Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 2000. Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books. pp. 31-33.
You have nothing to fear but fear itself. Besides not knowing where to go, the most common reason why people don't visit the Oregon Desert is the fear of rattlesnakes. Scientists have documented our deep genetic (and cultural) fear of serpents. Human babies, who have to learn to fear most things, instinctively fear snakes. But you're not a baby, and it's time to grow up.
The facts are that you have extremely little to fear, and it is rattlesnakes who should be afraid. Odds are that you won't even see one on a desert trip. Rattler survival strategies are camouflage, escape, and defense. In that order.
Most human encounters with rattlers go unnoticed, since the snake simply lies still and blends in.
If hiding fails, then the rattler seeks escape. You might see the snake "run" for it, but you'll likely miss that too.
Only if the rattler feels trapped will it move into the defense posture: head high, neck in a loop, and the rest of the body coiled. And only then will it "sound off" (rattle). The purpose of this bone-chilling sound (you'll know instinctively) is to warn off potential attackers. It really wants you to leave it alone.
In Oregon, the only dangerously poisonous reptile is the western rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis). We don't have any sidewinders, diamondbacks, or timber rattlers. The venom of the western rattlesnake isn't as toxic as many of the twenty-nine other species of rattlesnakes found in the Americas. It is made up of enzymes designed not only to kill the prey, but to aid in later digestion. The venom of Oregon rattlers is more hemotoxic than neurotoxic, affecting the blood and circulatory system rather than nerves.
There are two subspecies of the western rattlesnake: the northern Pacific (C. v. oreganus) and the Great Basin (C. v. lutosus). The latter is found throughout most of the Oregon Desert, the former being more probable in forested areas. According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the back of the Great Basin rattlesnake will have "relatively small, widely spaced oval blotches that are dark-edged." It will have a background color of light to golden tan. It will not have white rings on the tail. It is found in sagebrush country of northern Great Basin deserts.
The northern Pacific rattler displays "large, closely spaced, squarish blotches that are light-edged." The background color will be brown, gray, or olive greenish. It will have alternating black and white rings on the tail. It inhabits "rocky open woodlands of oak, pine, or juniper."
Shy and retiring types, Oregon rattlers are "moderately" sized (fear makes them appear much bigger in person, and they are always reported to be much, much bigger in the retelling), on average 2 to 3 feet long. Occasionally they reach 4, and very rarely, 5 feet in length. They are generally not found above 6,000 to 7,000 feet elevation.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife recommends that in the spring and fall, one try to avoid "open, south-facing, dry rocky areas" because the snakes sometime congregate in communal denning sites (to keep warm).
In Oregon, the gopher snake mimics some of the posture, blotching, and sound of the rattler (it works for them, even though they have no rattles).
More people die in the United States each year from lightning strikes and bee stings than from rattlesnakes. Your chances of dying are many magnitudes greater driving to and from the desert than from being bitten. In the extremely unlikely event that you are bitten, your chances of survival are very good. Bites to the head and torso are more serious (and more rare) than those to the extremities. Modern transport to modern medical care means an extremely high chance of survival.
Americans receive forty-five thousand reptile (snakes and lizards) bites a year, eight thousand of which are envenomations (venom injected), but there are only five to twelve deaths per year. Sixty percent of the venomous bites are from rattlesnakes.
If the rattler does bite, it often first does a mock bite (mouth closed), often followed by a dry bite (no venom). A rattler can only strike from one-third to one-half the length of its body. The fangs approach at 6 to 10 feet per second.
If you are bitten (and venom is injected), you'll feel immediate pain at the bite site and experience massive bruising and internal hemorrhaging. There will be some permanent tissue damage.
If you are bitten, follow the guidelines below:
1. Remain calm.
3. Get to a medical facility as soon as possible (if the bite is serious enough, you might receive antivenin, but the medics will definitely treat your symptoms).
2. Suck the venom out with your mouth (even if you're the one that's been bitten).
3. Ice the bite.
4. Elevate the bite above the heart.
5. Use tourniquet or pressure dressing.
6. Incise the bite site.
If you need to walk out (imperative if you are alone), severe manifestations of poisoning may not occur for several hours, so you can calmly walk out.
According to the Wilderness Medical Society, the only scientifically proven method for extracting venom from a bite site is with the Extractor® device by Sawyer Products. Tests in animals have shown that 30 percent of the venom can be removed, if done within 3 minutes of bite.
Rattlesnakes have much more to fear from humans than we from them. They are subject to relentless persecution through organized "round-ups," road kill (snakes are the only animals that evoke the "swerve to hit" response), and habitat destruction (development, farming, chemicals, and so forth). A poor snake doesn't have a chance against a determined attack by humans, be it with firearms, shovels, clubs, or vehicles.
Humans, not rattlesnakes, are the wanton killers.
The data are clear; you've little to fear. Your chances of being bit—such that they are—are much greater if you are male, in your twenties, and intoxicated. Why? Because a significant portion of this cohort thinks their penis size increases by harassing rattlesnakes. Silly boys. That's only (possibly) true if the harasser is naked.
In the herpetological world, bites are quaintly classified as "legitimate" (accidental) and "illegitimate" (harassing).
If you are lucky enough to encounter a rattlesnake, withdraw to a respectful distance and enjoy it respectfully.