From my lungs to his…

…Breathing life into an Eastern diamondback rattlesnake

Crotalus adamanteus

Big Chief, male Eastern diamondback rattlesnake and king of the forest. Photo by Alex Bentley

Handling venomous snakes under anesthesia is never straightforward.  At any moment, an anesthetized snake–particularly during induction of anesthesia or during awakening from anesthesia–can experience enough arousal to snag you with his fangs.

It is my third Eastern diamondback rattlesnake this year, a vigorous 6.5 pounds male sporting a 9 inch circumference and at 66 inches total length, much longer than I am tall.  An impressive individual and a member of the largest species of venomous snake in North America, he is nonetheless fairly easy to handle.    His radio transmitter, thermal recording device and identifying pit tag are already sutured up tight inside his lower abdomen.  Biologist and field coordinator Mike Martin places the sleeping serpent back into his box and three biologists, a veterinary technician and I all walk around muttering, allowing the tension of having handled him before and during surgery to diffuse.

prepping the diamondback

Tension is evident in the faces of biologist Mike Martin and Kathi S. Craft, LVT.  These procedures always carry some risk to the handlers.

After a few minutes, we wander back to the snake’s box and observe him.  He is not waking up, not even a little bit.  This is not unusual; they can wake quickly or slowly.  But we all stare at him with his crazy pattern of diamonds long enough to decide he either isn’t breathing or at least isn’t breathing enough to be conducive to his well-being.

The three biologists rightly become nervous.  They’ve actually seen, assisted in or done many more of these procedures than I, a mere mortal veterinarian, have.  But it is my O.R., a sacred place where I command the bridge and seldom perform my job with an audience.  It is usually just me and one or two technicians.  But their concerns are buzzing in my ears like a swarm of bees.  And I am the one who has to make the call as to what must happen next.

applying glue to incision

The procedure is done, I have removed the drape, cleaned the patient of blood and I am applying a cyanoacrylate tissue adhesive to the incision.  Photo by Charles Smith

I go on autopilot, a place where I am directed by years and years of training and my emotions are checked at the door.  Come, go along with me.

Me:  Do you want me to entubate him?

Them:  It might be a good idea to give him a breath or two

Me:  OK, get him up on the table, head on this end.

Them:  Do you have a red rubber catheter? (a tube used to pass into the glottis of snakes)

Me:  I have a trach tube that will fit him.

Me, to my LVT:  Kathi, I need a tongue depressor.

Kathi, instantly at my side, is bearing a handful of tongue blades:  Right here, doctor.

rattlesnake mouth

Opening the mouth, it’s a tricky thing, whether you are doing it to tube feed the individual, as team leader Ab Abercrombie and I are doing with this one, or whether you are entubating it to assist breathing, as I did with “Chief” and Mike Martin.

Mike silently and carefully considers what he is about to do and then holds the snake’s head up off the table for me.  Then it is happening.  Holding it flat with my right hand, I insert the tongue depressor laterally between the patient’s mandible and maxilla and I turn the blade 90 degrees to open the mouth.  The fangs unhinge and drop down and I hear biologist-intern Alex in the background remarking on how big they might be.

I am not looking at the deadly fangs at all.  My focus is on the glottis–the tracheal opening–in the floor of the mouth just behind the front teeth.  Automatically, I use my left hand to insert the tip of the endotracheal tube and advance it slightly.  It is a snug fit, and I don’t need to put it far.  During this procedure, both of my hands are within two inches of the fangs.

Then it happens.  I lean forward, put my lips on the adapter end of the trach tube and generate a breath from my lungs into his, my face mere inches from his truly impressive fangs.  But I am not looking at the mouth or the fangs or the glottis.  I am looking beyond to watch my own breath expand his glorious body.

At the apex of the breath, I pause.  Air is neither leaving my lungs to go into his, nor is it leaving his lung to come back into mine.  For a second or two, we are one.

I release my lips and take the trach tube out of his glottis and observe a fractional spasm.

Then, perhaps a bit too bitchily, I say:  I think this is unnecessary.  He is getting body tone back.

I might add that I slept like a baby that night.

endotracheal tube

A 3 mm endotracheal tube is designed for cats, kittens and tiny dogs. It fit our patient perfectly, though the majority of snakes need much smaller and more specialized tube.  In a pinch, a red rubber catheter may be used in place of a designated tracheal tube.

 The patient began breathing well on his own right after my gift of breath.  He was rattling and tongue flicking in short order.  Because snakes have only one elongated lung and lack a diaphragm, sometimes they need a little help to jump start their respiration after a surgical procedure.

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DIY Camping Hot Shower

Ready for the camp out

Let’s go camping!

Every Spring, I attend a long weekend camping in the Hell Hole Bay area of the Francis Marion National Forest, which is a swampy area northwest of Charleston, South Carolina.

Twenty miles or so from the nearest decent-sized town, the area is not truly remote in a wilderness sense–there are paved roads that pass right by it.  But cell phone service is spotty to nonexistent.  There are few houses, no stores and what we call a campground is maybe an acre clearing in the pines.  There are two game poles, a cement picnic table and that’s it.  No electricity, no water, not even a trash receptacle.  And especially no showers.

Since we are there to catalog reptile and amphibian populations, watch birds, observe mammals and experience plant and animal communities, we get dirty.  We are in and out of our trucks and cars and in the brush and weeds as well as wading in swamp water.  Mosquitoes descend on us every time we step out of our cars and tents, so we are oily with insect repellent. Sometimes we walk through areas where the woods have been control-burned and we get sooty.  We sleep in sweltering conditions, and we answer the call of nature behind trees in the woods.

Getting down and dirty with a glass lizard

The reptile paparazzi surround an Eastern glass lizard during the Under a Low Country Moon Nature Interpretive weekend. Can you see how we’d get dirty?

We get stinky after a half-day, and positively rank after three.

When we started doing this in 2001, I was a good deal younger.  I had a hard-nosed edge to me and I endured being filthy a lot better.  Nowadays, I don’t like feeling all squishy-nasty-dirty.

For several years I attempted to solve this problem by using commercially available means.  But those cheapie discount store solar showers–the big black plastic bag that you let sit in the sun until the water heats up–mine broke the first time I tried to hoist it into a tree to use it.  An almost-acceptable means of staying clean are the camping moist towelettes which are glorified baby wipes.  They are better than nothing.

One year I just couldn’t take it any more so I went over to a small public beach access campground near Awendaw, paid their parking fee at their honor-system kiosk and went in.  I slipped into their bathhouse and furtively took a five minute shower.  I didn’t get caught, and it felt divine.

Began to use a spayer for showering, 2011

In May 2011, after ten years of being stinky and uncomfortable during the ULCM weekend, I field test the camp shower! This photo is my original one.

In 2010 I was sitting on the cement picnic table in camp feeling like a very. dirty. girl. when I was dumbstruck by an idea.  I could use a pump-up sprayer, the kind you use mix up insecticides, herbicides or other chemicals.  I didn’t get to try it until 2011, and it worked fantastically well!  Using a waterless shampoo and the sprayer, I could wash my hair and it felt like I had really washed it.  Miraculous.

But there’s a funny thing about sprayers.  Around a homestead, they tend to disappear.  Somebody will nab it to mix up chemicals or wash something with it, and next thing I know, I can’t find it, or if I find it, it is all stinky with chemical residue.

Now I want you to think of this as though I am saying “I got religion.”

New sprayer

I purchased a shiny new sprayer that even has a shoulder strap.

I got Pinterest, and my life will never be the same.

On Pinterest, I saw where sorority girls buy cheap coolers and paint them for special weekend events.  And they are awesome-looking creations by the time those girls are done with them.  Lord knows how good their grades could be if they put that much work into their studies.

And so I decided to decorate myself a sprayer for the annual camping trip.  Somehow, I don’t think these men with whom I live will make off with it now, as it’s almost girlie-looking.

Chalk paint can be used on almost any surface--plastic, wood, glass, metal--with minimal prep.

Chalk paint can be used on almost any surface–plastic, wood, glass, metal–with minimal prep.

First, I purchased a new sprayer and painted it with chalk paint.  Note, this is not chalkboard paint.  Chalk paint can be found at craft stores in a variety of colors.  It has a very, very flat finish and can be used on most surfaces–glass, metal, wood, plastic.  I painted my sprayer black to enhance its solar heating capability.  I even taped around the “how to use directions” on the back, lest I ever forget how to use it.

Next, I felt compelled to girlie it up so it’s easily identifiable as mine.  I have a Cafe Press account and most things in my “store,”  Herptacular and Then Some have motifs centered around the annual camp out.  So I ordered myself a big sticker that says Under a Low Country Moon and put the sticker on the front of the sprayer and lettered it as my “Hell Hole Hot Shower” with stick-on raised lettering that I bought at Micheal’s.  To seal everything in, I put several coats of Mod Podge, water-based sealer, glue & finish over the lettering.

This could also be used in hunting and fishing camps and by preppers/off gridders.  A one and a half-gallon sprayer is easy to use and because it isn’t dependent on gravity to work, it doesn’t have to be hoisted into a tree.

I’ll never be dirty again on the camping trip!

Under a Low Country Moon camp out shower

Voila! My solar shower for the camping weekend is da bomb!

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Cue the banjos if you will…

 “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” 

                                                           Norman Maclean

Enoree river up and muddy

Nolan in the Enoree River when she's up and muddy.

The last time I floated this river was about 27 years ago, when I was lithe and strong and filled with enthusiasm.  These days I am troubled by bad feet, hot flashes, night sweats and anxiety.  I hide myself behind hipster glasses, voluminous clothes and work.  I don’t go out—even to the grocery store—unless it is totally necessary or unless my destination is obscure or anonymous.  I can handle walking around downtown Beaufort.  The local Walmart terrifies me.

So I don’t know what possessed me to float the river yesterday.  Perhaps it was a sense of urgency that the lad will be going off to college in less than two months.  And perhaps it was shame that my husband bought two kayaks four years ago and we have never taken them on the water.  Then there was the nagging knowledge that without something to do, I would sit on my bed all day and read or peck around on my iPad.

The plan was thrown out hastily before the boy scooted out the door to church, “Hey, want to take the kayaks down the Enoree River today?”

Sure, why not? Nolan with kayaks

“I want the green one.” Nolan picks his kayak in 2010, not knowing he wouldn’t travel in it until 2014.

In this household, I am never exactly sure whether or not a plan is going to come together until it is actually being executed.  So I puttered around the kitchen with less than 50-50 odds of the kayaking outing becoming a reality.

When it became imminent that I was going to get in the truck and go float the river, I hastily tossed some almost-random things into a gallon Ziploc bag—K-Bar knife, bug spray, Kleenex, a half a 16 oz bottle of drinking water, a floating solar powered lantern, a couple of individual serving packs of trail mix and because no one should ever leave home without enough bags, I threw in extra Ziplocs.  You might need a few things in an emergency, and only two weeks ago there had been a major search on our benign little river for two boys lost on a cheap raft.

We, it turned out, were so poorly prepared for this maiden voyage that I had to turn around and drive back home to get our PFDs.

Joey canoeing

Portrait of Joey canoeing the Okefenokee swamp near Folkston, Georgia circa 1982. Joey used to be my Enoree canoeing partner.

The Enoree is a silty brown river, medium-sized, and in most places sluggish.  We launched down a vertical bank that was maybe 15 feet high, quite a challenge for this old fat woman.  Immediately we ran into a mess of downed trees low across the water that would become strainers after a hard rain.  If I was afraid of spiders, I would have not made it past the first 100 yards.

But the river opened up and I began to point out landmarks along the stretch south from Lanford Station towards the Highway 49 bridge, including a famous fishing hole on the right bank marked by a big rock.  My daddy had loved to fish this place.

Beaverdam Creek near Lanford Station

This may be my lifer bluegill. 1961 with my Daddy.

My son’s experience with rivers had always been high adventure up until now.  We’ve done the Nantahala several times.  The Black River in Georgetown county.  The National Outdoor Whitewater Center in Charlotte, which is intense.  The salt marshes at Murrell’s Inlet.  The Green River, nestled deep in a gorge in North Carolina.  And oh, yes, the Chattooga when he was fourteen.  I almost drowned, though from a simple fluke and not for being caught in something as dramatic as a hydraulic.  The experience was such that I have never wanted to go back.

I wanted Nolan to know there was virtue in this quiet river.

“Listen,” I said.

Him:  “What?”  Wondering, I guess, what bird song or frog call I was about to point out to him.

Me, “Nothing.  You can’t hear anything.  No traffic, no dogs barking, no chainsaws or heavy equipment.  Nothing.”

Pause.

“You’ve been on a few rivers, Nolan.  All crowded with other boats and rafts.  How does it feel to have the river all to yourself?”

“My daddy always says if there are not cars in the parking lot of a restaurant, it’s because the food sucks,” he said.

Learning to Kayak

Nolan casts from my kayak in 2009.

A good ways before the Highway 49 bridge, he began to ask the cliché child’s question.  Are we there yet?  I waved towards the left bank, the Spartanburg County side.  The land there is one of my brother Joey’s primo spots for birding and herping.

“There’s Joey’s river pasture.  It’s Sunday afternoon.  Maybe he is over there herping.” I said, joking.

We got a little silly and started hollering.  “Joey!  Joey!  Are you over there?”  We even went so far as phoning Joey but our connection was bad.

Then I got occupied with spotting softshell turtles and we rounded a bend in the river and the bridge came into view.

“Look, Mama!” Nolan said, pointing at the bridge,  “There goes Joey!  In his Buick!”

It couldn’t be, could it?  We phoned Joey again and this time the call went through.  He verified that he had indeed driven his Buick across the bridge seconds before.

How often, I wonder, do lives intersect in this manner?  What are the odds that we would be floating kayaks under the bridge just as my brother was driving over it?  How many cars cross that bridge on any given day?  Hundreds.  How many kayaks go under it?  Very few.  The fact that our paths crossed, we recognized it and we were able to communicate with each other instantly is mind-numbing.

 

The River of Muscadines

Old bridge abutments on the Enoree River near Musgrove Mill

Below the Highway 49 bridge is the set of rocky rapids that are sometimes fun.  Not on this excursion.  The water was low.  We spent more time pushing off rocks and dragging our kayaks as we did surging over tiny sections of whitewater.  Our new kayak’s seats were horrible, with zero back support.  If you set your feet against the footrests and tried to push off the bottom with your paddle, there was not enough seat for you to do anything but flop backwards onto nothingness.  Every muscle in my body screamed in protest.  And let me tell you this—if a fat woman wearing a life jacket falls out of the kayak onto her back on the rocks, she is more or less stuck there like a box turtle until someone helps her roll over.

Past the rocky stretch, the river returned to its normal taciturn character.  Silent and slow.

Nolan at Sands Beach, Port Royal, SC

Nolan checks out the beach at Port Royal, SC, where we saw my South Carolina "lifer" bald eagle.

We watched the usual species—great blue herons, little green herons, wood ducks, kingfishers and red-tailed hawks.  For excitement, a goldfinch.  We passed sand bars cris-crossed with the tracks of nesting turtles.  We endured a brief stint of traffic noise while floating under I-26, and encountered an isolated rapid that Nolan went into sideways where he rolled his kayak.

He was grouchy, and the trip seemed to be taking far longer than the two hours I thought I remembered.  I was surrounded by water and yet horribly thirsty. Our moods plummeted. I somehow drew ahead of him, as he was not able to get all of the water out of his kayak after his last spill.

I noticed he was missing and turned to face upriver just downstream of a fun-but-tiny rapid.  I was about to paddle upstream looking for him, but at last I saw the movement of his paddle and then his green kayak came into view.  I enjoyed the rhythm of his paddle strokes, my mind a blank, my back temporarily comfortable.

It caught me by surprise, just over his head, circling out over the river.  A large dark bird with an unmistakable blazing white head and tail, flying so easily that it looked…casual.  I threw back my head and laughed, keeping my face towards the sky to watch for a re-run while I waited for Nolan.  I considered that perhaps he fell behind because he was watching this eagle.

He drew even with me and passed me in stony silence.  I turned the boat back downstream and stroked to catch up.

“Did you see it?” I said.Bald eagle

Nothing.

“Nolan.  Did you see it?”

Nothing.

“Nolan!  Did. You. See. It?”

He finally spoke, “What?”

“The eagle,” I said.  “Did you see the eagle?”

He raised his arm and pointed downstream.  “You mean that eagle?”

Sure enough, the bald eagle was perched on the Laurens County side and flew out over the river.  The white of its tail was blinding.  I broke out in cold chills and my eyes began to tear up.

Bald eagles belong to a subgroup of eagles called sea eagles.  They are seldom seen far from really big bodies of water.  In fact, breeding pairs prefer bodies of water greater than 7 miles in circumference.

Sightings away from large lakes, estuaries and oceans are rare.  They eat mainly fish, with a smattering of other birds, rabbits, rodents and possibly bigger mammals such as raccoons and baby deer.  They also eat carrion.

Birders and herpers call new-to-them species “lifers.”  The first Southern hognose snake of your life.  The first prothonotary warbler sighting of your life.  Your first-ever glimpse of a roadrunner or a smooth green snake or spotted turtle.

Joey Holmes with his lifer Heterodon simus

Joey with his lifer Heterodon simus, Southern hognose snake

This Enoree eagle is not my true lifer.

I saw an eagle in the Florida Everglades in 1980. And while I’ve kept my eyes peeled for an eagle in South Carolina for 55 years, I had never seen one until two weeks ago.  Venturing onto Sands Beach in Port Royal, I gazed out over the salt marsh and spied a bald eagle on a man-made nest platform.  Again, Nolan was my sidekick.

The boy has a knack for seeing eagles.  He saw his first at the age of 13, fishing Lake Murray with his dad, and has seen them on two different occasions less than a mile from our house.

Nolan can call the Lake Murray eagle his lifer, and the Enoree River eagle his fifth.  For a birder my age, it is not that simple.  The Everglades eagle, it is my lifer.  The Port Royal bird, my home state lifer.  But this Enoree River eagle is the lifer of my soul.  My stomping grounds.  My Upstate.  My heart’s river.

 

The lad and I finally rounded a bend near the Musgrove Mill Revolutionary War Battlefield to see a cluster of people, adults and small children fishing from a sandbar and teen lovers bobbing in the water.  We passed close to two encampments and were excitedly greeted by country folk—men clamoring towards us, all with the same question, “Hey!  Where’d y’all put in at?”

Cue the banjos if you will.  Open the pages of Norman Maclean if you prefer.

Scraped, bruised, sunburned, tired and thirsty, we pulled our kayaks toward the bank near the concrete pylons of a bygone bridge to the stares of more recreational waders and splashers.  I was so feeble at that point that I washed through the final rapids, dragged behind my empty kayak, too wiped out to curse the slippery rocks upon which I kept falling.  A float I thought I remembered taking two hours ended up being a five hour adventure, and I was shocked when Joey informed me it was ten miles.

Ten miles for an eagle?  Totally worth it.

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A Wednesday in September

"The River of Muscadines"

Enoree River -- the river of muscadines

Wednesday promised to be an aggravating day for me.  The afternoon schedule include my annual eye exam and then a dental appointment.  I knew that before it was over, my pupils would be dilated, blurring my vision and increasing my sensitivity to light for several hours.  And I knew that my mouth would be numbed and drilled on. 

Simply, ugh.

Yet it was warm (not hot!), sunny and calm, a glorious September morning.  I decided to go to the river. 

My family’s ancestral stomping grounds–both the paternal and maternal sides–run along the Enoree River from the vicinity of Youngs community down through Enoree and Lanford Station, ending up near Cross Anchor and Horseshoe Falls.  Sometimes it calls to me like a siren’s song.

I went to the falls first and had them all to myself.  Wearing a skirt and flip flops, I walked the path down to the creek, ditched the flops and waded into the water.  Minnows scattered before me  in the clear water around my feet.  I hitched my skirt up around my thighs with my left hand and balanced the camera and truck keys in my right and photographed the falls from several angles. 

Horseshoe Falls

Images played in my mind–flickering, jerky home movies of my mama and daddy.  Mama with a picnic spread on a quilt, the Skotch cooler full of sandwiches and cold drinks.  My little brother Joey, maybe a year old,  playing on the rocks.  Jeff, also still a toddler, standing still for once, mesmerized while my daddy took a stick and dipped up a water snake that he had just killed with his pistol.  The snake was limp and kept sliding off into the water.  Daddy, young and slim,  had his pistol in one hand and the stick in the other. 

Next I drove down the road to the Enoree.  In childhood, this short drive was sullied by litter, a dumping grounds for household garbage, old television sets with shattered picture tubes, cans and broken bottles.  Now it is prisine.  There is a small but tidy parking area with a sign that marks the way to put in kayaks and that gives a brief history of the area’s Revolutionary War significance. 

Again, I waded into the river, clear water rushing under my feet.  My  eyes are peeled for snakes and, unlike my daddy, I am not packing a revolver.  Just my camera.  Snakes, I  love ’em. 

Purple Muscadines

After this I made a quick trip up I-26 to the farm store at Live Oak Farms, where I purchased an organic blue corn taco kit, a pound of butter made locally from Upstate cows and a hunk of local white cheddar with green olives in it.  I enquired about muscadines for my jelly-making enterprise.  She didn’t have any, but soon I was on my way to a small farm between Cross Anchor and Pauline where the owner and I picked three gallons in 15 minutes working in the warm September sunshine, careful around a host of lazy bumblebees.

That night, with the whole left side of my face numb and my eyes dialated, I made bronze scuppernong jelly, gloriously golden. 

When all is said and done, I will have made bronze scuppernong and purple muscadine jelly, peach and pear jam, all from fruit grown within a 30 mile radius of my home.  Why go to all the trouble when I can buy all the jam and jelly I want from the supermarket?   Like my trip to the river, it connects me to the earth, to family, to my past and that of my ancestors.

Purple Muscadine and Bronze Scuppernong Jelly

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