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Snakes and Mother Bears: My Brief Stint as an Outdoor Educator

September 29, 2010

Here I am in the sixth decade of my life, feeling as if it’s still my first decade — an independent-minded tomboy trapped in a grown-up body.

When I was seven years old, I was the champion snake-catcher in the neighbourhood. To the chagrin of the boys, and my mother, I always caught the most snakes on our expeditions to a vacant field that ran between the Skylon Tower and Clifton Hill, in Niagara Falls.

I’d catch them, let them wriggle around in my arms, watch them flick their tongues, and let them go before the boys could do their awful boy-things to the creatures.

I suppose snake-catching is like riding a bicycle. When I explored an isolated Lake Ontario park, the Leslie Street Spit, with my then-dog Winter (the bestest dog that ever lived),and saw a huge garter snake making its way across the rocky beach, I caught it in no time, before my dog could do his awful doggie things to the creature.

Just as I caught the snake, I noticed a group of kids playing nearby. Six or seven girls, just under 10 years old. Now, this was an exceptionally large snake, the largest I’d ever caught, and I was kinda proud of that. So, I went over to the girls with this snake, a good three feet long, certain they’d be happy to check it out.

Well, before I could say much more than, “Hey, look at the snake I caught!” they commenced to shriek and run away.

“Oh, yeah,” I remembered, “Most girls are scared of snakes. Oops.” Winter was puzzled too. He glanced up at me, head cocked in stereotypical Border Collie pose, like: How could anyone not want to play with a snake?

Past the stumbling and screaming girls sat their mothers, who’d been relaxing further down the beach. High-pitched screeches of terror from the little ones had definitely caught the attention of these two sturdy women.

They stood in an instant, focused on me exactly the way they show you in nature films when mother bears sense someone near their cubs. Stiff-backed, heads cocked, eyes glaring, arms rigid. These were East End moms, too. Never something you want to tangle with.

The two mothers stormed over to me at a far-too-rapid pace. My first thought was to drop the snake and run.

But if I ran, Winter would have lunged for the snake, the true innocent in this debacle. Also, I would appear guilty if I ran, and they would surely catch me; these women looked like they could out-pace a grizzly as they ran across the beach head to me, now standing foolishly with some large rope-like object in my arms and an array of frightened children scattered before me.

I stood and waited to take my lumps.

“What the hell’s going on?” the head mother bear demanded. “What did you do to them?”

With less enthusiasm, I displayed my prize snake to the mothers. “I caught this snake. It’s a harmless garter snake. I thought times had changed and little girls aren’t so scared of snakes as they were when I was a kid. Sorry.”

Inadvertently, I’d touched a competitive nerve in the mothers. “My daughters aren’t afraid of snakes,” the head one asserted. “They just didn’t expect to see your snake, that’s all.”

She told her kids to come on over and prove they aren’t afraid of little harmless things like snakes. Not to be outdone, the second mother followed suit. Soon, all the girls had come close, to see the snake, prove their mothers right, and ask questions. Where do garter snakes live, what do they eat, what does their skin feel like?

Aside from catching the things, I’ve had no experience with garter snakes to speak of, but every single fact I’d ever heard or learned came to mind. If I didn’t act like some sort expert, the animal instincts of my nascent audience would have kicked in, and my ass would be grass.

Garter snakes eat insects, which is good. They like gardens and fields. They have no fangs and no poison. They shed their outer skin as they grow. There’s only one kind of poisonous snake in Ontario, and they don’t live around here. And so on.

It was not long before first one, then all, the girls touched the snake. On a dare, the bravest one let the snake’s tongue touch her arm. Her mom did a great job of pretending not to care.

For a few hours that day I was a snake-catcher, bear-charmer and outdoor educator.

I let the snake go on higher ground, while Winter had a swim.

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