Rattlesnake Cabin at Virginia’s Douthat State Park

It’s been a while since I blogged over here.  Lately I’ve been putting most of my efforts in the new Heritage Arts blog, but this one’s a little personal, so I’m posting it here.

This weekend I staged a group camping event at Douthat State Park for Heritage Arts.  It was rainy weekend, and turnout was low — just me, my youngest daughter Morgan, her fiancé Jack, and their loveable mutt Gobi.

On Saturday we decided to go on a hike.  I wanted to show them the old CCC fire cabin at Tuscarora Overlook where, over twenty years ago, my son and I had our infamous rattlesnake encounter.  For those of you who haven’t heard it, I’ve recounted the tale at the bottom of this post.

Tuscarora Overlook is where the cabin is located — see the red diamond?

I had no idea we were going to come so close to reenacting it.

It was around 11:30 when we headed out.  We expected rain from around 2 PM to 6 PM. The plan was to hike up in an hour, get down by 1:30 PM, and be in camp before the rain started.  But it had been two decades since since I made the hike, and I forgot how long and arduous it is.  We got the two-thirds point and the rain rolled in early.  Morgan is as good a hiker as anybody, but she wasn’t in the mood for a strenuous hike, and wasn’t thrilled about getting both her and the dog soaked to the bone.  She encouraged Jack and I to go on without her.  She would hike down with Gobi, get warm and dry in the van, have a snack, and read a book.

My first glimpse of the cabin in over twenty years!

Jack and I went on.  A steady rain rolled in, and we got soaked to the bone the same way my son and I had years before.  But we pressed on and made it to the top.  Neither the cabin nor the incredible view have changed a bit these last twenty years.  I encourage you to make this hike.  Here’s the official review from the state park website, and here’s a link to the review at Hiking Upward, complete with topo maps and such.

A friendly couple with their two dogs were eating lunch on the porch when we got there.

Douthat State Park has been voted one of America’s ten best state parks.  It’s the highest elevation state park in Virginia, which means you can sleep cool at Douthat even in the August doldrums.  But when you’re up on the mountain it’s a good idea to keep in mind that when the Steve “the Crocodile Hunter” Irwin wanted to catch rattlesnakes he came to Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.  He said, “This is one of the hottest spots I’ve ever been to in the entire world.  There’s rattlers everywhere!”

This rainy day picture does no justice to the view from the top.  On a clear day you get a breathtaking view.

 

 

 

The Rattler in the Cabin

My son and I have had many outdoor adventures over the years, most of them in the summer.  His mother and I split up when he was five, and he’d come out to spend a few weeks with me when school was out.  When he got older we expanded our adventures to include other times of the year and places in the world.  We’ve hiked Mt. Rokkō, done survival trips in WMAs, and much more.

One of our most memorable adventures was the infamous rattlesnake encounter in the cabin at the top of Tuscarora Overlook at Douthat State Park.  Robert was 14 or 15.  We got it into your heads that we were going to hike up to the cabin, settle in for the night, eat, play D&D and have a blast.

We set out with our packs in the afternoon.  About half-way up the two hour hike, a thunderstorm hit.  Lightning cracked, thunder boomed, tree limbs split and fell around us, and our nerves jangled.  Soaked to the skin, we made it to the cabin.  The wind blew the clouds away and view was spectacular.

In good spirits, we built a fire in the fireplace, stripped down to our underwear, and hung our clothes up to dry.  We got dinner made just as the sun started to set.  When our clothes were dry, we got dressed and started thinking about gaming.  I got up to get another stick to put on the fire and I heard a strange sound.

You don’t need to be an amateur naturalist to recognize that sound.  This particular knowledge is in your DNA.  I asked my son to shine his flashlight on the woodpile.  And when he did, there was the rattlesnake.

“Don’t move,” I said.

“Don’t worry about it,” he replied.

It was about three feet long with a head the size of an egg, and it was not happy.  Neither were we.  The cabin is small, way too small for two humans and a rattlesnake.

There was a six-foot piece of two-by-four standing in the other corner, not sure where it came from, but I grabbed and began to try and kill the snake.  I had never tried to harm any animal in a state park before, nor have I since.  Neither have I ever, before or since, wanted to see something die with that much urgency.  My heart has hammering in my chest.  Robert kept the light on it while I tried to kill it.  But the snake found a chink where the wall met the floor and slid in like spilled water on cobbles.

I looked at Robert and he looked at me.

“You wanna sleep in here with him tonight,” I asked, “or do you want to hike down in the dark?”

“I’ll start packing,” he said.

We packed up fast and began the long and dangerous hike down the mountain in the dark.  The trail is somewhat rocky in parts and slippery when wet.  But at night it’s downright treacherous.  We went slowly and carefully, keenly aware that if either of us broke an ankle, the other would have to hike to the ranger station in the dark.

We made it to the campground, pitched our tent, and had a fun night.  In the morning we went to the ranger station to let someone know about the rattler in the cabin.  I told the kindly ranger our story, and suggested that perhaps a warning should be posted.  He made some kind of comment about how folks should always be aware of the “critters on the mountain.”

My son and I turned to go.

“You know,” the ranger said, “even if you had killed it, it’s just as well you hiked down.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Rattlesnakes den in numbers up to a hundred.  You might’ve been killing ’em all night.”

 

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