Adult Common Watersnake. Source: Md. DNR – photo by Scott A. Smith.​

Over the years I have spent as much time as possible enjoying the forests, streams and lakes found in the South Carolina Piedmont, Northeastern Florida, the mountains of Western North Carolina and now the Eastern Shore of Maryland. So I’ve run into a lot of “critters.”

Before I retired to Kent County in 2014 I had lived in the Western North Carolina mountains for over thirty years. The mountain people of that region are descendants of hardy Scotch/Irish settlers–a strong people who settled in a harsh but beautiful land.

Those I knew often used words and terms I had seldom heard anywhere else. One of my favorites they seemed to overuse was “critter.” To them, “critter” covered a multitude of creatures–mostly unwanted, four-legged or crawling on their bellies. They would not call a pet dog a “critter,” but they would label a fox or even a neighbor’s dog, a “critter” if they killed his chickens. In other words, the use of the word “critter” is open to interpretation.

The other day on one of my walks in Chestertown, I met a local critter for the second time. Back in March or April after a high tide that had topped the rocks at the foot of High Street, I spotted a water snake. We looked each other over, but when I said, “Hello,” he decided it was time to retreat. He did me no harm, but could have easily scared some people. So I’m labeling him a “critter.”

He reappeared last week where I first saw him. He, or she, seems to like the rocks at the end of the brick river walk just before the wooden bridge. These encounters brought back memories of an earlier childhood incident with a snake.

I was six years old and just home from church on a summer Sunday afternoon. Sunday best off, play clothes on, lunch eaten quickly, and I was out the door to meet friends. A morning of Sunday school and church had left me with a lot of pinned-up energy.

There was an open field not far from my back door and a hedgerow where we liked to play. On this Sunday we were playing Tarzan. We must have seen a movie and were acting it out, as we often did.

Well, while performing, with the ultimate in bad timing, I jumped from a tree onto an unseen copperhead snake. I guess he did not like that and proceeded to sink his fangs into my left ankle. It hurt and I saw the snake, so I knew what had happened. I remember being terrified. At that age there was no question what to do–head for home as fast as you could–which was just the wrong thing to do.

By the time I reached our back door at full speed, I’m sure I could barely talk. My mom and dad were still at the lunch table, or in those days, the dinner table. I must have been screaming “a snake bit me.” I can still remember this quite vividly. My dad literally picked me up by my heels, ripping my shoes and socks off. He knew what a snake bite looked like.

Their next step was to find our doctor. Remember there were no 911 operators, ambulances or EMTs–not even a hospital– in our small town. Our lifeline was a phone we shared with another family. I can only imagine what happened next. My mom was on the phone. “Operator, I need to find Dr. Alverson. Try his home quick.”

A side note, Dr. Reg Alverson, our family doctor, had taken over my maternal great grandfather’s practice. Dr. William M. Marchant, who I am named after, had been a horse-and-buggy doctor. Dr. Alverson brought me into the world and had become not only our doctor, but a dear family friend and one of the finest men I ever knew.

Dr. Alverson’s wife Idlee was my mother’s best friend. She got the call and said the doctor was at his office. By this time I suppose my parents were in full panic and I must have been inconsolable. I only remember bits and pieces of what came next. I do remember being carried into the office. Idlee had called ahead so he was ready for us. I’m told he confirmed the snake bite, cut the bite to start the bleeding and put us in his car for the thirty-minute mad dash to the nearest hospital in a neighboring town. Dr. Alverson was used to making this drive under emergency situations. My mother told me years later the trip scared her as much as the bite. My dad followed in his car.

All told, it must have taken about two hours to get to the hospital following the bite. Plenty of time for the venom to travel well into a six-year-old’s system. Anti-venoms were not widely available until the 1950s–several years away. I seem to remember some sort of suction pump being used to extract the venom. Snake bites were taken very seriously.

The next thing I remember was waking up in the hospital the next morning with a swollen painful leg. My parents had spent the night by my bed. Arrangements had been made for my older brother to spend the night with neighbors.

I spent one more night in the hospital, then home for another few days in bed. Friends and family came to see me with gifts and well wishes. In those days small town doctors still made house calls and Reg checked on me daily. They were still not sure of any on-going ill effects.

I was doing well until our Presbyterian preacher came to visit. I’m not sure why, but when a stone-faced minister came to my bedside and proceeded to pray for me, I think I was more frightened than I had been of the snake bite. He just plain scared me. For some reason I was sure this was a confirmation that I wasn’t doing so well at all.

However, I healed and when I returned to the first grade with a bandage and limp, probably neither one needed, I was the class hero.

A year later we moved to the country and much more time was spent in the woods. But you can bet I was very careful about snakes–a.k.a “critters.”

Bill Minus is a regular contributor to the Kent Pilot. He lives in Chestertown and can be seen wandering Kent County.