By Bob Cheney
Well, what is there about them you can say that is positive? How can anybody trust a creature that is born without arms or legs and smells with its tongue? Obviously, you can see I dislike snakes! For me, they just don’t seem a part of the natural order of things without the usual appendages. A friend of mine suggested that I write down some of my encounters with snakes I experienced when I was exploring the Amazon basin and the western slopes of the Andes looking for gold and I guess my first brush with mortality from serpents came about as Eddie and I were walking into Puerto Napo from camp one day. The trail bordered the Napo River on the south side and we were making pretty good time on the twelve-mile walk. The ground was slippery as it always was from the continual wetness of the vegetation and we were always in danger of losing our footing. Walking, as it were, consisted of articulating a series of slips and slides and occasional falls. Well, Eddie was in front of me when all of a sudden he fell backwards.
Thinking he tripped, I caught him under his shoulders and helped him to regain his footing, but he instantly fell backwards again and there right in front of him in the middle of the trail was a snake, half coiled and half erect and ready to strike! I had almost pushed Eddie into the snakes’ fangs! Close! Eddie shot the snake from a safe distance. We had other encounters with snakes on the eastern slopes, but most of them were on the west side of the Andes. The first occurred when I stooped over to enter a family dwelling in the village of La Concordia on the Cayapas River. We had been canoeing upriver all day and it was time to set up camp for the night. Our guide made arrangements for our accommodations to spend the night for a few cans of Tuna Fish and a pound of coffee. Barter was the preferred method of payment once you were out of civilization. We walked into the house made of Bamboo and a hardwood called “Chonta Duro”. I have never been able to translate it into English except for the “Duro” part, which means “Hard”. A log of this wood has a very fibrous core that can be burned out to form a pipe of sorts. We were to use it to bring fresh water into our camp for washing and cooking. It can further be split lengthwise to form a very durable flooring. It cannot be cut easily with a machete or axe and resists the saw on crosswise cuts. The blade of an ax will simply skip off of the wood, but I digress.
We sat on the floor eating supper and during the meal I glanced at the rest of the construction. They used the “Chonta Duro” logs as roofing timbers and as I followed one timber from the edge of the roof to the lodge pole, I saw something in the shadows that I couldn’t quite make out, so I took out my flashlight and shone it right smack in the face of a fourteen foot Boa Constrictor! Our guide explained that this was a normal household pet to keep down the rat population. That night I slept comfortably in my sleeping bag outside on the ground. Our camp upriver was built on a small plateau on a hillside and was made of Bamboo and Chonta Duro timbers. We built it at ground level, as we were sixty feet above the surface of the river. The walls were only three feet high leaving a wide gap between the wall and the roof for ventilation. One morning, I had just awakened and was getting ready to get up when, BANG! Wally had shot a snake off of the top of the wall not three feet from my head! When I looked over the edge of the wall, the headless body of Beige, Brown and Black four foot Fer-de-Lance Pit Viper was sprawled lifeless on the ground. This snake is one of the most dangerous of all the snakes in South America for it is aggressive and will strike without warning. Thanks Wally! Another time, I was getting ready to walk out of the door of the our “House” and as I was crossing the threshold, I saw a large three foot bright orange snake crawling on the top of the wall. Another Pit Viper! I grabbed a machete and killed it! The last really good story again had Eddie and I as the centerpieces.
It was on a Sunday, and we decided to go fishing. Now in the middle of the jungle, this is not a sporting event for we used sticks of dynamite to do the fishing for us. Those of you that have qualms about this just have never been hungry! We grabbed several sticks of dynamite, caps and fuse and set off in our motor canoe upriver. The Canoe was made from a forty-foot hollowed out tree with wood planks added to the gunwales and a transom add-on for a forty-horsepower Evinrude, which I had had shipped from the States. Balsa logs added to the outside of the canoe at the waterline gave added stability. We named it the Nueva Esperanza or New Hope for good luck! I ran the canoe upriver about half a mile and beached the bow on a sandbar. We had fished this area before with good results. Eddie was sitting on one of the plank seats and getting the Dynamite ready. We were using two sticks as we were over a deep pool of water. Eddie lit the fuse on the first charge and I leaned back on the Evinrude to watch the results. After about a minute, we decided the charge wasn’t going to explode and Eddie prepared another while I watched and made rude comments about him not being able to blow himself to Hell! The second charge followed with the same results and I watched as Eddie prepare a third. The rude comments started extending to his family lineage and as I watched, I saw something swimming across the river about two hundred feet away. I thought it might be an Otter and told Eddie what I was looking at when the object lifted its head clear of the water and looked right at us! I still couldn’t make it out but it suddenly changed direction and started swimming towards us. I watched for a few seconds and determined it was a large snake about eight feet long and told Eddie about it.
Eddie looked and put the dynamite down and started looking for something to use as a weapon. Meanwhile, the snake was coming directly right at us and as it got closer, I could see the arrogance in its yellow eyes! He swam right up to the canoe and started to work its body onto the Balsa sponson. The Son-of-a-Bitch wanted us for breakfast! Eddie had found a length of broken paddle in the bow and as he was walking back to the stern of the canoe, the snake popped his head over the gunwale! Eddie finally reached where the snake was and smacked him several times on the head, until at last; it succumbed and fell back into the river with his head and about two feet of his length sinking beneath the surface. Dead for sure! Eddie was so nervous that he asked me to fix the third charge, which I did. I lit the fuse and instead of throwing the dynamite, I placed it very gently in the water, alongside the canoe. I had not noticed that the motion of Eddie killing the snake had caused the canoe to shift its position and end up right on top of the unexploded four sticks of dynamite! My subconscious took it into account and that’s why I placed the charge alongside the canoe. Well, before I could say “Holy sh-t”, we were greeted with a loud, thunderous explosion that lifted the canoe, all forty feet of her, about a foot out of the water, and slammed us back into the river, opening up a crack in the hull running from the bow to the stern, and we started shipping water. The only way to keep us from sinking was to find something to fill in the crack and stop the water from coming in!
Eddie looked at me and I looked at Eddie. All we had were the clothes on our back! It must have been a pretty sight to see two naked men trying to keep from sinking! We finally stabilized the leak and headed back to camp naked, trying to figure out what we would tell the others when we came upon the body of the limp snake. Now, Eddie wanted to bring the snake into the canoe so he could skin it and use the skull for a hat decoration, and I told him in no uncertain terms that he was going to walk home if he brought the snake into the canoe, but I laughed that we could use the snakeskin for some Custom Business Cards. Eddie instead put the paddle under the loop of snake below water and carried the rest of the body on the paddle the rest of the way to camp. I turned the canoe around facing upriver and was preparing to land when two things happened.
First Wally, who was seventy-one, walked down the path to see if we had caught anything, and secondly, Eddie threw the snake in a sweeping motion so that it landed at Wally’s feet. The next thing you know, the snake started moving, he had only been stunned! Wally drew his machete and cut its head off. I never saw the old man move so fast! We found out later that the snake was another aggressive Pit Viper called the Bushmaster, also called an “Iki” by the locals. It was over eight feet long and had a diamond shaped gray and brown pattern like a Diamondback rattler and not one, but two sets of needle sharp fangs, one primary set in the front of the mouth and a second spare set in the rear.
And you ask me why I don’t like snakes, well, there’s several good reasons! I have other snake stories, but none of them are as interesting.
Written for Goodprint Ltd, providors of instant online business cards and matching stationery via their website http://www.goodprint.co.uk.
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