Snake lovers hit Shawnee National Forest for reptilian migrations
else wanted to have anything to do with them.”
Snake Road now attracts visitors from across the country, said Chad Deaton, a Forest Service wildlife biologist. On a recent weekday afternoon, the visitors included a retired contractor from San Diego, a suburban Chicago father and his two young sons and a group of biology students and their professor from Eastern Illinois University. The surrounding research area is home to more than 1,200 species of plants and animals, including bobcats and bald eagles, and 35 kinds of snakes.
Overturning rocks, peeking into darkened dens or just strolling along the road, the hikers found a ringnecked hatchling small enough to fit in the palm of a hand and a red-backed salamander, as well as the less cuddly — and venomous — timber rattlesnake and cottonmouth water moccasin.
Snake Road is no Raiders of the Lost Ark — the snakes don’t dominate the landscape but instead blend into the natural environment. So patience is a virtue and, with all things Mother Nature, so is a bit of luck.
That said, warm and sunny days when the ground is adequately heated offer the best viewing conditions, according to Deaton, with late morning and late afternoon particularly good times of day.
Hoessle, who was hired by famed zoologist and Wild Kingdom TV host Marlin Perkins at the St. Louis Zoo, calls Snake Road an invaluable living classroom to help better understand the natural environment.
“They’re not cuddly like cats and dogs. You don’t get a lot of affection,” the former exotic pet store owner said, describing the reptilian aversion of many. “But it teaches you an appreciation for wildlife in general. This is a natural world. Man and beast have to live together.”
Retired St. Louis Zoo director Charles Hoessle, left, and U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist Chad Deaton prepare to peer into
a winter hibernating den on Snake Road. Below, Doug MacMillan of San Diego, Calif., with a young ring-necked snake.