Snakes Alive At Indian Steps


August 29, 1993|By MIKE BURNS

"I've waited 65 years to touch a snake, and now I've done it," boasted Sara, after gingerly stroking the wriggling, vinyl-like belly of a Burmese python at the Indian Steps Museum just over the Harford County line near Airville, Pa. "But I'm not in any hurry to do it again," she laughed.

Like most of the hundreds of visitors to the museum's copperhead hunt and reptile show last weekend, the York County woman was not enamored of serpents, viewing them with a mixture of distrust, awe and fear. But like others who normally cringe at the sight of a fleeing garter snake, she made up her mind to see what these mysterious creatures actually felt and looked like up close.

"It's a good thing for children, so they won't be afraid like us," she allowed. "Let them find out for themselves, instead of listening to us."

Petting a copperhead snake is not exactly a fun way to spend a glorious summer afternoon. So the guests of honor at this 33rd annual hunt were mostly stared at as they coiled separately against the stone wall of their pen. The two dozen people registered to hunt collected only nine frightened specimens during the day.

But one copperhead was more than 43 inches long, a granddaddy of the lot and a full half-foot longer than the typical large adult.

"That's a really big one compared to the snakes we've seen in recent years," said Dale Leiphart, of the Conservation Society of York County, which organized the event.

The August hunt continues more out of tradition than of necessity or active participation. It began in 1960 as a way to rid the area of copperheads, which hindered the development of homes along the riverine slopes. Some 200 hunters signed up that year, collecting almost as many snakes and destroying them.

Now, the slim snakes with chestnut-bands and glistening heads are caught and measured for the records, then released back where they were found. Pennsylvania enacted a law six years ago protecting copperheads (which give birth this time of year) and that has dampened interest in the hunt.

Like most snakes, the copperhead prefers to avoid humans but the unwary footstep can threaten it and prompt a protective strike. Its bite is not lethal but can cause severe distress. Shock from the bite is a greater danger than the venom itself. Related to the water moccasin, the copperhead is one of a large family of pit vipers.

Pythons and boas and king snakes were in prominent display at Indian Steps. A dozen exhibitors offered their specimens as much for public explanation as for sale. People were encouraged to touch them, and to see how docile they apparently are with trained handlers.

"They eat once a week, only mice, and then they're quiet," one exhibitor said of his emerald green python from the Amazon jungle, that lounged on a branch inside a glass cage. That minimum-maintenance sales pitch did nothing to elicit active interest in the $350 price tag for his snake, however.

The owner of a pygmy python had similar results with his truth-in-advertising approach. "He's bit me a couple of times . . . it wasn't bad, not like a dog's bite or anything."

Still, the overall effect of the event was to temper, if not dispel, the commonly held primordial human fear of serpents. Children's curiosity particularly overcame suspicion in feeling the reptiles. If none took home a new pet from the show, most went away with a better understanding of and a more confident attitude toward snakes.

Indian Steps Museum, named for the carved rocks where a succession of resident tribes monitored canoe traffic along the Susquehanna River and fished for shad, is the home of a remarkable collection of Native American artifacts. John Vandersloot purchased the land near the turn of the century, unearthed arrowheads and pottery as he dug his gardens, and set upon a lifetime of collecting Indian relics from all over America.

He started building the museum in 1908, embedding the shards, arrows and ax heads in masonry to form designs in the walls throughout the three-story structure and tower. A council chamber with massive sandstone table dominates the first floor, the stained glass windows portray Indian tribes. The small tableaux in glass cases depict Indian life and culture. A totem pole stands in front of the old ice house, which holds preserved specimens of regional wildlife.

With picnic areas along the river bank, and a collection of 60 marked species of trees on the grounds, the museum is a popular draw for visitors from Maryland as well as Pennsylvania. School classes find it an interesting introduction to the culture of Indians that inhabited the area.

The copperhead festival wouldn't seem to attract many visitors, but it is among the more popular weekend events held by the Conservation Society, which runs the museum. "The good weather probably has something to do with it," Mr. Leiphart said. "And there's a lot of people who are fascinated by the idea of seeing poisonous snakes."

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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