Dodging Rattlesnakes: Running in Sage Country Heat

November 21, 2015

By Jameson Hawn

Photo at right: Trail runner Jared Reyes takes on the final drop down to the Columbia River in the Quincy Wildlife Area near the Gorge Amphitheater. Photo by Jameson Hawn


I had spent much of the last mile navigating the vertical canyon walls at breakneck speeds as it dwindled to nothing more than a rutted, rock-strewn cattle trail high above Palisades, Washington.

My eyes focused solely on the next step—to glance away could mean a sprained ankle, or worse, a tumble off the narrow path carved into the steep canyon wall.

The flat plateau of sage-strewn canyons juxtaposed with small, lush farming plots fanned out below as far as the eye could see. There’s no shade in this country. It’s an arid land of jagged basalt rock.

Cheatgrass, a spiky, widespread invasive species to the Columbia Basin, sneaks its way farther into my socks and shoe liner with every step, delivering micro-jabbing sensations every few yards.

It’s early summer and the temperature in this eastern Washington broiler near Wenatchee is well above the 90-degree mark. Humidity from a near-by thunderstorm clings to us, as I and my like-minded running partners, Scott Sundberg and Jared Reyes, drop further into the canyon.

This run, or rather this “stress test,” is more than just a masochistic reaction to the heat, rather a chance to once again feel free of the constraints of designated trails and roads. It’s an opportunity to enjoy the sage country and remember why we chose trail running as a hobby. It is also something every trail runner should try.

The western U.S. offers runners ample room to stretch their legs on public ground. The State Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Department of Fish and Wildlife and federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) own and maintain large tracks of land throughout the state.

Today we will set down treads on a patchwork of State Trust, BLM, DNR and privately owned property with access rights granted to the public.

Leading the running pack is Reyes, a 24-year-old eastern Washington resident and former 2A national collegiate track star. His path is determined by his speed, and with the arid, flat plateau spanning for miles, he pushes the pace faster.

Reyes juke-moves his way from trail to trail, bounding effortlessly across the rutted cow trails that crisscross the area, oftentimes carving his own path through cheatgrass and sage brush.

“You ready for a surge?” Reyes calls out over his shoulder. His idea of a good mid-run competition is to drag fellow trail-junky friends into a high-speed, high-risk dogfight on the winding trail. We succumb.

Sage country runners, even veteran athletes like Reyes, often face more than the typical trailside hazards. Western rattlesnakes, strains and sprains and pin-cushioned feet from cheatgrass are often the noticeable physical ailments associated to open-country jaunts, however, the most prevalent dangers are from exposure to the heat.

At 105 degrees the human body begins to cook. Any hotter and everything the body does aids in shutting itself down. Radiant heat from the surrounding environment, direct sunlight, elevated heart rate and a lack of water make for a potentially deadly brew called hyperthermia.

Most sage country runners are on borrowed time as soon as they kick their first rock, since the average runner typically squeezes out an average of a quart and a half of sweat per hour, according to Jake Emmett, Ph. D., in his report on marathoner physiology. That’s a far cry from a typical runner’s intake of six ounces to one quart of water per hour during exercise.

It’s important to know your water limits and what resources are available in the area when in this type of heat and terrain. A majority of western sage country land is open to cattle grazing and features circular cattle troughs that look clear and cool, but be careful as waterborne diseases like giardia and cryptosporidiosis (crypto) are transferrable from animal to human and can be debilitating. Understanding where reliable water resources are available during a long sage country run is essential.

Reyes began to pull away on a steep ravine trail cut into the hillside sheltering an all-too-common sage country hazard: the western rattlesnake. Coiled beneath a sage bush, a snake can resemble a small cow patty on the trail.

Rounding a bend on the trail we found Reyes, eyes wide with shock as he held his hands high, signaling us to stop in our tracks. He doubled over shaking his head, knowing how close he had come to catastrophe, as he mistakenly nudged the coiled snake mid-stride.

Reyes had good reason to be worried. Miles from the trailhead, an elevated heart rate and few resources at hand can create a serious danger for the backcountry runner.

We cautiously continued our journey across these beautiful arid sage lands with no more snake encounters.

At one point in the afternoon we clawed our way to the top of a grassy hilltop. This hill has no name and it’s not even a high point on a surveyor’s map. The only human sign on the basalt rock and grass summit was a small metal cross someone had planted.

It seems, long ago, someone else had decided to shirk the trails and embark on an off-trail adventure of their own.

Snakebites in the Backcountry


The Wilderness and Environmental Medicine study, Venomous Snakebite in Mountainous Terrain, debunks several common snakebite fallacies while providing strategies for safety.

They write:

Resist the temptation to apply a tourniquet to the affected limb. Instead, place compressing materials directly above the wound, much like you would for a sprained ankle. “Pressures outside of this range are ineffective and may actually enhance venom spread,” the report advises.

Snakebites bring with them swelling and pain to the affected limb. Avoid treating with anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen. This could prove dangerous for snakebites because ingesting anti-inflammatory medicine to reduce pain could worsen bleeding to a swelling area.

Safety in snake country boils down to focusing on foot placement and avoiding likely areas where snakes congregate—on or under warm rocks and near water resources that are home to prey. If bitten, it is important to identify the species of snake, find a cool, shaded area to sit, administer pressure above the bite, attempt to reduce your heart rate and send a partner for help.

When Jameson Hawn isn’t running through the scablands of eastern Washington, he’s exploring the western Cascades and Olympics. Technical writer by day and wood artisan by night, his life is always moving in a unique and fun direction.

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