Part One: Intense ‘Intensive’ in Snake Country; Hanover High Students Share Trip Memories
March Intensive: It’s not school, it’s more than that. During the third week in March, Hanover High School students leave traditional academia and get a snippet of what a real career looks like. The program is not job shadowing, because it’s a hands-on, immersive experience that sometimes unveils a student’s unknown passion, which could lead to a potential academic path.
As seniors, this was our fourth and final March Intensive. Beginning in our freshman year, we have been a part of beekeeping, a capella workshops, dance instructions, stock market education (in New York City), wilderness medicine, and global warming studies, to name a few. The school’s selection system gives seniors first pick of courses. This year, we took March Intensive to the next level.
“The Rattlesnakes of Southern Georgia” intensive coalesced when author, naturalist and Hanover High parent Ted Levin coordinated with environmental science and chemistry teacher Jeannie Kornfeld, for a field study of reptiles and amphibians in Blue Ridge Mountains of northeastern Georgia and longleaf pine flatwoods of southern Georgia. Through Ted’s travels and research for an upcoming book on the timber rattlesnake, he met Dr. Christopher Jenkins, executive director of the Orianne Society, the world’s largest nonprofit organization devoted to the conservation of imperiled reptiles and amphibians and their dwindling habitat. The Orianne Society is based on the fringe of the southern Appalachian Mountains, in Clayton, Ga.
Coordinating with Chris, Ted and Jeannie shepherded March Intensive from conception to delivery. Eleven students, including Levin’s son, Jordy, a Hanover High junior, and our chaperones arrived at Atlanta International Airport early on the afternoon of March 18. We picked up our slick seven-passenger vans and drove two hours north to Clayton.
We arrived at 4 p.m., and were met by Chris, who introduced us to his staff and an array of captive reptiles on exhibit in the office. Two gopher tortoises, each half the size of a basketball, wandered around the office furniture, thumbing their plastrons against wooden floors. Chris handed us a pair of large indigo snakes, dark as night and well muscled. The raw power of the six-foot-long snake, its scaly, cable-like body curling between our fingers, was amazing. We also handled a Louisiana pine snake (one of the rarest vertebrates in North America — there could be less than 10 left in the wild), and saw a pygmy rattlesnake and a canebrake rattlesnake. Chris controlled both snakes with a homemade snake hook, the handle and stem of a golf putter welded to a hook. The canebrake, the coastal plain variety of the timber rattlesnake, was five feet long, thick as the sweet spot on a baseball bat, grayish with darker vertical chevrons bordered in white, and a orange dorsal stripe extending down the spine. As with all forms of timber rattlesnakes, its tail was velvet black.
Next, we went upstairs to see several more venomous snakes. Chris warned us “stay back” as he pulled out an Amazonian bushmaster, the largest, most venomous snake in the Western Hemisphere (this one was a baby, but no less dangerous). Next, an eastern diamondback rattlesnake. We watched in awe as our host easily maneuvered the venomous snakes with his snake hook. We also passed around a rough green snake, thin and luminous green, an arboreal snake that lives on caterpillars and other insects in the drapes of Spanish moss that festoon deciduous trees of the Deep South.
Later that afternoon, we drove from Orianne headquarters into the Blue Ridge, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Mountains, through the rain and mist and down muddy National Forest service roads. Stands of rhododendrons flanked the rushing streams and shouldered the rolling hills. Swollen tree buds expanded with the urgency of spring. This corner of Georgia gets over 80 inches of rain a year, more than any other region in the United States except the Pacific Northwest, and is the epicenter of salamander biodiversity in the world. Drenched by rain and startled by thunder, we hiked up a rocky trail, over logs, and then crossed a wild stream, cold water filling our shoes. Everything glistened — the trees, the rocks, the green rhododendron leaves that dripped on our heads and down our shirts. We followed the stream to the base of a towering waterfall and began our salamander hunt, rummaging through submerged leaves and sticks and in the debris that hemmed the rippling pools. We turned over woodland rocks and rolled over logs, always returning the rocks and logs as we had found them. The more daring group waded into the rushing stream, while the rest of us combed the waterlogged woods, rolling and turning, sifting through leaves.
“I found one, I found one!”
Boots and soggy sneakers splashed through the stream, as we began to crowd around the little spectacle, a six-inch, black-bellied salamander cradled in a classmate’s hands. The salamander squirmed and wriggled through our fingers. Its bright black eyes sparkled in the dripping, fading daylight, and its skin shone as dark as night. Our glimpse of the animal, however, was ephemeral. It swiftly slipped out of wet hands and vanished into the murky stream water. We continued the search, and our efforts proved fruitful. Further upstream, another student snatched a squirming Blue Ridge two-lined salamander. The amphibian was beige; two black stripes ran the length of its body. The feisty two-lined salamander jumped from hand to hand, student to student, clinging to clothing and boots. Its yellow-tinted tail curled, as its little legs crawled up a dripping raincoat sleeve.
We found several grey, two-inch-long salamanders, called Ocoee, hidden beneath stones in the burbling steam. Their small size and vigorous nature made it easy for them to elude our groping hands. After we successfully captured and released five or six salamanders, we decided that we had harassed them to the point of exhaustion. Then, Chris caught a five-inch-long seal salamander. After a last few peeks beneath the stream stones, we trekked to the vans. Along the way we continued to roll logs and peel the bark of rotting trees, but our luck had run dry (perhaps, the only thing in Clayton that was dry at that moment). We released the salamanders, harvesting only the memory of their majestic beauty.
Back at Orianne headquarters, we spent the night on the floor, sleeping beneath the venomous snakes (caged, of course). During the night, rattling of an annoyed snake occasionally awakened us. We slept with one eye open, but it was a memorable experience.
The next morning, we were up at sunrise. After breakfast, we piled into the vans, groggy and dirty from lack of showers, not exactly ready for a hike. But, after 20 minutes of testing our rental mini-van’s suspension on old, dirt logging roads, we arrived at our next destination, 4,500 feet in the heart of the Blue Ridge. We crawled out of the vans and gathered on orange soil. Chris, waiting with plastic box and snake hook, welcomed us to the Nantahala Mountains, named by the Cherokees for the soil and seemingly endless mountains and valleys. He explained that the mountain range supports a huge variety of biodiversity — plants, salamanders, invertebrates and so forth — and that timber rattlesnakes were apex predators. He said the only way to fully experience this gorgeous snake was to see it in its own environment, not locked up in a zoo or an aquarium in his office. He wanted us to appreciate the snake’s full capability for camouflage and stealth. They are, said Chris, “a symbol of the few wild places we have left in eastern North America.” Then, he took the snake out of its cage, and the snake, for its part, delivered that otherworldly rattle, the sound that had punctured our sleep the night before.
Chris discussed the term ectotherm, or cold blooded. Unlike humans, snakes can’t regulate their own body temperature. They rely on the external temperature of the air and rocks to warm themselves. In spring, timber rattlesnakes are most active during the day, when the sun is out and the temperature is in the 60s and 70s. When it’s cooler out, they chill beneath rock awnings. During the summer, when the temperature is too hot, they’re active at night and sleep in the shade during the day. Very little, he said, is known about the thermal ecology of most species of ectotherms. Why, for instance, do they coil in particular spots? What is their optimal temperature for hunting? Mating? Shedding?
After our tutorial, we took to the trail, rushing through shaded woodland, slowing at spots where the sun filtered through the trees so we could bask snake-like in the building heat. Fifteen minutes down the trail, we found two American toads locked in amplexus, or embrace. The brick-red female was considerably larger than the gray male, and had chosen her mate based on the quality of his trill. He needed to be small enough so his vent would line up with hers; during the spawn (external fertilization) the male’s sperm fertilizes thousands of eggs, which she had exuded in a double strand nearly four-feet long that spiraled around the nursery pool.
When we reached the top of the mountain, the sun was out and the fog had cleared. Lines of rolling hills, one after the other, deep valleys with the familiar orange soil, as far as the eye could see. The sky was bright blue. Clouds absent. The day heated up, but it was still too cool for the rattlesnakes to emerge from their dens. Instead, we sunbathed on the unglaciated granite for a few minutes. Then, we had the choice of following the same trail back to the vans or bushwhacking down the cliff. Chris said that if we followed a small stream to our east, we would intersect the forest service road, where he and Jeannie and Ted would meet us. Duh! We chose the trek. Our student leader guided us safely down the rocky ridge and through the brambles. We arrived at the road, our legs lacerated.
Back at Orianne headquarters, we packed the vans and feasted on Subway sandwiches, and then embarked on a five-hour drive out of the mountains, across the piedmont, and into the coastal plain, through what was once an unbroken forest of longleaf pine, fire prone and fire dependant. Our destination: the Orianne Society’s Indigo Snake Preserve in Jacksonville, Ga.
Once we had unpacked and eaten our fill of pizza, we went out for a late-night exploration of the nearby pools and swamps, mindful of seeing a water moccasin. We sat on two planks across the bed of Chris’ black Toyota Tundra. Chris led in his golf cart; Ted drove the truck; and together we entered into the depths of the Orianne woods.
Our first stop was for a shuffling armadillo along the side of the road. After a few failed attempts to capture it, we walked into a nearby swamp. A tiny squirrel treefrog hunched across a horizontal vine, lit by a flashlight beam. All around us were a chorus of southern leopard frogs, spring peepers, chorus frogs, green frogs and American toads. Dylan, one of Chris’ graduate students, spotted two ruby eyes shining just above the blackwater swamp. Dylan walked slowly toward them, bent down, and in one fluid motion scooped up a three-foot alligator. The ‘gator put up a good fight as Dylan struggled to walk out of the swamp. At times, Dylan appeared to be losing, his grip slipping, the squirming alligator about to wiggle free. He reassured us, “This ain’t my first rodeo!”
Dylan placed the gator on the road, restrained its head, and we took a closer look.
He estimated that the animal was two or three years old. Our fingers caressed the rough torso, flexible and leathery. The alligator, with unbridled energy and strength, grinned back, its toothy mouth waiting for an absent-minded finger. After we took pictures of our new friend, Dylan returned it to the swamp.
Farther down the muddy road, our next destination was a collection of muddy logs. Chris had been told that adult spotted salamanders lived under the logs, another opportunity not to be passed up. Our second flipped log revealed a marbled salamander, four inches long, black and white, and neatly coiled. Very rare in northern New England, marbled salamanders are quite common on the coastal plain. They spawn in the fall and their tadpoles metamorphosed in the summer. It was strikingly gorgeous.
Nearby, Dylan found an unknown tadpole so young and transparent that we saw its coiled guts and beating heart. Another pool held a dozen spotted salamander egg cases, green with symbiotic algae. (The embryos provide nutrients for the algae and algae provide oxygen and camouflage for the embryos.) Tired and overflowing with exciting, amphibious discoveries, we returned to the truck and the windy, bumpy ride home to the dormitory, serenaded by a mixed chorus of frogs, whippoorwills and a barred owl.
Part II will appear on next Tuesday’s Education page.
ABOUT THIS STORY
This two-part story was written in a bunkhouse in a longleaf pine forest in southeast Georgia. Students divided into groups of two or three, and then members of each group collaborated on the details of one of the activities we experienced during our time with the Orianne Society. On the flight home from Atlanta, the various sections were collated chronologically and then edited for consistency of language and style. This multi-authored story is the combined effort of Hanover students Jenna Boillotat, Nick D’Orsi, Addison LaRock, Jordan Levin, Harangad Singh, Dan Slayton, Hannah Smith, Jessie Weiss, Oren Wilcox, Alexis Williams and Ziqi Zhang.