. A dusky, slimy, bottom-dwelling fish with paddle-like fins that protrude out from the sides of its body like two creepy, shrunken hands, the round goby was accidentally introduced to the lake by cargo ships in the 1990s. Underwater chaos has been brewing ever since, and the only thing that’s kept them in check is their number one nemesis: the Lake Erie water snakes! Acting as an environmental cleanup crew, their constant predation has prevented the goby’s population from exploding to unmanageable proportions.
Mark, Chance, and I knew that North Bass would be teeming with water snakes on the hunt for gobies that late-summer morning, so we loaded up our kayaks with camera equipment and started paddling. A band of brothers embarking upon our first great adventure, we cut across the uneven water, bypassing the smaller Sugar Island and approaching North Bass’s shores just as the sun reached over the tops of the trees. Scanning a number of inlets for the calmest water we could find, we steered our vessels into the waters of a beautiful cove. The beach looked as if it were covered in white sand, but was actually covered with zebra mussel shells, which are so sharp that stepping on them barefoot is like walking across a field of broken glass. We stepped out of our kayaks into the clear, warm water, pulled them onto the shore, and then unpacked our gear.
“We made it!” I yelled to Mark and Chance, so thrilled to start my search that I could hardly stand it. We prepared the cameras, gathered the GoPros, and waded up the coastline through the gentle tide. This was our moment. It was Lake Erie water snake or bust. Coyote Peterson and the Brave Wilderness crew were about to transform our dreams of making animal adventure videos into a reality!
We walked gently along the shore and immediately saw a few smaller snakes basking on the rocks and limestone outcroppings. We could have easily grabbed one, but our goal was to catch a big snake, something that would be impressive on camera and that would reflect these reptiles’ high levels of intensity. The best time to do that was midday, when snakes were returning from their hunt for round gobies, so we had a few hours to walk around the island and film environmental B-roll shots.
This is one of the most inspiring places in the world, I thought, noticing the sounds of nature coming from every direction. Waves gently lapped on the shore line, and gulls circled and called overhead. A leopard frog croaked from out of sight, hunkered down and hiding in the marshy wetlands of the nearby woods. I smiled with pure happiness; North Bass was my home away from home, and it was about to provide us with the adventure of a lifetime.
“Let’s go back toward the water to look for snakes,” I said to Mark and Chance as the sun passed its highest point in the wispy sky. “They should be much more active now that the temperatures are beginning to heat up.”
Back at the mussel-covered cove, I waded shin-deep into the water, holding a long stick with my camera affixed to the end of it, while Mark and Chance stayed on the shore and filmed me. I had barely gotten my feet wet, when I noticed something out of the corner of my eye, and then I heard Mark yell.
“Oh look!” he said. “It’s behind you!”
Sure enough, a baby Lake Erie water snake had noticed us. Taken by surprise, it darted out from the sunny beach into the water. Anxious to escape, it swam out toward the open lake, crossing just under my legs. Without hesitation, I thrust my hands down into the water and gently scooped up the tiny reptile.
Unlike many other snake species, Lake Erie water snakes are ovoviviparous, which means female snakes retain their eggs inside their bodies, where they hatch and are eventually born as live young. From mid-August until September, females hatch an average of twenty-three baby snakes each. Spotting these little guys is relatively easy, due to their banding, still striking and opaque, as they have yet to develop the dull camouflage they’ll display as adults. They’re absolutely adorable, and as I brought it up toward the cameras, I anticipated how squirmy and slippery it might feel in my palm.
“WOOOW!” I said as I cupped it in my hands. “That… is a baby Lake Erie water snake!”
This newborn was about as calm as could be. I delivered a few key facts and set it back into the water. Under the right conditions, an adult water snake can live to be about twelve years old, so I wished the best for this little one, knowing that a long life meant plenty of successfully gobbled-up round gobies! Then I turned back to the task at hand… searching for a much larger specimen.
Big snakes live to hunt. Each and every morning, these reptiles wake up, bask in the sun, and lazily bide their time until conditions are right for a hunt. Then they dive beneath the surface, where they will explore along the lake’s basin and wait for unsuspecting gobies. Gobies are bottom-feeders, and their weird buggy eyes make them look more like amphibians than fish. When the gobies come along, their fins scraping on the lake floor as if they’re crawling, the snakes make their stealthy approach. Then—boom—they strike! With tiny, needlelike teeth, they grip the struggling fish and eventually immobilize it. It takes a long time for a snake to finish its meal, and if they’re submerged beneath the lake’s surface, there’s a risk of swallowing water and drowning. So with the goby clutched tightly between their jaws, they swim for shore, their heads just above the water, like little periscopes. While making the trek to solid ground, they keep one eye to the sky, looking out for predators like hawks or eagles, who would love nothing more than an easy meal! After reaching land, they manipulate their jaws to open their mouths as wide as possible, and hastily work the slimy fish down their throats as fast as they can. To a human, a goby would probably taste horrific, but the snakes sure seem to love them! This is a day in the life of these amazing snakes from spring to late fall. In the winter, when the lake freezes over, they hunker down in underground burrows for a long, well-deserved rest.
The sun was dropping lower in the sky, and I knew the snakes would be returning to shore for the day. With our window of opportunity closing, Chance, Mark, and I needed to devise a plan that would ensure an encounter, but wouldn’t separate a snake from its well-earned meal.
“Let’s stick to the rocky shoreline. We should find a snake either coming in without a goby or going back out to hunt for more,” I said off-camera.
My team agreed that this seemed like the best plan to find our target while causing the least disturbance to the snake. The water snake is at its most vulnerable when it’s close to shore, so that’s when it would be easiest to capture. Even though Lake Erie is usually calm, small waves crash against land just like in the ocean, creating swirling currents that are a lot to handle for a creature who barely weighs a pound. As the snake struggles to hold its head above the turbulent water, it loses visibility. While fighting to regain focus, it’s blind to potential predators—or perhaps an adventurer named Coyote Peterson, who wants nothing more than to get this fascinating animal up close for the cameras.
Wading just a few feet into the crystal-clear water, I surveyed the gleaming surface, looking for the telltale signs of a snake desperately swimming for shore, or venturing out for their next yummy goby snack. Would I see a tiny head pop up scouting for predators? Or would I spot a slithering body just below the surface? These snakes were usually everywhere right as the sun started its decent in the late afternoon, so I knew it was only a matter of time until one crossed my field of vision.
I looked over at Mark and Chance, who were standing at the shore, their cameras positioned for action. I had a feeling something was about to happen, so I told them, “Be ready to roll cameras—it’s go time!”
Boy, was I right! Before I even finished my sentence, I noticed a water snake about twenty feet from me slither off a rock into the water. In my right hand, I was holding a long stick with a camera attached to it. I took off at a sprint, water splashing up around me as I hurtled toward the snake. Unaware, it ducked under the surface to avoid the ebbing currents and slowly swam in my direction. As soon as it breached the surface, its beady eyes spotted me. It doubled back, making a lightning-fast turn and darted for the open water. But I was just as quick! Without hesitation, I dropped my stick and waterproof camera, and crash-landed in the shallow water, cutting in front of the fleeing reptile. The toughest thing about catching water snakes is that you have to synchronize your grab with their movement and aim just ahead of them so that as you make your move, you land your grip right in the center of the snake’s body. Hopefully predicting the snake’s path, I thrust my hand into the lake with a splash, and boom… I clasped my fingers around the reptile I’d been hoping to catch all day!
I make it sound easy, but I’ve been catching snakes for decades, and I knew the positioning of my hand was important. If I grabbed the snake too far back, toward the part where its body narrowed into its tail, I might injure it. I also understood that, while Lake Erie water snake aren’t venomous, they can be aggressive, so if I didn’t grab it far enough from its head, it might thrash backward, strike, and try to bite me. Upon being caught, this snake was immediately thinking, Something’s caught me, and maybe if I chomp down on it and draw some blood, I’ll startle it and make my escape.
I drew the snake toward the surface of the water and breathed a sigh of relief. Like an arrow hitting a bull’s-eye, I’d made an ideal catch. I’d secured the snake in my hand right at the thickest part of its body. I wasn’t going to damage its tail, and thus far I hadn’t been bitten.
But here’s a secret: In order to create a little drama in this pioneering Brave Wilderness episode, Mark, Chance, and I were actually hoping I’d take a bite. One of our main intentions for our videos was to show you that many of nature’s most misunderstood species—like the Lake Erie water snake, who’d been nearly wiped out by ignorant, terrified humans—tend to react defensively, even though they are nonvenomous and a bite is little more than a shot at the doctor’s office. So, when I went straight into presentation mode, turning my attention away from the snake and toward the camera, I didn’t care that it reared back, opened its jaws, and…
“Ow!” I yelled as the snake chomped down on the middle finger of my left hand. “He just took the tip of my finger and sliced it open!”
Lake Erie water snakes don’t have fangs as pit vipers do. Instead, they have small, fixed teeth with sharp points like the tip of a pin. While the bite I sustained hurt even less than a bee sting, you would not believe how much blood there was! The snake’s saliva contains proteins with anticoagulant properties that prevent your platelets from clotting, allowing blood to flow from a teeny-tiny cut faster and much longer than it normally would. Sure, it all seemed like an intense, high-action, dangerous situation, but when I looked down at my hand, all I could see were a few tiny pinprick-like puncture wounds that I knew I would clean up with a little soapy water and a Band-Aid.
Now, this was an impressive snake I held in my hands. Not only was it larger than most other water snakes I’d seen on the island—probably a good three and a half feet in length—it was also more aggressive and defensive than I’d expected. The snake didn’t just sit there, thinking, Oh well, I got caught. This whopper of a reptile puffed up its body and flattened its head defensively, then continued to writhe around, trying to get away. A true demonstration of just how ferocious these snakes can be if humans try to interact with them.
By remaining gentle and calm, and dipping it in the water—which helps relax water snakes—I finally managed to get the creature under control and safely to shore. With both hands now shuffling its body, I knelt down to the crushed shells of the beach as an air of harmony settled over the scene and the snake examined its situation. I experience this post-catch calm demeanor quite often with reptiles, and I believe that they come to realize two things: that I respect them, and that I am not attempting to cause them harm. I kept my hands held open out in front of me to allow the snake to move freely. “The reason I wanted to catch this snake today,” I said, “is so you could get the chance to see a species that was almost wiped off the face of the planet.” The snake gently glided through my fingers as I admired it.
“These guys camouflage so incredibly well,” I continued, setting the snake onto a wet boulder nestled on the shore. “You see that? He blends in almost perfectly with the coloration in these different shades of rock.” The cool water of the lake lapped gently on the snake, and its gray, brown, and pale banding gleamed in the sunlight, just like the reflection off of the rock where it sat. Incredibly, I wasn’t exerting any force on the snake at all. It was perfectly calm, flicking out its tongue as it calmly surveyed the scene around it.
That’s one of the amazing things about these animals; they’re perfectly attuned to their environment. This was a monumental step forward for me and the Brave Wilderness crew, and for a few short moments, I paused to let it all sink in. This is only the beginning. My first official animal presentation had almost wrapped, and I could not have hoped for a more cooperative and dynamic subject than this amazing Lake Erie water snake.
- On Sale
- Sep 10, 2019
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers