Morel … morel … morel … SNAKE!!!

Since 2009, my friend Pam and I have wandered into the woods each spring to hunt for morel mushrooms.

Morel 1080447 FB

There are two components, I think, to our seasonal addiction: First, the mushrooms are delicious. The English language has no adjective superlative enough to describe the smell and flavor of fresh morels sautéed in butter.

And second, they’re hard to find — and that makes it fun. Here. See if you can spot the morel:

Frontenac find the morel 1320008 BLOG

Plus … even if you know when and where to look, there are no guarantees. The first year Pam and I went out we had a vague idea of how to hunt, but found nothing. We sure enjoyed getting lost, though.

Our second excursion came in 2010, shortly after I got a scary health diagnosis. I still have the card Pam sent me: “I told my dear Uncle Elmer about your [thing] and he said, ‘That’s it! OK. I’ll tell you where the morels are.’” But in spite of the secret intel we still came home empty-handed.

It wasn’t until 2011 that we finally struck gold.

Pam and morel 1160108 BLOG

Then in 2012 we again saw nothing, and in 2013 we found fewer than a dozen.

Morel haul 1080484 FB

We were overdue for another bonanza, we figured, so we were hopeful this year when some friends reported harvesting four pounds (FOUR POUNDS!) near their Wisconsin farm. But let’s forget about the mushrooms for a minute.

The thing I love most about the annual morel hunt — apart from spending time with Pam — is simply being in the woods. I love the bright-green translucency of the new leaves, the softness of the forest floor, the fresh smell of the ferns …

Frontenac woods 1320120 BLOG

Frontenac ferns 1320175 FB

… and I love it when we stumble upon an unexpected find — like a patch of new prairie grass, some old coyote bones, or a tiny, delicate flower.

Frontenac prairie 1320089 BLOG

Pam coyote jaw Frontenac 1320145 BLOG

Frontenac vertebra 1320182 BLOG

Frontenac tiny flower 1320048 BLOG

It was exactly with this exploratory mindset that Pam and I split up for a bit. I headed into a dry creek bed at the bottom of a shallow ravine.

Frontenac dry creek 1320060 BLOG

As I was climbing back up the steep, rocky bank I spotted a weathered bone — and next to it, a hole. “Who lives in there?” I wondered.

Frontenac rattler den 1320061 BLOG

I continued a few more steps up the embankment before a sound froze me in my tracks. I’d heard it once before, in Mexico, and I knew it wasn’t good.

MP3 courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It took a moment for my eyes to find the source of the sound: It was a rattlesnake, in its coiled defensive position, hissing and shaking its tail furiously. It was literally right in front of me — within striking distance, only two strides away. The snake and I were having exactly the same reaction: “OHMYGOD, OHMYGOD, OHMYGOD!!!!”

A moment later I had somehow retreated 30 feet. My heart was pounding and my hands were shaking so hard I could barely hold my camera. But I managed to snap some shots of Mr. Rattler anyway:

Frontenac rattler close-up 1320068

Frontenac rattlesnake 1320067 FB

I’d heard of the timber rattlesnake, of course, but always thought they were a myth — a scaly, scary Sasquatch of the Prairie. In fact, in the early 1900s they were considered vermin and were practically exterminated. They’re now off the endangered species list but are still threatened.

(Other interesting facts from Wikipedia: “Potentially, this is one of North America’s most dangerous snakes, due to its long fangs, impressive size, and high venom yield. This is to some degree offset by its relatively mild disposition and long hibernation period.” Yay!)

Anyway … I was still a bit ashen by the time I reached Pam. But never mind that I’d almost died; Pam was exuberant. So was her dear Uncle Elmer, when I corresponded with him today. “I worked in the woods in rattlesnake country for many years and never encountered a timber rattler,” he wrote. “You were lucky to see and photograph one.”

With a bit of hindsight — and 100 miles’ distance from the snake — I’m inclined to agree.

Well, back to the mushrooms: We did find four of them, but only harvested two because the others were well past their prime. Seriously. Isn’t this the saddest mushroom you’ve ever seen?

Frontenac defunct morel 1320025 BLOG

But Pam and I weren’t disappointed. In fact, I’m considering this hunt a very special success because we found two new (super-secret) spots — and because we both survived.

And anyway … there’s always next year.


  1. What a great adventure! Now that it is over and you did not get bitten, of course. Plus there is always next year. Hope is a great companion. Thanks for sharing.

    • The more time (and distance) that separate me and that rattler, the luckier I feel, Pollyanna. You have lots of poisonous and venomous critters in your corner of the world, but they’re pretty rare in Minnesota — so it’s a good reminder of how fragile life can be, and how awesome and powerful nature can be. As you say so beautifully: Scary, but totally wonderful at the same time! xo

    • Well said, Tom. Seeing that snake was *definitely* “new and surprising”! In hindsight, I feel truly fortunate to have had the experience.

  2. Well as I was reading I knew the ending must be good as you wrote this. So happy you are safe! My mum had a similar encounter with a snake once in my childhood with a Puff Adder whilst she was taking down the washing in our backgarden. Can’t believe you managed to photograph it, wow, I think I would have been frozen. So brave!

    • A PUFF ADDER! Well … that really *is* a near-death experience, isn’t it? Wow.
      As for my photography of Mr. Snake: Please don’t be too impressed; it was only after I’d (involuntarily and pretty much instantly) retreated to a safe distance that it occurred to me to document the moment. It’s a good thing I did, too, because it’s actually helped identify the snake as a very rare Massasauga rattlesnake! Pretty neat, eh?

  3. As you (and the snake) said: Ohmygodohmygodohmygod! Not sure if even morels are worth dying for! As for the sound of the rattle, I must have watched too many Westerns in my impressionable youth because, even though I probably have always lived several thousand miles from the nearest rattler, I too find it an absolutely heart-stopping sound. Even via my computer. Phew. I hope those morels were *really* delicious!

    • Are you ready for the punch line, DB? I didn’t actually taste those morels; I left them with my friend Pam. But even so, I’m sure they were well worth the scare!
      Speaking of scares … how wonderful that you recognized the “rattler song.” I hereby declare you an honorary Californian!

  4. Your approach to hunting, and then appreciating the unexpected, is exactly the way we should all approach our adventures. So glad the snake was of a “gentle disposition.”

    • Such kind words, Paula — thank you! I’m also extremely relieved the snake was so laid-back (another example of how we should all approach our adventures, I think!). But I’m very honored you stopped by in the middle of your own travels, and wish YOU the best and happiest of continued adventures.

  5. Even the precioussss morels aren’t worth danger to my dear pal! Next year we’ll skirt Rattlesnake Bluff and try a nearby area we also found that snakes probably don’t frequent. And I promise you, I will have procured a little anti-venom emergency first aid kit for us to take, just in case! XOXO

    • You’re so sweet, Pam. If you bring the anti-venom kit, I’ll bring us each a pair of snake boots … and then we can go wherever we please! But no matter what: I’m already looking forward to next year. XOXO

  6. I am a friend of Pam’s — graduated from High School with her! There is never a dull moment at her house or in Frontenac!! I loved your story! I was very impressed that you got the picture of the snake as I know that I wouldn’t have even thought of it!!! (I’d be putting as much distance between me and Mr. Snake as possible! RUN!!!!) So sorry you didn’t find more morels… but as you say, there’s always next year!! Stay safe out there!! 🙂 Faye

    • How kind of you to stop by, Faye! You’re right that there’s never a dull moment at Chateau Frontenac — and it makes me delirious with joy to see Pam so happy! Although I’m seriously considering giving her snake boots for Christmas, now that I know she lives near Rattlesnake Canyon. Seriously. Did *you* ever encounter any when you were growing up? And how about morels? Got any favorite spots? (Sorry. I know it’s impolite to pump someone you’ve just met for information … but … MORELS. 🙂 In any case, thank you so much for your kind comment.

  7. Nicely done story. I’m glad you survived to tell it! Now about that violation of the Endangered Species Act by disturbing a threatened snake 😉 just kidding 🙂

    • “Disturbing a threatened snake,” Jeff? Really? I think it was the snake who disturbed ME! Ha ha. Well, thank you for keeping my indiscretion just between us. 🙂 And thank you especially for stopping by!

  8. Wow! I had no idea there was more than one kind of rattle snake- and that they exist outside of a desert…we don’t have snakes in Ireland since good old Paddy took care of them for us! 😉 I think I would have had a panic attack!! 😀 Amazing pics, thanks for sharing!

    • Ah, yes … good old Paddy! I’ve always wondered, Laura: In what model car was it that he drove the snakes out of Ireland? 🙂 All joking aside, thank you very much for your kind comment. And cheers to you from Minnesota, Land of 10,000 Snakes! 😀

  9. I love the way you told this story H. You are a master of telling feel-good stories that are smart and exciting.

    • I hope you never hear “that sound,” Julie — but it’s a good one to know, just in case! 😉

  10. What a neat story about that timber rattler! It’s remarkable to ponder the odds of having such a close encounter. The rattlers out here in the Pacific Northwest are on the other, dryer side of the Cascades and sagebrush country of the Columbia Plateau so having an awareness of them is an obvious, necessary consideration. But the Minnesota woods and a timber rattler presents a completely different type of scenario as far as preparedness for objective hazards! One of my nephews wants to be a herpetologist when he grows up and he’s constantly being bitten by snakes in his woodland explorations but he’s a smart young man and knows when it’s okay to risk getting chomped on and when to back down. He’ll enjoy hearing this story. I hope I can remember to tell him about it the next time he and I chat.

    • I am astounded by your nephew’s commitment, Jason. I can’t imagine risking — and even regularly incurring — snake bites for the sake of science! But I’m glad gutsy, selfless guys like him exist. If you remember to tell him about the timber rattler, tell him also that I think he’s amazing.

      PS: It’s good to know most of your rattlers are out in the sagebrush country. Although I haven’t been out your way in ages, I’m dying to get back out there for a hike in those beautiful lush temperate rainforests. It’s nice to know I could leave the snake boots behind, in favor of more camera gear. 🙂

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