The one that got away

Jain recently said in a comment that she found it a bit of a relief to know I harbored no magical photographic powers, that I did in fact miss opportunities from time to time.  I laughed about that because, like all photographers, I tend to share the presentable images, not the numerous mistakes and poor shots and otherwise unsightly pictures.

Which brings me to April 14, 2010, when I posted this on Facebook:

Copperhead on the patio.  Nearly stepped on it when I walked out the door.  To say we surprised each other would be to understate matters tremendously.

In point of fact, it was a southern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix), a venomous snake, and this is the serpent in question:

Blurry photo of a Southern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix) (20081004_13084)

Given how stunning these reptiles are and given the unprecedented opportunity to be so close, how could I possibly screw up the photo?  Well, let me tell you a tale…

There are two sets of French doors in my home.  One is in the bedroom and the other is in the office.  Both open to the patio.

On that warm spring day, I opened the bedroom door and stepped out.  Before my foot hit the ground, I became immediately aware of something right outside the door.  Something right under my foot.

It was the copperhead.  Apparently it chose that spot to grab some afternoon sun.  What it didn’t know was that its position put it right in one of my worn paths leading to the patio.

At that specific part of stepping outside, I had my own forward momentum to deal with, but I also had the momentum of the door which I had already started to pull shut behind me.  The combined inertia would basically push me out the door no matter what else happened.

On top of that, my right foot already hung above the snake and carried its own downward momentum pulled by the force of gravity.

Basically, all the physics added up to a major quandary: I couldn’t stop and I couldn’t finish stepping down, so what to do?

I did what anyone would do: Even as my existing motion carried me through the doorway and toward an encounter which would be ill advised for both parties, I used my left leg to push up so I could hop over the snake.  This kind of last-minute change in an otherwise committed movement rarely works out with grace.  In this case, knowing that became doubly complicated by the fact that, suddenly realizing its predicament and choosing to scoot from beneath impending doom, the snake moved.

It moved into the spot where I hoped to land my clumsy hop!

At this point, it became an entertaining dance of me doing my best to float on air whilst avoiding a serpent who became increasingly worried for its health and therefore moved with more purpose.

I stumbled, hopped, skipped, and made it across the patio in what had to look like the worst ballet ever performed.  And even as the snake slipped between my hopscotching feet, I rebounded off the fence at the same time that I grabbed it to stop from tumbling face first to the concrete below.

With the camera held in one hand, my body dangling precariously from the fence with my feet splayed behind me in a frozen fall, I snapped the shutter purely by accident.

By the time I righted myself, the snake had vanished around the corner.  I couldn’t blame it for beating a hasty retreat.  I certainly posed no threat other than being the looming giant who would crush you while clumsily falling atop you.  And I had to believe the snake shook its head as it left while simultaneously thinking to itself, My word, man, learn to walk already!

— — — — — — — — — —


[1] No, I’m not too proud to share bad photographs.  In fact, it’s cathartic.

[2] There are seven venomous snake species in the DFW Metroplex, four of which I’ve seen and/or photographed around White Rock Lake: western cottonmouth (a.k.a. water moccasin, black moccasin or black snake; Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma), timber rattlesnake (a.k.a. canebrake rattlesnake; Crotalus horridus), massasauga (a.k.a. black rattler or black massasauga; Sistrurus catenatus), and copperhead—both the southern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix) and the broad-banded copperhead (a.k.a. Texas copperhead; Agkistrodon contortrix laticinctus).  Texas coral snake (Micrurus tener), western diamondback rattlesnake (a.k.a. Texas diamond-back; Crotalus atrox) and pigmy rattlesnake (a.k.a. ground rattlesnake, eastern pigmy rattlesnake or bastard rattlesnake; Sistrurus miliarius), the other three venomous species in the area, I have yet to see around the lake.  ‘Yet’ being the operative term.  (I have seen those species elsewhere.)

[3] There are at least 30 species of nonvenomous snake in the DFW Metroplex, so there’s no need to worry.  The odds of encountering a venomous snake are quite small, and the vast majority of snake sightings are of nonvenomous animals.

[4] Copperheads might be venomous, but they are docile creatures who focus on escape before defense.

8 thoughts on “The one that got away”

  1. Ha ha! I have done nearly the same motion trying to avoid a diamondback myself! The snake was curled up on the best foothold to climb up a hill to get out of a stream where I used to do research. I didn’t notice it until my sandaled foot was about 4 inches away. Amazing what you can do with your body when you have a venomous snake to motivate you! However, my snake stayed in exactly the same spot (not sure it even noticed me) and I was able to go back to take a photo – once I got my heart going at a more normal rate again. It makes me happy to know that other people have done these sorts of acrobatics to avoid snakes!

  2. Omigosh! Reading this was just like watching it in slow motion. Fear! Suspense!! Terror!!!

    This is a great example of a less-than-perfect-photo telling a story much better than a “good” picture could. I’m glad you saved it!

  3. I can picture it. For some reason whenever I’m on my bike and suddenly notice a pothole ahead, I react by swerving into it. And the pothole doesn’t move. Seriously, I’m a bad piece of evidence for evolution.

  4. Yep, we all have hundreds (thousands?) of “ones that got away”. It’s a good thing pixels are cheap.

    We also have copperheads. Some summers we have a lot of copperheads. My wife and I have learned they like to lie in the dark on the cool concrete slab just inside our basement door. We teach ourselves to always let the door swing wide open before taking a step inside. I once watched my wife turn a normal step into quite a jump in order to sail over a copperhead. It was a funny thing to see and very difficult to contain my laughter.

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