Rattlesnake Encounters

James R. McFadden
DPAIC (Ret. November 30, 2015)
Boulevard Border Patrol Station
San Diego Sector

Rattlesnake Encounters
Almost all agents along the Southwest border have had encounters with rattlesnakes. I had several close calls one summer while working on the Swing Shift, which coincided with the prime time for rattlers to emerge in the evening from their hiding places in rock piles and animal burrows where they could avoid the extreme heat during the day. There are very few experiences like walking through the brush in the dark and suddenly hearing the unmistakable loud buzzing of a rattlesnake at your feet and then automatically and instinctively launching skyward in an attempt to escape, with the sudden and sickening realization that you do not actually know if you will land on the snake when you return to Earth. That happened three or four times one summer in the hills north of the Otay Mountain by the Little Otay Truck Trail, which seemed to be prime rattlesnake country. For a long time after I was a little “jumpy” every time a cicada started buzzing nearby or when certain kinds of grasshoppers made a similar sound.

On another occasion, an agent and I were walking along a trail in Cottonwood Canyon when I stepped over a small rock pile without incident. Later the agent told me that a small rattlesnake had struck at my boot, though nothing was said when we were at the site. More recently, during my last year in the Patrol before retirement, I was down at Mountain Springs along the San Diego and Imperial County line which is also the dividing line between the San Diego and El Centro Sectors. A small Red Diamond Rattlesnake under a bush not more than a foot or two from my boot began to rattle as I walked by, but the snake was under the branches of a low Brittle Bush and fortunately could not strike at me.

I have never been bitten by a rattlesnake, but an agent working for me at the Boulevard Station was not as lucky. This gentleman was one of several agents looking for a missing group of illegal aliens that had been tracked north from the border and across Interstate 8 and who were most likely on the west side of the McCain Valley Recreation Area. In order to get a better view, the agent climbed to the top of a large boulder pile and used his binoculars to look for movement or for out of place colors or shapes with defined edges that distinguished a human or animal from the local vegetation. Not having any success at the boulder pile, he decided to move to another location where he would hopefully have better luck. The quickest way down from his highpoint was to slide down the large boulder on which he was sitting, and as he gained speed and momentum and looked at the ground where he would land, the agent spotted the largest rattlesnake he had ever seen, coiled exactly where he was about to land.

There was no way to for the agent to stop sliding and there was little or no way to avoid the snake. As the gentleman hit the ground, he simultaneously jumped high into the air with the hope of escaping the anticipated sharp fangs of the snake. But he was not successful. The big rattler was much faster than the man and bit the agent on the front of his shin, where two small scars still mark the spots where the fangs pierced his flesh. This was immediately a major emergency and the agent was rushed to Alvarado Hospital where I visited him soon after. Much to my relief, the man was doing very well upon my arrival and it was determined that he had received a “dry bite” in which no venom had been injected through the snake’s fangs into the agent’s leg.