Last weekend I went hiking in Malibu and met a large, angry snake.
Charmlee Park charmed me right away. I hate to admit it, but I didn’t want to tell anyone about this place. It’s gorgeous! And we had it all to ourselves!
Once you get past the nice big parking lot, the abundant and well-placed picnic tables, and the clean bathrooms with running water and flush toilets, and make your way past the hill with the old foundation, the park opens up into a broad scrubby field overlooking the Malibu coast. Clear, level dirt paths lead hither and yon, allowing a casual meander through the park without fear of getting lost.
We arrived in the late afternoon. This is the perfect time for me to snap photos that I can later use for my paintings. The day had been very clear, so the light was superb. The sun was low in the sky and casting lovely long shadows.
While ambling about, my friend and I encountered all sorts of wildlife. There were more lizards than we could count, scurrying on the dirt path almost under our feet. Birds flitted about in the brush. Two groups of coyotes briefly serenaded us from the nearby hills. But by far the most exciting encounter was the snake.
Casually ambling down the dirt path, I was out in front, chatting with my friend behind me. There was a sudden thrashing sound from the brush to my right and a loud hissing sound. I leaped sideways, then froze, peering into the brush to spot the source of the hissing. “Rattlesnake!” yelled my friend. My heart started pounding. Then I spotted it, a large dark snake about as big around as my wrist, coiled up in the grass aimed toward my friend and my dog behind me. It was only a few feet from me, but it had clearly fixated on them instead.
We all remained perfectly still, outside of its strike range. My friend picked up my dog, who is blind and might easily bumble into trouble. The hissing quickly subsided but the snake remained in ready-to-strike position. I watched it slowly flick its tongue in and out.
I realized that it was not a rattlesnake. It had hissed at us, not rattled its tail. Also it was a uniform smooth dark color with no stripes or patterns. Its head was the same size as its neck, instead of the rattler’s distinctive wide cheeks.
We waited a few minutes, but the snake remained coiled. Clearly it was not going to quietly retreat. We needed to get my friend and my dog past it somehow. Finally my friend, still carrying my dog, carefully skirted through the brush on the opposite side of the path to bypass the snake. I kept a close eye on the reptile during this maneuver. The snake never changed position. We gratefully beat a cautious retreat.
We decided that the snake had probably been more worried about my dog than us. A dog is similar to a coyote, which may be the snake’s predator. Once the dog was picked up, the snake no longer had a target. It hadn’t paid any attention to me even though I was much closer to it, and it hadn’t tracked my friend’s progress skirting around it.
When we returned home, we looked up common southern California snakes to figure out what it was. We finally settled on the Western Yellow-Bellied Racer, but not before a great deal of confusion. These snakes come in a lot of different colors, and the pictures we found were of much lighter-colored snakes than what we’d seen. For a while we were thrown off by that, but eventually we found a picture online that looked a lot like our friend:
This is almost exactly how the snake looked from my vantage point. The information we found says they don’t get much longer than 3 feet, but I thought it was bigger than that.
Yellow-Bellied Racers are nonvenomous, but they are prone to bite if irritated. I’d say the one we saw was pretty irritated. We were happy to get past it without any harm done on either side.