Published March 5, 2023

Rattlesnakes and Bear Breath 

Written by
Kim Fundingsland
| The Dakotan
(Photo: Kim Fundingsland/The Dakota
(Photo: Kim Fundingsland/The Dakota

A Slice of Life 

What follows is somewhat difficult to write. However, I can assure you, dear reader, that my intention is not to sway anyone into thinking I am some sort of fearless adventurer. Quite the opposite, more an example of why women live longer than men.  

As you will see, and undoubtedly agree, what I am about to reveal is more properly categorized as foolish than fearless. It is that conclusion of which I am quite certain, although I was an agreeable participant in the events of several years ago which I am about to detail. 

The first incident, a rattlesnake roundup, was followed by a second episode of foolishness that confounds me to this day. Why I engaged in such a foolhardy activity twice remains an unsolved mystery. I must say though, as I ponder the many choices a person makes in life, the phrase “young and dumb” comes to mind.  

A few years back I was contacted by an acquaintance about participating in a rattlesnake roundup. Now, these are not farmyard chickens I’m talking about but rather poisonous, lethal, slithering, nasty snakes with warning rattles on one end and sharp fangs on the other. Sounds like fun, right? 

As I recall, my excitement for this adventure had diminished between the time I confidently said yes and when the actual day arrived. Secretly, I was hoping for some sort of natural disaster to postpone the event, which would have given me more time to develop a plausable excuse to avoid being surrounded by what I was certain would be hissing death. 

It wasn’t to be. The spring day arrived with brilliant sunshine, a forecast of unusually high temperatures, and a phone call reminding me of where to meet the reptilian acquaintance I had hoped overslept. Within minutes I was on the road, headed for a known rattlesnake den near Killdeer. As my friend told me, more like a challenge than valued information, it would be a perfectly warm day for rattlesnakes to be active and leaving their den.  

We made the appointed rendezvous and were soon on a two-track trail that probably hadn’t been traversed since the 1880s, or so it seemed. When we stopped, I was directed toward a rocky knob rising above unbroken ground. It was that knob, my friend proudly said, that housed the largest den of rattlesnakes in the Dakotas. Time to tighten up the boots which, incidentally, were not tall enough or thick enough to thwart the quick strike of any sour prairie rattlesnake. 

As we ascended the nearby knoll, my friend carrying a long, snake grabbing tool and I a camera, the calm air was suddenly alive with incessant buzzing. There were rattlesnakes everywhere and, I thought, most had me in their sights. Where I initially stopped on that knoll there were at least a dozen rattlers within a few feet of me. Sometimes there’s not much difference between fearless and foolish. This was one of those times. 

I don’t remember how many rattlesnakes my friend picked up with his special grabber, but I do remember him milking a couple of the larger snakes. Snake milking involves grabbing them tightly behind the head, which caused the rattlers to drip poison from their fangs. Just lovely. 

As this was taking place, I vowed never to do it again. Once was enough. Then, a year later, my friend called with another rattlesnake roundup invitation. I can’t explain it, but I foolishly accepted. It’s true. There’s a fool born every minute.  

Minutes later I was making inquiries to medical facilities to see if they had any anti-venom. A hospital in Dickinson said they had some “once in a while” but didn’t know if there was any on hand when I called. Uh-oh. 

Before you get ahead of me, I must say, thankfully, that I never got bit by a snake. Should have, just didn’t. 

What I am referring to is my second trip to the infamous den of poisonous reptiles, this time with three more people, in which it was decided to put captured snakes in a container with a lid, sort of like a small trash container with a lid. Since the ground was too uneven to place the bucket-like container down, I was asked if I would hold it. I agreed. 

So, there I was, standing on uneven ground where rattlesnakes were crawling and rattling and seeking something to sink their fangs into while holding onto a trash container into which fellow snake rounder-uppers were placing, actually tossing, angry rattlesnakes. Of course, each time a snake was to be placed into the container the lid had to be removed, or at least opened enough to put in another snake or two. 

This was uneasy business at best. The sounds coming from inside that container haunt me to this day. It was obvious the rattlesnakes were not at all fond of their new environment. Equally obvious to me was that I dare not move, lest I stumble amongst a poisonous nightmare. 

There was another issue too, that being the captured snakes made such a noise that it was impossible to hear any warning rattles coming from the numerous snakes on the ground. At one point I felt something through the thin leather of my boot. Pushing the snake-filled container away from my body a few inches and looking down, I watched frightfully as a fully grown rattlesnake crawled over one boot and then the other. I don’t recall ever being so still in my lifetime. 

Somewhere during that miserable episode I came to the realization that this absolutely had to be, if I survived, my last, final rattlesnake round-up. The count in the basket I was holding got up to forty-something when it was decided to call it quits and release the entire ball of utterly disgruntled snakes. 

The entire affair served no real purpose, other than to say we did it, which is more a measure of foolishness than anything else. Fortunately for me, my snake worshipping friend who led these dubious expeditions moved out of state, thus ending my invitations to his annual snake round-up. I was greatly relieved, although I’ve never admitted that until this writing. 

Somehow, I managed to be talked into another of nature’s encounters that placed me, or rather I placed myself, in a very perilous situation. I can still smell the hot, salmon breath of that Alaskan brown bear. As I wrote earlier in this “Slice of Life”, quite often there’s little difference between fearless and foolish. I’ll save that story for another time. 

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