Monday, June 18, 2012

Snakes in the Niagara Gorge

Who would have thought that the largest snake I ever saw in New York would be in the Niagara Gorge.  

Yesterday I went hiking with a friend from the SAR team down into the Gorge.  Yes, we hiked under the guise of "physical conditioning" and getting ready for the work-capacity test, but in a place that is wild and unique as the Gorge - it is the best design I've even seen for a gym.  

After descending the ailing Whirlpool stairs and making the rounds by the Flats we headed down the trail toward the old Great Gorge Railway stop in the rapids.  As an old hand in the area, I was leading the way and then something large moved on the ground just ahead of my feet. I stopped dead, then turned to Jamie, saying "look, it's a snake!" 

We both stared at the slithering snake sunning itself on a patch of open ground.  Its unblinking reptilian eyes stared back at the two hikers, probably wondering if they were going to hurt it.  It curled itself into an S, as I grabbed my camera and began taking pictures - what a crappy day to not bring the good camera.  

 The snake was thick around the middle and close to four feet in length.  Sure I've seen snakes that big on the southern Appalachian Trail and in Panama, but wow!  This surely wasn't the garter snakes that I usually see.  

Thoughts raced through my mind. Was this one of famed Timber Rattlers of the Gorge?  I thought they were extinct, but every now and then, somebody "sees" one.  Of course the head wasn't diamond shaped, nor did it have the famed tail that gives the Rattlesnake its name.  Maybe though, just maybe, this was a genetic variant...

Of course, it could be something totally different. 

 I snapped a few pictures as we thought about what we were seeing; the snake retreated into a fortress of bushes and rock.  We talked about it for the rest of the hike, postulating what species of snake this was.  

No rattle on the tail! 

When I got home, I blew up the picture on my laptop and began researching what kind of snake we saw.  I was leaning toward a large Milk Snake, surely the largest I ever observed and with non-traditional colorings.  But then, I matched up the pattern with the Northern Water Snake.  

Besides looking at several pictures online, I found a pdf of New York State snakes in the Conservationist quite helpful. 

Whether it is a Milk Snake or Northern Water Snake, these snakes do not pose a danger to humans.  Yes, if they were threatened, they would bite you and it would hurt.  However, you aren't going to have to run to the hospital for anti-venom.  

My advice for any kind of wildlife, is to watch it from a distance and wait for them to move - on their own terms. If you want to get close, buy a telephoto lens or go to the zoo.  
Anyone who is more knowledgeable than I about snakes, reptiles and the lot are free to correct my guess.  I welcome it, a thing learned about nature is always appreciated. 

If anyone is looking for great hiking in the Niagara Gorge, check out Hiking Trails Around Niagara Falls


  1. Milk snake which is a harmless non venomous colubrid. My source. I catch, study, and own snakes

  2. this past sunday, my girlfriend and i saw one of these snakes along the trail at the base of the gorge towards the whirlpool... it startled both of us (although i'm sure we startled it too!). thanks for the article!