Monday, March 30, 2015

Rattlesnakes & Common Sense

March 23, 2015 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

In the Spring of the year, as temperatures rise,
reptiles come out of hibernation
to begin the search for food. 
Spring is here, and reptiles, meaning most cold-blooded animals, become very active when temperatures climb. When it warms up this time of year it is wise to keep a keen eye open for rattlesnakes.

August and September are traditionally the most active months for rattlesnakes on the Sonoran Desert at elevations below 4,000 feet. But, in the Spring, reptiles come out of hibernation to begin the search for food.

I have lived in the Sonoran Desert for more than sixty years and have encountered hundreds of rattlesnakes. Under most conditions a rattlesnake is very difficult to spot unless it is disturbed and it moves. Rattlesnakes generally rattle before they move, but if the truth were really known, most people who walk or hike in the desert will walk by ten snakes for everyone they see.

A rattlesnake can easily be identified by the triangular-shape of its head and the rattle on its tail. A closer examination will reveal an elliptical-shaped pupil in its eye. This trait is common to poisonous snakes in the Sonoran Desert.

All rattlesnakes will have a pit organ near the nostril orifice. Rattlesnakes come in a variety of colors and patterns. The snakes found in our area will have rings around their tails above the rattles. The color of these rings will alternate between black and white in various shades. The visibility of these rings will depend on the species. The Western Diamond Back rattler’s rings are very pronounced and stand out, where as the rings on an Arizona Black is not very visible because of the blending of the rings. Occasionally a rattlesnake will lose it rattles. When this occurs, the difficulty of identification increases.

Rattlesnakes are ectothermic vertebrates (cold-blooded animals), meaning they lack an appropriate physiological mechanism for maintaining body temperature. All cold-blooded animals are at the mercy of their environment. Air and ground temperatures dramatically affect the environment of reptiles. This condition directly affects their daily rhythm of activity and their habitat.

There are six species of rattlesnakes in our area, including the Western Diamond Back  (Crotalus atrox), Mohave (Crotalus scutulatus), Arizona Black  (Crotalus vidiris), Black-Tailed (Crotalus molossos), Sidewinder (Crotalus cerastes), and the Tiger (Crotalus tigris). These animals have a very highly developed mechanism of injecting venom, therefore making them very successful predators in the desert. A rattlesnake’s diet is composed of small rodents 82% to 85% of the time. 

During the winter months rattlesnakes generally go underground and hibernate.They usually choose caves or old mine tunnels. Occasionally dens of rattlesnakes have been accidentally uncovered by construction equipment and hundreds of rattlesnakes are found at one time. 

Rattlesnakes have been known to come out of hibernation if temperatures warm to 78 degrees Fahrenheit. The functioning temperature for a rattlesnake is 72 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit and it’s effective temperature is 82 degrees Fahrenheit to 96 Degrees Fahrenheit. The effective temperature is the temperature at which the snake moves about and hunts for prey. Direct exposure to heat or sunlight will kill a rattlesnake in about 10 to 15 minutes.

You might say rattlesnake season is twelve months a year in the lower Sonoran Desert if temperatures rise above 72 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter months. Rattlesnakes are most commonly sighted from the first of April until about the middle of October. These animals are primarily nocturnal and prefer the hours after sundown and before sunrise. Most victims bitten by rattlesnakes are generally bitten ½ hour before sundown and up to two hours after sundown. It is estimated that 72% of all bites occur during this period. 

Some 80% of all rattlesnake bites are the results of carelessness or the handling of rattlesnakes by older juveniles or young adults. It is now estimated some 20% of rattlesnake bites are accidental or legitimate. About 15% of rattlesnake bites are dry socket bites, meaning no venom was injected into the victim.

How do you know a rattlesnake has actually bitten you and did it inject venom? There are several signs and symptoms of envenomization. First, there will be fang marks. These fang marks can be singular, dual or even a scratch. Fang marks are generally a very small puncture wound and a burning sensation usually follows the injection of venom by the reptile. 

A metallic or rubbery taste in the mouth often follows a bite, but not always. The tingling of the tongue or numbness can also occur. If a rattlesnake has injected venom into its victim, local swelling will occur within ten minutes. The amount of envenomization is generally indicated by the severity of edema or swelling at fang puncture site. Nausea and weakness is often associated with snakebite. 

Black or blue discoloration will generally appear near the site of envenomization after three to six hours. Every snake bite victim should be treated for shock, which is a greater threat to the victim of snakebite than the venom.

The following is the recommended first aid for a rattlesnake bite. Call 911 immediately; snakebite is a medical emergency. If medical help is several hours away the following treatment is recommended. Calm and reassure the victim, decrease the movement of the limb. Identify the snake if it is possible without further risk of another bite. It is not recommended to use a constricting band or tourniquet unless you are a medical professional. Many snakebite victims have come into emergency rooms with a constricting band, such as shoelace, completely obliterated by edema or swelling. It is extremely important to move the victim to a medical facility without delay.         

The following are some things we can do to prevent rattlesnake bite. When walking in the desert or in any area known for reptile habitation, always look where you step, or place your foot, or feet (caution should always be used at night, late evening, and early morning). Always look where you are placing your hands or fingers. Use extreme caution before placing your hands where you can not see what you are touching. Always look before sitting down, especially around or near boulders or brush. Think before defecating or urinating in the outdoors. I have observed a variety of bites during the past fifty years that resulted from total lack of common sense. Small children must be closely supervised at all times in areas of possible snake infestation or inhabitation.

If you and your family observe these basic rules you should be safe from snakebite. As urbanization continues at the desert edge in Arizona the threat if snakebite is always a reality.

I would like to thank the Arizona Poison Control Center, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, and Dr. Findlay E. Russell and his enormously valuable resource “Snake Venom Poisoning” printed by Scholium International, Inc.  Great Neck, New York 11021 Note: This book is a physician’s desk reference for snake venom poisoning.

For information call Arizona Poison Control System 1-800-362-0101. For snake removal in Apache Junction call Apache Junction Fire District at 982-4440.

Editor’s note: Tom Kollenborn directed the Snake Alert program for the Apache Junction Unified School District for seventeen years. He attended workshops and worked closely with the University of Arizona Poison Control Center and Medical Center.

Monday, March 23, 2015

A Trip to 'Spam' Mesa

March 16, 2015 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Former Arizona Attorney General Bob Corbin relaxes in camp during the trip to “Spam” Mesa in the Superstition Mountains.
Over the years former Arizona Attorney General Bob Corbin and I made many trips into the Superstition Wilderness Area checking on various sites associated with the story of the Dutchman’s Lost Mine. We traveled to some of the most remote areas of the wilderness.

Often these trips required us to pack light and not take much in the way of food. We usually had one packhorse, therefore limiting the number days we could camp. Our packhorse carried our bedding, food, tents and feed for the horses.

I remember one trip in particular, during the mid 1980s. We both had four days available for an extended pack trip. It was on this trip Bob volunteered to bring our food for the three days. We picked up the horses at the O.K. Corral and hauled them out to First Water.

Our objective was to spend a few days on top of Peter’s Mesa. From First Water Trail Head to the Salt Flats on Peter’s Mesa is about twelve miles. Bob was very interested in visiting an area known as Pistol Canyon.

Our day of departure was uneventful. We saddled up, packed the packhorse and was on our way. Once we arrived on Peter’s Mesa we set our camp between the old Rock Dam in Peter’s Canyon and the beehive up the canyon. This campsite always had sufficient water for the horses.

The first day required most of our time riding into the area and setting up camp on our arrival. The next day we began our exploration of Peter’s Mesa. First we made our way over to Pistol Canyon and looked around. We walked over to the stone arch and then looked for marked stone. We didn’t find much of interest the first morning. We then decided to break for lunch.

Jokingly I ask Bob what were we having for lunch and he said. “Spam sandwiches and green chili.” I like Spam and the green chili was great.

After wandering around Peter’s Mesa all afternoon we finally built a fire and settled in for the night. We were tired and our supper was Spam and Chili again. I liked Spam, but I wasn’t sure whether or not I liked it this well. The next day was a repeat of the first day. After two days of Spam sandwiches I was beginning to tire of our cuisine.

After our third day on the mesa, with Spam and Ortega green chili still our main diet, I was ready for the ride out.

We did a good job of exploring the central portion of Peter’s Mesa. We found several old landmarks, but we didn’t find exactly what we were looking for. Of course I was never certain exactly what Bob was looking for up on Peter’s Mesa.  

Bob did say Peter’s Mesa played a significant role in many of the stories about the Dutchman’s lost mine in the Superstition Mountain. It was here some claimed Joe Deering had found a Mexican mill and smelter. 

Monte Edwards was convinced the old Agave pits were actually sites where the Mexicans smelted gold and silver. Peter’s Mesa is covered with Agaves and the Yavapai harvest them and roasted the hearts in big pits. The Agave hearts were staples in the diet. We found several of the old pits, but no silver or gold.

We were finally convinced a lot of dreamers walked the trails of Peter’s Mesa looking for a lost mine. If there was gold on Peter’s Mesa it would have to wait for another day.

Also, Robert Jacobs maintained a camp on the west edge of Peter’s Mesa at the head of Squaw Box Trail between 1978-1984. Jacobs made ridiculous claims of thousands of pounds of gold bullion at his place of operations, however few people believed Jacob’s claims.

Yes, Peter’s Mesa has played its role in the legacy of the Dutchman’s lost mine. Bob Corbin and I returned to camp for another night after a long day on the mesa.

The next morning Bob wanted to find a point on the imaginary line running between Weaver’s Needle and Four Peaks that allegedly intersected Peter’s Mesa. This line was on the Gonzales Map. I am not going to go into detail as to who Gonzales was, but some claim he was a survivor of the Peralta Massacre on the northwest end of Superstition Mountain. 

We spent most of the third day looking for this point. I am not certain we ever found it. This line runs NNE from Weaver’s Needle toward Four Peaks. According to some stories, a rich mine is located on this imaginary line.

And yes, we had Spam and Ortega Green Chili again for dinner. As we packed up the next morning for the journey out to First Water I told Bob that Peter’s Mesa would be known as “Spam Mesa” from this day on. He laughed and said he really liked Spam.

I must admit it was a quick way to prepare all meals and it was filling. Now Spam Mesa is a part of the Superstition Mountain legacy in our minds.

Monday, March 16, 2015

A Treasure Tree

March 9, 2015 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Walter Gassler, prepared for another trip into the
Superstition Mountains in search of the
Dutchman’s Lost mine.
Walt Gassler made trips into the rugged Superstition Mountains each year in May to search for the legendary Dutchman Lost Mine. Walt was convinced a rich deposit or cache of gold was located along a legendary line between the second peak on Four Peaks and the tip of Weaver’s Needle. Some claim Walt’s story fits the old Gonzales Map if it were authentic. He continued his search for more than fifty years.

 Walter Gassler was born in Switzerland and immigrated to America as a child. Walt became a chef early in life and worked as a chef all his life. He was the pastry chef at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel for many years, however in his spare time he liked to hunt for lost gold mines in the Southwest.

He met William A. Barkley shortly after the discovery of Adolph Ruth’s remains in 1931 and became friends with the old rancher. Barkley was always concerned about Walt going into the mountain alone, but he continued to do so.

Walt was always giving Gertie Barkley (wife of William “Gus” A. Barkley) gifts of special pastries he made and shared various recipes with her. The Barkleys were always concerned for Walt, but also knew he would hunt for the gold of Superstition Mountain regardless. Walt was a solo prospector and Dutch hunter and never really shared anything with anyone until he was almost eighty years old.

Walt spent most of his time on Peter’s Mesa, east of Charlebois Spring. He was convinced the Dutchman, Jacob Waltz, traveled into the Superstition Mountains from the Salt River by the old Peter’s Canyon trail up and over Geronimo Head. The trail was extremely difficult to follow on the black solid rock out of Peters Canyon above the confluence of Peter’s and Tortilla Creeks.

This portion of the trail is marked by rock cairns. The trail eventually led upon Geronimo Head and eventually southward toward Peter’s Mesa. Some old time Dutch hunters call this the “Monument Trail” and were convinced Jacob Waltz would follow this route to his rich mine. Gassler was also convinced this was the point Jacob Waltz entered the mountains from Salt River (Rio Salado or Salinas). Also near the confluence of Peter’s Canyon and Tortilla Creek there is a unique “trick in the trail” a horse, mule or burro could easily negotiate to enter Peter Canyon to gain access to the Monument Trail.

Walt Gassler spent fifty years searching this region for hidden gold. Early in April of 1984, Walt was convinced he had figured out the riddle of the infamous Dutchman’s mine and wanted Bob Corbin and I go with him on his last trip into the mountains. Neither Bob nor I could prepare for a trip on such short notice therefore we both declined his invitation.

I believe Walt was eighty-two years old when he had his wife drive him out to First Water Trail. He hiked into Charlebois Spring some eight miles away on May 1, 1984. I rode into Charlebois and talked to Walt on May 2, before he started his final hike to his camp. Walt died on the trail just above Charlebois Spring. 

Gene Baker and Don Shade found his remains along the trail on May 3, 1984. There was a story told that a rich bonanza of gold was found in his backpack or was removed by an unknown party.

A story was told that Walt Gassler had found a rich deposit or cache of bonanza grade gold ore on Peter’s Mesa or somewhere nearby. It is said that near this cache or vein there is an unusual tree that has grown out of its natural ecosystem. Walt was said to have described the tree as an Ironwood. These desert legumes general, live well below 2,500 feet. They cannot survive freezing weather.

The Ironwood tree is easy to identify because of its heavy, dense wood and its flowers are lavender or purple in color. I have never seen an Ironwood on Peter’s Mesa, but I have not covered the entire mesa during the past fifty years or so. I suppose now we can call this the “Lost Ironwood Mine.”

Maybe, or maybe not, this is another tall tale about the legendary Superstition Mountains.