A Wild Life: Stories of Bear and Rattlesnake Encounters in the NorCal Wilderness

When you spend enough time in wild places, you’re bound to run into a few of the creatures that call it home. Dorothy might have had her “lions and tigers and bears,” but somehow “lions, rattlesnakes and bears” doesn’t have the same ring to it. Nevertheless, there must be something special or perhaps mystical about these encounters that chisel them so deeply into memory. I doubt I’ve ever forgotten even one.

Largest Bear I’ve Ever Seen

Since my first encounter with bears in the Canadian wilderness as a teenager, I’ve somehow managed to cavort with bears somewhat regularly. Only once did I ever feel a sensation of fear. This was in Northern California’s Whiskeytown National Recreation Area.

The climate and natural beauty of the mountainous areas of California could lure even the most jaded hermit outdoors. On this particular day I was just taking a long hike in the woods on one of the park’s many terrific trails. I was deep in the woods and the trail was descending a gradually sloping ridge. There were tall trees all around, and I noted there must be a small creek down slope to my right because I noted thick blackberry bushes. Id been pushing myself fairly hard, so I stopped for a moment to catch my breath. Then I spotted it.

I noticed a hint of movement in the blackberry bushes just below me, and quickly made out the shape of a huge bear feeding on the thick clumps of berries. The bear had not seen me.

It was the largest black bear I had ever seen. Black bears come in a variety of colors, and this one was almost blond. I’d seen lots of skinny bears, but this one was thick and robust. Due to its size and age there was a massive hump on its back rounding down into a pair of great shoulders and thick forelegs from which hung long, curving claws. I knew there were no grizzly bears in California, but this black bear could have been easily passed for one.

I felt a little awkward just standing there watching, and began feeling a little naked and vulnerable. The bear was no more than a hundred feet away, and I wondered what I would do if it came for me. It could easily outrun me if it wanted to. Then, as if it had read my mind, the bear’s eyes lined up with mine and our eyes locked. It was an intensely uncomfortable moment. I knew that running from a bear might well inspire it to chase me, so trying my best to seem cool and nonchalant, I slowly backed down the trial and around a bend, far enough away to feel I could turn my back. Then I started singing my head off hoping my caterwauling would empty the vicinity of any other potentially dangerous wildlife nearby. It apparently worked.

It’s grand when you encounter bears and you know they can’t get you. It’s common to think wild animals are always acutely aware of their surroundings, but I don’t think that’s always the case. How this bear failed to see me standing in the upper Sacramento River (at Pollard Flat) as he approached on the other side baffles me to this day. It wasn’t a wide river, but it was fairly deep and with a strong current. This bear apparently wanted a drink, and came lumbering down the steep, almost cliff-like face of the hill directly across from me.

I knew bears are good swimmers because I had seen them in the water before. But so was I. Many years as a competitive swimmer had inflated my confidence. I also knew this bear would have to want me pretty badly to swim the river, and I thought I could elude him by jumping in if I had to and floating downstream. It was a bet worth taking.

The late Robert Traver’s writing has always meant a lot to me. He wrote of a bear encounter in upper Michigan that suddenly came to mind while watching this clueless bruin, and I decided to do what he did.

The bear was lapping at the water like a big dog. “Hellooo, Mr. bear,” I cried in a booming voice while removing my hat and bowing with great ceremony. The effect was like jumping out from behind a door and yelling, “BOO” at an unsuspecting human. The bear did a classic double take. A visible jolt rippled across its body and he turned tail and almost flew back up the steep bank and back into the woods. Part of me must have felt a little shameless for taking advantage of an unobservant, thirsty bear, but instead I realized it was the perfect end to my evening. I waded back to shore and headed for my car parked close by singing a happy song (perhaps slightly louder than usual) and watching my surroundings closely.

Rattlesnake Scare

That’s a wise thing to do, watching closely, that is. Rural Northern California is rattlesnake country, and I admit to having an acute revulsion toward snakes of any stripe. Of course snakes might be just about anywhere in rattlesnake country, but the most likely places to encounter them are as far away from man as possible, the very places I am drawn to.

Rattlesnakes are the victims of nothing shy of propaganda at the hands of Hollywood. Rattlesnake encounters on the silver screen portray these gentle creatures as Satan’s own spawn as if they lay in wait for any opportunity to attack humans. Not only is this completely untrue, but it is also the direct polar opposite of how these creatures really are. I’m not saying rattlesnakes will not bite. Under certain circumstances, mainly when they have no other choice, they will attack. But if humans were anywhere near as shy of violence as rattlesnakes are, the world would certainly be a more peaceful place. The rattlesnakes I’ve encountered, and there have been quite a few, could be rightly called “gentlemanly.”

One rattlesnake in particular comes to mind, one of the two I’ve seen in the wild that stretched to at least six feet long. It was in the northwestern section of Yellowstone National Park not far from Gardiner, Montana. Of course I had read all the literature about the Park, which claimed to be too high in elevation for rattlesnakes. Well, guess what?

Even in a place as large as Yellowstone, I confess to wanting to get as far away from other people as possible. Generally speaking, this means hiking only a few miles, but it’s enough to leave the vast majority of casual visitors behind. 

I was there to fish a fairly remote section of the Yellowstone River, and followed a faint path that headed down into the Yellowstone canyon. My problem was that I had taken the Park literature as Gospel, actually thinking I need not worry about snakes. It looked like rattlesnake country to me. I knew I was off the beaten path as I topped a hill and disturbed a lone antelope that loped away in a flash as if it were attached to coil springs. The path began to descend into an area where lush, green grass stood out from the otherwise brown landscape.

Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh went the snake, and I knew the sound well and froze. Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh went the snake again and I traced the sound to a fairly narrow opening in the grass. The head moved and I caught sight of it. My gaze followed the languid, brown body back, back and further back until I spied the rattle, which much have been six inches long. Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh went the snake, but it never took an aggressive stance. It never coiled, and a snake cannot strike without coiling first. The snake obviously had no intention of causing me harm, and was merely issuing a warning to prevent being stepped on. Who could blame him? In fact, it was a considerate thing to do. I tipped my hat to him and kept hiking.

One very likely place to encounter rattlesnakes is on the Nature Conservancy beat of the McCloud River, one of my very favorite fishing venues. There are several miles of remote river to fish, and the Conservancy limits the number of rods on the water to ten at a time. 

One day I was there fishing, and a big guy had apparently fallen and broken his ankle. The Nature Conservancy caretaker asked if I could join a group trying to carry him out on a stretcher to a place paramedics could get to him. 

It was brutally hard work, and the four of us could only negotiate about fifty feet of trail carrying this huge guy between rest stops. At one point we had laid him on the trail and were catching our breath, when someone said in a soft voice, “Don’t anyone panic. There is a rattlesnake about two feet to our right.”

There sure was. It was only about a three-footer, not coiled, watching us curiously as its tongue slipped in and out of its mouth. We moved as if in slow motion. Down, down, down I bent never taking my eyes off the snake. I grasped my handle and couldn’t help but notice how close our patient’s face was to the snake. On three we slowly lifted and began moving as one, each man stiffening as he passed in front of the snake. 

Of course, once you know there is one snake around you begin imagining them everywhere. Unfortunately, Hollywood has made this genuinely passive, reclusive creature into something else entirely. While I’ve seen at least a hundred rattlesnakes in the wild, I’ve never seen an aggressive one. They do not seem to want to bite anyone. They do seem like they want to get the hell away from humans and be left alone. They act just as horrified by our presence as we sometimes do by theirs. They must think all we know are four-letter words.

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.


  1. Hi there, I found your blog via Google at the same time as searching for a similar matter, your web site got here up, it seems good. I have bookmarked it in my google bookmarks.

  2. Hello! I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog before but after reading through some of the post I realized it’s new to me. Nonetheless, I’m definitely glad I found it and I’ll be bookmarking and checking back often!

  3. I am curious to find out what blog system you happen to be working with? I’m experiencing some minor security problems with my latest site and I would like to find something more safeguarded. Do you have any suggestions?

  4. Hey There. I found your blog using msn. This is an extremely smartly written article. I will be sure to bookmark it and come back to read more of your useful information. Thank you for the post. I will definitely comeback.

  5. Its like you read my mind! You seem to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could do with some pics to drive the message home a bit, but other than that, this is wonderful blog. An excellent read. I’ll definitely be back.

  6. I was wondering if you ever considered changing the layout of your site? Its very well written; I love what youve got to say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only having one or two images. Maybe you could space it out better?

  7. Howdy! I could have sworn I’ve been to this site before but after browsing through some of the post I realized it’s new to me. Anyways, I’m definitely happy I found it and I’ll be bookmarking and checking back often!

  8. Its like you read my mind! You seem to understand so much approximately this, like you wrote the ebook in it or something. I think that you could do with some p.c. to pressure the message house a bit, however other than that, this is wonderful blog. A great read. I’ll definitely be back.

  9. Appreciating the commitment you put into your site and in depth information you present. It’s great to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same outdated rehashed material. Wonderful read! I’ve saved your site and I’m including your RSS feeds to my Google account.

  10. Greetings! I know this is kinda off topic however , I’d figured I’d ask. Would you be interested in exchanging links or maybe guest writing a blog article or vice-versa? My site goes over a lot of the same subjects as yours and I believe we could greatly benefit from each other. If you are interested feel free to send me an e-mail. I look forward to hearing from you! Awesome blog by the way!

  11. whoah this blog is magnificent i love reading your articles. Stay up the good work! You realize, many individuals are searching around for this info, you can help them greatly.

  12. Hello there! Do you know if they make any plugins to protect against hackers? I’m kinda paranoid about losing everything I’ve worked hard on. Any suggestions?

  13. Hi, I think your website might be having browser compatibility issues. When I look at your blog in Chrome, it looks fine but when opening in Internet Explorer, it has some overlapping. I just wanted to give you a quick heads up! Other then that, superb blog!

  14. Have you ever considered about including a little bit more than just your articles? I mean, what you say is valuable and all. Nevertheless think about if you added some great photos or video clips to give your posts more, “pop”! Your content is excellent but with images and clips, this website could undeniably be one of the greatest in its niche. Excellent blog!

  15. I truly love your blog.. Pleasant colors & theme. Did you develop this site yourself? Please reply back as I’m wanting to create my own blog and would like to know where you got this from or what the theme is called. Cheers!

  16. Unquestionably believe that which you stated. Your favorite justification appeared to be on the net the simplest thing to be aware of. I say to you, I definitely get irked while people consider worries that they plainly do not know about. You managed to hit the nail upon the top as well as defined out the whole thing without having side effect , people can take a signal. Will likely be back to get more. Thanks

  17. I absolutely love your blog and find the majority of your post’s to be what precisely I’m looking for. Does one offer guest writers to write content to suit your needs? I wouldn’t mind creating a post or elaborating on some of the subjects you write related to here. Again, awesome web log!

  18. It is perfect time to make some plans for the future and it is time to be happy. I have read this post and if I could I wish to suggest you few interesting things or suggestions. Perhaps you could write next articles referring to this article. I wish to read more things about it!

  19. Hi there! This post couldn’t be written any better! Going through this post reminds me of my previous roommate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this article to him. Pretty sure he’ll have a good read. Thanks for sharing!

  20. Please let me know if you’re looking for a article writer for your site. You have some really great posts and I believe I would be a good asset. If you ever want to take some of the load off, I’d absolutely love to write some material for your blog in exchange for a link back to mine. Please blast me an e-mail if interested. Many thanks!

  21. Awesome blog! Do you have any suggestions for aspiring writers? I’m planning to start my own site soon but I’m a little lost on everything. Would you suggest starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many choices out there that I’m totally confused .. Any suggestions? Kudos!

  22. Thank you for another informative web site. Where else may I am getting that kind of info written in such a perfect way? I have a challenge that I am simply now operating on, and I have been at the glance out for such information.

  23. I really love your site.. Excellent colors & theme. Did you develop this website yourself? Please reply back as I’m trying to create my own website and want to learn where you got this from or exactly what the theme is called. Many thanks!

  24. When I originally commented I seem to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now every time a comment is added I get four emails with the same comment. Perhaps there is a way you can remove me from that service? Appreciate it!

  25. Hi there! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this page to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thanks for sharing!

  26. I used to be recommended this blog through my cousin. I am not positive whether this submit is written via him as no one else recognize such specific approximately my problem. You are amazing! Thank you!

  27. Hi there, I found your web site by means of Google even as searching for a similar matter, your site got here up, it seems to be good. I have bookmarked it in my google bookmarks.

  28. Thank you for another wonderful article. Where else may just anyone get that kind of information in such a perfect method of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I am at the look for such information.

  29. Fantastic goods from you, man. I’ve take note your stuff prior to and you’re simply too magnificent. I really like what you’ve acquired here, really like what you’re stating and the best way through which you are saying it. You are making it entertaining and you still take care of to stay it sensible. I cant wait to read far more from you. This is actually a great site.

  30. Hi, I do believe this is an excellent web site. I stumbledupon it 😉 I am going to come back once again since I book marked it. Money and freedom is the best way to change, may you be rich and continue to help other people.

  31. I feel this is one of the so much important information for me. And i’m glad reading your article. However wanna observation on few general things, The website taste is perfect, the articles is in reality excellent : D. Good activity, cheers

  32. Do you mind if I quote a couple of your posts as long as I provide credit and sources back to your website? My blog site is in the very same area of interest as yours and my visitors would definitely benefit from a lot of the information you present here. Please let me know if this alright with you. Many thanks!

  33. Heya i’m for the first time here. I came across this board and I find It truly useful & it helped me out a lot. I hope to give something back and help others like you helped me.

  34. With havin so much content and articles do you ever run into any problems of plagorism or copyright violation? My website has a lot of completely unique content I’ve either created myself or outsourced but it looks like a lot of it is popping it up all over the web without my agreement. Do you know any techniques to help protect against content from being ripped off? I’d genuinely appreciate it.

  35. Sweet blog! I found it while surfing around on Yahoo News. Do you have any tips on how to get listed in Yahoo News? I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there! Cheers

  36. Wonderful site you have here but I was curious if you knew of any user discussion forums that cover the same topics talked about in this article? I’d really love to be a part of group where I can get comments from other knowledgeable individuals that share the same interest. If you have any recommendations, please let me know. Appreciate it!

  37. Whats up this is kinda of off topic but I was wondering if blogs use WYSIWYG editors or if you have to manually code with HTML. I’m starting a blog soon but have no coding skills so I wanted to get advice from someone with experience. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

  38. Simply want to say your article is as surprising. The clearness in your post is simply cool and i can assume you are an expert on this subject. Well with your permission allow me to grab your RSS feed to keep up to date with forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please keep up the gratifying work.

  39. Magnificent beat ! I wish to apprentice while you amend your site, how can i subscribe for a blog web site? The account aided me a acceptable deal. I had been tiny bit acquainted of this your broadcast provided bright clear concept

  40. I’m impressed, I must say. Rarely do I encounter a blog that’s equally educative and engaging, and let me tell you, you have hit the nail on the head. The issue is something that not enough folks are speaking intelligently about. I’m very happy that I found this in my search for something concerning this.

  41. Howdy! Quick question that’s entirely off topic. Do you know how to make your site mobile friendly? My site looks weird when viewing from my iphone. I’m trying to find a theme or plugin that might be able to correct this problem. If you have any suggestions, please share. With thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button