Monday, October 15, 2007

Canebrake Rattlesnake: Long Distance Swimmer

On a recent trip to Lake Oconee, my husband Walt and son Justin were escorting me in a pontoon boat as I was sculling from the Redlands Wildlife Management Area boat ramp to the Old Salem Park. The first section of this trip takes me through a sunken forest on the east shore of the lake. The pontoon boat can’t follow me through this area so Walt and Justin cross the lake and travel along western shore to meet me at the railway bridge from which point we can travel together.

Normally the pontoon boat makes its way slowly but deliberately from the boat ramp to the railway bridge. This day, however, the pontoon boat was not where I expected to see it. I looked back up the lake along the route they would take and could see the boat making its way back and forth along a short section of shore. Only later did Walt and Justin explain what they were doing – with pictures to prove it.

As they were making their way through the area marked by the arrow, they saw a snake swimming purposefully across the lake. It was approximately one-quarter way across the lake when they spotted it and there was no doubt that it was a rattlesnake.

As the boat approached cautiously, the snake turned, assumed a more defensive pose and raised its head out of the water to face the intruder. When the boat was about 6 feet (2 meters) from the snake, it coiled into a striking pose. In both of these photographs, the ripples from the motion of the rattle are clearly visible on the water surface. When the boat retreated, the snake continued its way across the lake. Based on the brown stripe running down its back, they identified the snake as a canebrake rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus atricaudatus).


Canebrake rattlesnakes inhabit flood plains and swampy areas; their cousins, the timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus horridus) tend to inhabit drier forests. These rattlesnakes are not aggressive by nature. I’ve heard of other encounters and have wrangled both baby and adult canebrake rattlesnakes while they were photographed. These snakes showed no aggressive tendencies; they showed little tendency to coil or to threaten or strike even when they were corralled for a considerable length of time.

hese snakes are currently common in Georgia but are subject to being killed on roads particularly in the vicinity of homes in rural areas. I have seen many killed on roads in rural areas. In some cases, these snakes were not killed ‘accidentally’ but, based on where the carcasses were located, motorists had deliberately driven out of the normal traffic lanes to run over them. As development encroaches on rural areas, habitats in which these snakes live will be destroyed. More frequent encounters can be anticipated between man and snake as rural areas are increasingly developed. These encounters will inevitably result in an increased reduction in their numbers over time.

What is most intriguing about this encounter, however, is that the snake was not simply swimming along the shore; it was swimming quite deliberately across the lake. After the encounter, the snake continued on its way - in the direction it was going when first sighted. How did the snake know that there was something on the other side to swim to? Had it swum from the other side to this side? Was it on its way back? Did it make this journey frequently?

Photographs: Walter W. Knapp; Maps: Google maps

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Long Row: 2007 (Epilog for the Sculler)

If you look at rowing schedules, the long rows – Head races and marathons – are scheduled late in the fall, October or November. There’s a good reason for this. The weather is cooler and safer for a long row.

This trip - 11 miles - is longer than the average Head race; most Head races are about 3 miles long. But it’s far shorter than marathon rows that are 26.2 miles long. All of these require endurance, and endurance only comes from practice and determination. There are some distinct challenges to consider when undertaking a long trip.

Sculling is a continuous, repetitive, motion mile after mile after mile. Technically it’s catch, drive, finish, recovery, catch, drive, finish, and recovery… The only rest comes during the recovery and this doesn’t last very long. So heat buildup and fatigue can be a problem.

Weather is always a concern for this trip. I sculled this route first in 2005 on Veteran’s Day in a light drizzle. It was a little cool – I found out afterwards that it was 46F - but almost perfect for sculling a long distance. Not much chance of overheating. But it was important to dress for it. I wore long tights, which kept my leg muscles from cooling down too much. I wore layers on top: a T-shirt, a long-sleeved synthetic top and a sleeveless fleece vest. Since this was my first trip on this route and it was my first venture through the sunken forest, I wore a personal floatation device as well. The weather didn’t clear up during the trip and became windy through the last section so temperature didn’t become an issue. I didn’t notice the cold or the drizzle because I was insulated from it. The most unpleasant part of the trip, temperature-wise, was the trip back to the boat ramp on the pontoon boat.

In 2006, I moved the trip forward to late October. This was cool, also fine for sculling but still too cold on the pontoon boat on the trip back up the lake.

So this year, I decided to make the trip earlier in early October mainly so that the trip back to the boat ramp would be somewhat more pleasant. The weather prediction was for scattered showers; high temperatures in the low 80sF, and an ENE wind of 10 mph. Temperatures in the low 80sF are not a problem particularly if it is cloudy. Since I row the east shore of the lake, I knew I would not have to contend with windy conditions. So it seemed that the conditions would be good. I would be able to make the trip in shorts and a T-shirt.

As we arrived at the lake, however, the clouds cleared and the sun came out. Sun is a distinct problem for me for long-distance rowing; I absorb a lot of heat from the sun and tend to overheat. To add insult to injury, the atmosphere was also quite humid, much more so than I had expected. I could have wished for a breeze from the west. The only relief from the heat and humidity came when I passed across the mouth of an inlet. I would get a couple of minutes of breeze that would cool me a little – then back into the humidity. As I crossed the lake to the GA-44 bridge, it had clouded up and there was quite a breeze from the inlet to the east. But once under the bridge it was humid again.

I guess it’s a little like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” Either too hot or too cold – not very often, just right!

I don’t row for speed but for distance; it’s different if you’re racing. One of the secrets to successfully complete a long row is to pace oneself. Too much energy expended at the outset results in not enough energy at the end. Good technique is important, minimizing unnecessary energy output. I always adopt a slow stroke rate and make sure that my legs are doing the work, avoiding unnecessary strain on the lower back and using my arms too much. This helps to maximize the distance I can row and minimize injury.

The one challenge that is difficult to overcome is the fact that the sculler is a prisoner of the scull. You can’t get off and stretch, take a break. Well if can if you want to or there’s a place to do. But once I row under the railway bridge at the beginning of the row, there are only a couple of easy places to land and before I reach the end of the route. And I’m not ready for a break when I pass them. It’s not easy to shift on the seat so my rear end become quite uncomfortable after about 10 miles. I’ve tried some padding but it becomes almost as hard from compression after a while. Really need to try something that has some give. A slightly inflatable seat pad that has some gives over a long period of time. Is there such a thing?

My hands are the other victims of this row. And no, I don’t grip the oar handles; I hook my fingers loosely over the handles as we are taught. I do have calluses, however, from sculling week after week and have a tendency to develop blisters by compressing softer skin against them with the prolonged sculling. I have tried using gloves but don’t like the lack of feel with them. Maybe some tape next time. Any other ideas?

Other supplies that is essential for the trip. These include a wide-billed cap or hat; sunglasses, sunscreen (SPF-15 or greater and applied liberally, particularly on the nose and ears), plenty of water (obviously more than one bottle unless you have a convenient escort boat), snacks.

As I was preparing for the trip this year, I often thought of Roz Savages recent adventures attempting to row the Pacific Ocean. I’m an avid follower of her efforts. Knowing the challenge of just rowing 11 miles in one trip, I am in awe of her goal to row from California to Australia even if she does plan to take a break in Hawaii. While I would love to take a really long sculling trip, I can’t quite imagine rowing 12 hours a day, day after day.

I do know that there is one area in which I can beat Roz hands down though. On her recent attempt to row the Pacific Ocean, it was Day 8 before she talked about “wondering what she was doing out there.” Well Roz, I can top that. I was wondering what I was doing out there within 30 minutes of leaving the boat ramp. :-)

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Long Row: 2007 (Part 3)

The last section of the row is not long in distance but quite a challenge. By this time I’ve been sculling about 2 hours. I’m tired, my hands hurt, and my rear end hurts. So although it’s only about a mile to the end of the trip, it takes a lot of determination to keep going.

When I first rowed this route in 2005, I planned to work along the shore past the mansion, cross the inlet, work my way down the shore and along the causeway to the GA-44 bridge, under the bridge, across the inlet just south of the bridge, and then along the shore and behind the island to the beach at the north end of the Old Salem Park. However, when I started down the undeveloped shore towards the mansion, Walt suggested that I just row directly across the open lake to the bridge. I did that in 2005 and have done it each year since.

As I started out across the lake, I was surprised that the water was so calm. I had always remembere
d this section as being rough and choppy. But this day it wasn’t. I got about a third of the way across when the water suddenly became very choppy (6). Then I remembered. The first part of this crossing is in the lea of the land. Then I get far enough into the open to enter the area of the lake that has been made choppy by the wind coming down the inlet. It’s quite a challenge to cross this section. The danger is that the oar tips will catch the chop and capsize the boat.

Half way across this section, dehydration caught up with me too. I had taken one bottle of water with me and finished it about half way through the trip. Though I could make it without any more. However, thirst became an issue. So Justin brought the pontoon boat over. This is a tricky maneuver because of the distance that the rigger and oar extend beyond the boat. You can’t just bring the boats alongside each other as you might do with a canoe or kayak. It took two tries but Walt was able to get me a bottle of water in a net on a long pole. A quick drink and then off again...
Catch, Drive, Finish, Recovery-2-3...
Catch, Drive, Finish, Recovery-2-3...

I completed the trip to the bridge, lined up center span, and rowed under the bridge. This also has to be done carefully when power is being generated. I cleared the bridge and angled off towards the shore.

Walt had started to take photographs again but he wasn’t photographing me. He was aiming the lens out in front of me. I turned and decided to stop (7). It was an unusual sight. A flock of five to six cormorants swimming together. Cormorants are usually loners; it’s rare to see them in groups. Most of them flew off except for two which appeared to be a pair. They lingered for several minutes before they, too, decided to take to the air.

I set off again. I would rather have not rowed another stroke but the only way to get to the beach was to keep going. It’s a pity that I’m so tired at this point. This last short stretch, about half a mile, is normally in smooth water – a joy to row in – and quite pretty. It would be great to be really able to enjoy it fully. At last, I did reach the b
each. Another trip successfully completed!

Photographs: Walter W. Knapp
Maps: Google maps

The Long Row: 2007 (Part 2)

Section 2 is a long open stretch down to “the mansion,” the point at which the end is figuratively in sight. Psychologically, this is the most difficult phase of the trip. It’s not boring; there are many points of interest along the way. Mentally, I break the trip into sections of shoreline broken by inlets and characterized by undeveloped shoreline and sections lined with houses, docks, and boats.

After leaving the I-20 bridge, the route takes me along an undeveloped stretch of shoreline with several small inlets. Then I round a point to arrive at Park's Ferry Park which has several picnic areas, a campground, a beach (2), and a boat ramp. Normally there’s a lot of activity at this park. Last Friday, however, the park was empty. The only inhabitants in view were a flock of Canada geese, most of which were sleeping in the sun.

The shoreline of the next section is level ground lined with lakefront cottages. Most of these are older and nestled among trees that provide lots of shade in the summer. Occasionally, houses of modern design have been built among the older houses. Lawns are meticulously manicured and frequent plantings of cannas or elephant ears (Colocasia sp.) flourish at the waters edge. In addition to the varied architectural designs of the houses, there are a fascinating variety of boat dock styles with colored canopies as well as boats – power boats, pontoon boats, and numerous jet skis. Some docks are intended only to provide protection for boats. Others have a spacious deck with chairs, umbrellas, planters, and the occasional grill.

Following the next inlet, the shoreline rises to a bluff that has only been developed in the last five years or so. It’s not possible to see more than a glimpse the houses from the water. The main points of interest along this shore, in addition to the docks, are the stairs or driveways from the bluff down to the water. Some houses have a zigzag path down to the dock; others have stairways that go straight up the cliff with either uninterrupted stair treads or with periodic landings that break up the monotony of the climb or descent.

The next section of shoreline rises from the water up a hill to houses on a ridge (3). These are older cottages with docks. With one exception, the lawns are meticulously mown. The owner of the standout has maintained the area between the house and the water in its wild state of grasses and wildflowers. Only a wide winding path has been mown down to the water. I always wonder what the neighbours think of this wild front yard. Many probably regard it as an “eye-sore” and weed ridden but it’s somewhat refreshing to see some of the shoreline in its native state. I look forward to seeing this property. I’m sure I’ll be very disappointed someday to find that it’s joined its neighbours as a manicured lawn.

Another inlet. Then a short section of undeveloped shoreline with pinewoods right to the waters edge. Another inlet. Another short section of undeveloped woods up to the edge of the Reynolds Landing (formerly Port Armor) Golf Course (4). I always hope golfers are out on the green that runs along the waterfront. This hole is challenging. The fairway runs from south to north; the hole is next to the woods and there is a small inlet between the fairway and the hole. Not much room for error. Hook the shot to the left and your ball will be in the water. If the shot is short, the ball will end up in the inlet. Not a fun hole. However, I’ve seen many golfers playing this hole and not seen any balls end up in the water.

Past another small inlet and on to the final section down to “the mansion.” The mansion (5) is an enormous house that appears to be made of sandstone. It has verandahs and a wide staircase that descends as a single staircase and then splits into two to descend to the lawn level. There’s a pool, a pool house, and a dock. It sits on a point at the inlet . This marks the psychological end of the second section. On to section 3…

Photographs: Walter W. Knapp
Maps: Google maps

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Long Row: 2007 (Part 1)

Last Friday I rowed my annual "Long Row" on Lake Oconee - the third year I've rowed it. It's an 11-mile trip south from the boat ramp at the Redlands Wildlife Management Area to the Old Salem Park. For me, it's a trip in three parts: the first section is from the boat ramp to the I-20 bridge, the second is the long stretch from the I-20 bridge to "the mansion," and the final section is from the mansion to the park.

What I'd really like to do is row a marathon. Not sure I'll ever row one but wanted to at least get a feel for something longer than my regular 5- to 6-mile circular circuit around a local lake near home. Lake Oconee offers a longer, straighter course to test endurance.

My husband, Walt, and son, Justin, escort me on our pontoon boat. They take the photographs, run interference to protect me from other boat traffic on the lake, carry the shell and me back up the lake and bring the 'goodies' to eat on the way back to the boat ramp. This trip wouldn't be possible without their help. Take a bow, guys!

Lake Oconee is a reservoir. When the valley was flooded, some large areas of woods were not harvested. These offer good fishing areas. Perhaps it was thought that the trunks would rot with time, but they didn't. In fact, wood is preserved
remarkably well under water. Remember, too, that I'm working with another challenge. I'm rowing (sculling); I'm traveling with my back to the direction I'm going.

So when I leave the boat ramp, I'm immediately confronted with two large fields of these sunken forests (1a and 1b). This is the most nerve-wracking section of the trip. I have to keep turning my head to make sure that I'm not going to collide with an obstacle without losing balance and ending up unceremoniously in the water. Makes for slow going and a stiff neck before too long.

This section was made even more challenging this year by the fact that the lake level was some 12"-18" lower than normal owing to a year-long drought. It took almost an hour to pick my way along the shore to the causeway that leads out to the first bridge, a railway bridge, over the lake. In the last 300 meters before I reached the causeway, I was embedding my port oar gently in the soft sand on the shore to propel myself forward. Once to the causeway, it's a forest-free trip. Phew!

When I get to the railway bridge, I have to row out to the wide spans to cross under. My "wing-span" - oar tip to oar tip - is too wide to be able to row through the end spans. At this point, it's always interesting to see what's happening with the water flow in the lake. Hydropower is generated from the lake's water. If the generators are active, the downstream current is obvious by the flow of water around the bridge pylons. Last Friday, they were generating power. From here, it's a straight run down the lake to the I-20 bridge, under the bridge and on to section 2...

Photographs: Walter W. Knapp
Maps: Google maps