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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Be prepared for summer snake encounters

A friend spied some rattlers skulking around out Croy Canyon recently, and she asked me if she should go to Hailey’s St. Luke’s clinic for treatment, in the event that one was to strike out and bite her. In short, the answer is no, because the Hailey clinic is no longer an Urgent Care facility, and does not stock antivenin. However, St. Lukes Hospital a few miles south of Ketchum does carry rattlesnake antivenin and has treatment available at all hours.

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When traveling in the backcountry, far from hospitals, it’s a good idea to pack a first aid kit, and perhaps a snake-bite kit. A key point to remember when a snake sinks its fangs into you or a friend (or Man’s best friend) is to not panic or run, because an increased heart rate will speed the flow of venom in the circulatory system. Try to calm down and stay hydrated, but do get far enough from the snake so it won’t try to bite again. It’s important to identify the snake if possible, but use common sense and don’t try to catch the snake! Even if it is not a poisonous snake, you should cleanse the wound thoroughly, using warm water and antiseptic soap, before applying a snug dressing held by an elastic bandage. If feasible, carry the victim to the nearest available vehicle, before transporting him or her to the ambulance or hospital. If a rattlesnake bites you and you opt to drive to the hospital, rather than taking an ambulance; you would do well to call ahead, to tell them you are on the way, so staff can begin making preparations for your treatment.

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Occasionally some hardy westerners try to “cowboy up” after receiving snake bites, telling themselves that it’s not so bad, and they forgo any treatment. Later some come to regret this, as the area where they were bit, succumbs to a large amount of permanent tissue damage. Not only that, but since snakes subsist mainly on rodents, even non-poisonous snakes carry loads of filthy bacteria in their mouths; which with fang-bites can lead to terrible infections.

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Some other key points to remember are: Do not apply ice to the bite wound. This will not slow the venom flow. Also, do not use your mouth to suck out the venom. The accepted wisdom used to be to use a snake-bite kit to suction out the venom, but lately that’s been up for debate. Remove jewelry and other items which may constrict with swelling. A few years ago, a friend exploring in the remote Owyhee Desert had a rattlesnake bite his dog in the head, which started swelling to the point where he had to snip off his collar, before they could reach the vet.

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Some vital prevention tips regarding snakes are:

Snakes like to avoid the hot sun, by hiding under rocks or in crevasses. Stay away from reaching in there. When camping, zip up your tent the whole way, to keep snakes from squiggling in. Shake out shoes and clothes before dressing. Be a noisy walker to scare snakes away.

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Local lore has it that rattlesnakes are seldom seen above 5,500 feet. Although this may be a good rule of thumb, it’s not absolutely true, as snakes do not have altimeters built into their brains and depending on climate conditions, sometimes creep upwards to 7,000 feet and higher. Snakes sometimes seem to favor old abandoned mining operations.

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Much of this has been covered before in local newspapers, but it’s helpful to remind folks to be serpent-wary, with the plentiful amount of outdoorsy types constantly exploring here, during our high snake season.

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Once during a highway cleanup, Jim Banholzer got bit in the jeans by a lightning-quick rattlesnake, and he has been paying close attention to their interesting habits ever since.

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