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In Like a Lion

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, continues his story from last month, about mysterious snake-related business…

Staring out at the roaring rumble of a mixed snow/rain storm from the paint shop window, uncle Mal said, “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb!”.

Jeff Masters said to him, “That aint always true.”

Mal looked at us kids, winked and said, “But a dry March means a wet May, fill barns and bays with corn and hay!”

Jeff laughed and said, “Malcolm, you ought to be a poet weatherman!”

Ricky, Cindy, and I were all sitting on a heap of canvas drop sheets with Mike, the shop dog. We were waiting for our soaked gloves to dry out. Mal had pinned them up over the shop heating vent. We had walked over to the shop, through the village, in a wet snow storm and now it was a snow/rain storm dropping wet white weather all over our world.

Jeff poured himself a little more coffee from the shop pot, returned to his stool and said, “I’m telling you, that scientist, or whatever he is, was up just below the Torne ledge late last night, taking temperatures of the rocks there along the bottom of the cliff.

Mal said, “Well wait now, how do you know he was doing this late at night?”

Jeff explained, “I went in to bait some coon traps along the Torne Brook after dark and I saw him hiking up, to the bottom of the cliffs. Then this morning, at sun rise, I was down at the Red Apple for coffee and there he was, sitting there eating eggs, bacon, toast and coffee. He had the same wooden box I seen him carrying up there the night before. So, I go over to his table and I say to him, ‘You been traipsing around the foot of Torne Mountain last night, I seen you.’ And he says to me that he was there to check the midnight temperature of the underside of the rocks where he figures snakes is hibernating. So, I ask him why, and he says it’s because he wants to know about the temperatures under the rocks as the spring comes in!”

Mal shook his head and said, “Sounds like a scientist. They are a strange tribe. Don’t work with much reason or sensibility.”

Jeff said, “So, I asked him if he was watching for the snakes to come out. And he tells me that he is doing just that, but that he hopes I won’t bother with them, as he is studying them.”

Mal laughed, “Well, why would you bother with them?”

Jeff said, “Up in Warren County they will pay you five dollars for a dead rattler snake. That’s as much as you get for a coon skin. I know fellows who will kill them down here and take them up there for the reward.”

Mal asked him, “Would you do that?”

“No, snaking is not what I do. I’m part Indian and we made our peace with the snake people.”

Ricky said, “Snake people? Who are they?”

Jeff told us, “All the animals got a people sense about them, just as we got an animal sense about us. So, my people, using their animal sense, talked with the snake people who used their animal sense to understand that we didn’t have no argument with them.”

Mal said, “Was that before or after Goldilocks ate up all the bears’ porridge?”

Ricky said, “No, Uncle Mal, she just ate up the baby bear’s porridge, is all.”

Jeff said, “Either way this fellow with the scientific tool kit was up there in the night taking temperatures of under the rocks!”

Mal said, “I don’t like it. First come the scientists and pretty soon the tourists are coming in. Once the tourists show up its all over!”

I said, “What’s all over, Uncle Mal?”

He looked at us kids and said, “Our way of life! There will be souvenir stands, parking lots, trailer camps, kiddy rides, before you know it they will be building a replica Village of Hillburn right next to the real one, anything for a buck!”

Ricky said, “What’s the replica Hillburn going to be like?”

“Well it will be like what Hillburn was like in the old times. If they build it right I might move into it myself!”

Jeff said, “Mal, they might pay you to live there like folks lived in the olden times!”

Outside the storm howled and blew hard against the shop window. We all stared out at the harsh weather and Mal said, “Maybe, I’ll skip living in the old-time village. Winters were pretty hard to take back then.”

Jeff said, “Oh Mal, you’ve just gotten soft in our old age. Winters are no different now than they were then.”

“Maybe not, but I’ve grown accustomed to centralized heat and hot water. No sir, I wouldn’t want to do with-out my civilization!”

Jeff stared out at the storm and said, “Yeah, well your civilization also means snake scientists creeping all over the mountain.”

Mal said, “And nothing good could come of that.”

In the February Thaw

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, continues his story from last month, about mysterious happenings in the Ramapo mountains…

There had been an early February thaw long enough that most of the snow had melted off and there was a lot of critter movement. Groundhogs, also known as woodchucks, had come out and wandered about, staring at their shadow in the bright winter sunshine. Then they went back into their dens, because seeing their shadow meant winter would last another six weeks. But if it is a long mid-winter thaw, the groundhogs hang out for a few days and poke around for something to eat. Deer mice come out and hurry about looking for food with no fear of snakes, as the snakes don’t travel far from their winter dens. The mice do need to keep a watch out for raccoons, foxes, coyotes, weasels and hawks—but at least not the snakes. Raccoons and skunks take long naps in the cold weather; not quite hibernating, but long enough to make them very hungry when they come out from time to time. Trappers of these animals bait their traps with oil of anisette, which smells like licorice and is a delicious attraction for hungry coons and skunks.

Geoff Masters went walking along beneath one of the terraces of Torne Mountain to ‘freshen’ up a few traps with some lore he carried in an eye-drop bottle. It was a mixture of anisette, tea tree oil, and skunk urine. The coon population was very much on the rise, so he was doing his best to capture and kill as many of them as he could. The fur was worth as much as $15 an animal, and the meat was the secret ingredient for the Ramapo Burgers, cooked up at his cousin’s Burger Shack. It was the second day of a February thaw and it was early, just past sunrise, when Geoff came around a clutch of boulders along the south slope of the ridge, and nearly walked headlong into a man coming from the other direction. They were both startled and they both stepped back and stared for a moment. This man wore a canvas backpack and was carrying a wooden handle with a curious metal hook at the end of it. The man smiled and said something about it being a nice day for a hike. Geoff agreed and they walked past each other.

But Geoff only went a few feet and then hunkered down and waited behind a large egg-shaped boulder. He feared that this man was a trap stealer and that his curious stick with the hook on it was what he used to snap up the traps he stole. So, after a few minutes, Geoff followed back to track the man. But as he came around the place where they first met, he saw that this man had not gone on down the trail, but instead had gone up the cliff side. Geoff followed up the cliff just a bit and then, out above him, he saw the man setting up a little place, and then proceeding to sit down and watch the broken load of rocks, with the sun on his back.

Later, Geoff said to Uncle Mal at the paint shop, “Mal, I spied on this fellow for at least half an hour and all he did was sit and watch those rocks.”

Mal said, “Was he crazy?”

Geoff shook his head and said, “Except for the watching the rocks thing, he seemed sane enough.”

Me and Ricky where listening to the two men talk about this from where we sat on a heap of canvas drop sheets petting Old Mike, the Shop Dog. Ricky said, “Uncle Mal, how could you tell if a fella was crazy?”

Mal said, “By his behavior, by the way he acts.”
“My Gram says, one man’s crazy is another man’s normal.”
Mal looked down at him and said, “Your grandmother talks to trees so I don’t think she’s a good judge of crazy.”

“She says crazy is something only people can be, animals don’t go in for being crazy.”
Geoff laughed at this. He said, “She’s got a point there.”
Ricky looked into Old Mike’s fuzzy, black face and said, “You ain’t much crazy, Mike!”

Mal said, “Yes sir, the old lady’s right about that. Crazy is something we humans take credit for.”
He then looked at Geoff and said, “But I wonder if this here fellow sitting up on those rocks in the thaw ain’t watching for snakes…”

“Snakes?” Geoff said, “Why would a man watch for snakes in February?”
Mal shrugged and said, “I don’t know, but last month the boys found a froze-up black snake down by the river and that don’t seem right either. You think this fellow might have something to do with that?”

Geoff shook his head and said, “I don’t see how the one thing is connected to the other.”
Ricky looked up and said, “My Gram says everything is connected to the other.”
Mal said, “And she’s the woman who talks to trees, boy!”

And Ricky said, “She likes the oak trees and says they’re the smartest. Pine are serious and the Birch are silly.”

Mal shook his head and told us to go out and talk to some trees. We did, but I couldn’t help to wonder if he wanted us out of there so they could talk some more about this mysterious stranger, up in the mountain staring at snake dens.

Winter Snake

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, tells us a mysterious tale of an unexpected winter discovery…

It was cold, cold, cold, and it was dry. It hadn’t snowed in three weeks. We could deal with the cold when there was snow, but without it, the ground was frozen hard and everywhere you stepped felt like you walked on jagged rock. The temperature hung around twenty degrees by day and colder by night. The animals don’t move much when the cold sets in like this; they conserve their energy. The fish drop low in the water and the ice fishermen don’t stay long when the winter wind picks up. So, the last thing you expect to see in these conditions is a snake.

Usually by November 1st, snakes go in under the rocks and don’t come out until after April 1st. Sometimes, if there is a mid-winter warm-up, a few snakes come out to look around and then rush back in under the rocks. Uncle Mal used to tell us, “No self-respected snake comes out in the winter time, because they are naked as a jay-bird.”

Ricky Cramshaw told him, “Uncle Mal, jay-birds ain’t naked—they are covered in feathers!”
Mal said to him, “That is not the point.”
Ricky said, “And jay-birds do come out in the winter!”
Mal said, “Ricky, it’s just a saying!”
“Yeah, and you is just saying it!”

Ricky and I were over at the Paint Shop because we found a frozen black snake down by the river and brought it to Uncle Mal. He stared down at the black snake that was frozen stiff in a neat straight line, like a piece of frozen rope. It was about two feet long, so Mal figured it was a young snake, as they can grow up to six feet or better. Mike, the shop dog, came along and sniffed the snake a few times, and then walked away. Mal rolled it over and we saw that it was white on the underside. He told us it was a Black Rat snake and that if it was black all around it was called a Black Racer.

Ricky said, “So why did it come out and freeze up like this?”
Mal said, “I don’t know. Sometimes they come out if it gets warm but it ain’t been warm in weeks.” He thought about this and then said, “And the thing is they don’t tend to hibernate under rocks by the river; no, they go up to the south side of the mountains where the rocks will keep them warm and dry.” He rolled it back over onto its belly so that its black side was now up again. He said, “No sir, this here snake did not get to the river on its own.”
I said, “What do you mean?”
“I mean, I figure that somebody tossed him down there.”
Ricky said, “Who would put a froze-up snake down by the river?”
Mal said, “Maybe someone found it somewhere else and thought it ought to be put down there?”

I wasn’t sure, but it kind of seemed like the frozen black snake wasn’t as straight as when we found it. I told Uncle Mal that, and he told us a story about one time in the late winter, when Uncle Dutchie found a big frozen Copper Head snake. He picked it up and walked along with it until it warmed up and came back to life!
Ricky said, “Hey, could this snake come back to life?”

Mal wasn’t sure, so he got out a five-gallon bucket and put the snake into it. When he picked it up I saw that it was no longer stiff as a stick, but more rope-y. We put the bucket near the hot air vent and sat by it, keeping an eye on the snake, as it slowly became more rubbery. Mal told us about how Native Americans believe that snakes come back to life all the time.

He started telling us ‘snake-come-back-to-life’ stories and we got to listening to the warm sound of his voice and to thinking about the people and the places in his stories. Then, all of a sudden, I heard a sound from inside the bucket. I jumped up and looked in, and there was the black snake, moving around in the bottom of the bucket! Mal got up and put a screen over the top and placed a hammer there to weigh down the screen. The black snake was now clearly wiggling around. It had come back to life!

Mal told us reptiles slow down and hibernate in the winter, but that if we hadn’t found the snake when we did, it would most likely have died. Ricky was thrilled and he named the snake ‘Blackie’. Mal told us it was not easy to take care of a black snake, especially in the winter time when they want to be asleep.
Ricky said, “He can sleep at my house!”

Mal didn’t agree. He made a few phone calls and then he drove us, with Blackie The Snake, up to the Bear Mountain Zoo, where they had a place to keep snakes in the winter time. There was this man there who knew all about snakes and he examined Blackie and said he was in good shape. He told us we had saved his life. We watched him put Blackie into a special indoor snake den where there were other black snakes sleeping under rocks. This man thanked us again and he walked us through the cold, over to the Bear Mountain Inn. He brought us hot chocolate at the Inn and then he and Mal talked about how long it had been this bitter cold. Then the man said, “You know, Mal, that snake could have only been out there a day or so.”

Mal said, “Yes sir, that’s what I figured.”
“So, somebody must have put him there.”
Mal said he figured that, too. Then both men got quiet and we finished our chocolate and Uncle Mal said, “Somebody is messing with the snakes.”