Monday, March 10, 2014
By KEN ALLEN
Route 135 from the South Church in Belgrade descends fairly fast on rough pavement that eventually crosses Belgrade Stream, a speedy run on a bicycle.
In late April, while sailing across the bridge and looking straight down at the water, I said, "Holy cow!" and came to a screeching halt.
The largest northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon) in memory was swimming languidly upstream. This one sported a long, slender tail, a female and the larger of the two genders.
The male's tail ends more abruptly, a common trait with snakes.
According to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, a northern water snake can grow to 42 inches in length, making it a close third as the largest snake in the state behind -- surprisingly -- garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis). The record garter in Maine measured 44 inches.
Black racers (Coluber constrictor) rank as Maine's largest species and can measure 6 feet long, but they're also on Maine's endangered species list.
I have only seen two in this state, and that was at the same time 30 years ago. Both lived around Stan Foye's wood pile in East Pittston.
Spotting a northern water snake excites me -- like seeing a moose or deer -- but this snake is more unusual than those two mammals.
For starters, before 2002, not a single northern water snake caught my eye for at least 20 years.
Since then, I have spotted several in the Belgrade Lakes, while poking around waterways or surprisingly when bicycling of all things. The road might pass a low, marshy waterway, usually Belgrade Stream or one of its tributaries, and there slithers or coils old sipedon.
If my experiences count as an indicator, northern water snakes are coming back in the Belgrade Lakes.
This is good news. This snake's absolute intolerance to pollution makes it a great indicator species.
During my childhood, northern water snakes proved common enough, but in my opinion, their aggressive behavior encouraged folks to kill them in those less enlightened times.
Even today, problems exist. While bicycling on the Wings Mills Road two summers ago, I noticed a dead northern water snake, lying beside the pavement next to a wetland. Someone had whacked its head off. I understand this behavior but disapprove, reminding me of a story:
When I was 7 years old, my father took me fishing on Togus Pond bridge on Route 105. While I was casting from a low spot next to the water, a northern water snake came onto the bank and "chased" me.
My immediate instinct proved fatal for the snake. I grabbed a steel shovel from our truck body and chopped the poor creature into four pieces, enraging my father. He had preached to avoid killing anything we didn't eat.
He also pooh-poohed my attack theory and said the snake had headed up the bank, unaware of me.
Back then, my father's attitude ran against my Sunday Bible school teacher. She said that in Genesis, the word was this: "Humans have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."
In short, no snake was going to chase me, but hey, I was just a dumb, aggressive kid who had misinterpreted the Bible.
Also, my father's theory about me standing in the snake's chosen path made sense, but four years ago on the Sheepscot River, a male northern water snake was swimming down the center of this tiny river. After spotting me fishing from the bank a few yards away, he looked at me hard for two or three seconds, made a 90-degree turn and chased me for several yards.
I was wearing gym shorts and sandals and remembered a long ago story that Dennis McNeish, a retired fisheries biologist from IFW, told me about being bitten by a water snake, a painful nip.
Another "snake story" strikes me as incredibly rare. A water snake chomped on a 10-year-old child's hand and then immediately wrapped its body around his forearm, creating the challenge of untangling a biting snake from an arm.
Such an incident gives folks with a snake phobia the creeps.
This species may be non-venomous but leaves an anti-coagulate in the wound, an aid in killing small creatures such as frogs and mice.
By the way, instead of anger at the snake on the Sheepscot, the incident struck me as humorous that a yard-long creature could send a 6-foot-plus man packing, ignominiously dragging a fly line behind.
Ken Allen, of Belgrade Lakes, is a writer, editor and photographer. Contact him at: