My son, Matt, and I flew to St. Louis, Missouri Friday, drove to Carbendale, Illinois for lodging, and drove further to Shawnee National Forest Saturday and Sunday. Snake Road divides La Rue Swamp on one side, and Pine Bluff on the other, a unique ecological situation about 4.5 square miles in area. Each day, Matt and I walked the 2 1/2 mile or so length of gravel roadway and back, making forays into the swamp and up in the bluff, turning over stones and logs in search of snakes, lizards, frogs, and salamanders, finding many.
The Illinois Basin is the remnant of a Devonian inland sea--sort of a huge extension of the Gulf of Mexico, but the continents were not the same about 480 million years ago. They migrate about Earth's face by a process named plate tectonics. Pine Bluff is limestone, sedimentary deposits primarily from coral and shells, and you can stand back and imagine time layering 150 feet deep because it's right there before your eyes to take in and feel directly. The western cottonmouth photographed above we encountered on the roadway itself, but we found a couple of them in crevices high up on the bluff. Cottonmouths, which spend the summer in the swamp, cross the road, climb up into the bluff, and hibernate deep in crevices. They don't have this sort of opportunity elsewhere, but they don't hesitate to take it here. And thanks to the inland sea from almost 500 million years ago, no other place in the nation exists where western cottonmouths are so well adapted and abundant. This guy or gal I photographed on the road seemed about as eager to check us out as we were interested in he or she. We found two that had just left the swamp to cross the road for the bluff no sooner had the temperature peaked on Sunday with bright sun--which wasn't quite 60 degrees. It was chilly. But I haven't felt so liberated by losing myself thoroughly--finding myself again, really--in vistas by standing and seeing very long and deep into the bluff's greenery and feeling the space between me and the distant heights as if life permeated everything in the sunlight, haven't felt free this way for many years. The temperature in the 50's didn't feel forbidding at all.
This global village we live in and think is so important is like a small clearing in an immensely free forest.
About 35 species of snakes exist in Shawnee National Forest along snake road. My son has the list, but I'll spare naming each. 15 additional species of amphibians and reptiles are present (including the giant alligator snapping turtle). The frog photographed is a Blanchard's cricket, the red eft had the brownest back of any I've seen. We came upon two rough green snakes, a smooth Earth snake, western ribbon snake, and a tiny copperhead in addition to the western cottonmouths.
I once came upon a copperhead the same size as we found here on a sidewalk at Avaya Communication here in Basking Ridge, New Jersey where my wife works. It was 60 degrees out, the snake slow. I took out my credit card to push it out of the way and it slithered into ground cover along the building. Afraid the next guy would just step on it, I had no fear at all that it would snap at me.
The limestone bluffs of Pine Hill rise 150 feet above LaRue Swamp
Smooth earth snake
Western ribbon snake