I moved to Florida from New York when I was seven. My parents, hoping to encourage reading and familiarity with my new surroundings, bought me a pocket field guide to Florida, and in those pages I became obsessed with snakes.
Stevenson’s Creek, a block from our home, contained thousands of snakes, my mother assured me. Copperheads, coral snakes, water moccasins and rattlers had me checking under my bed nightly. Suburban Florida? In my mind, I was yards away from the misty, primordial Florida swamp.
I know now that copperheads prefer north Florida, and I’ve grown used to seeing rattlers. I love corn snakes and black racers. Water moccasins? Honestly, I’m not a fan. But those dainty coral snakes? They alternately enchant and petrify me. I fear this diminutive reptile, with its splashy colors and reclusive nature more than all five of Florida’s other venomous snakes combined.
Every snake in my childhood Field Guide to Florida had mud-colored, bumpy skin, or a drawing of them prepared to strike, fangs dripping with venom. Not so with the coral snake; it was so, well, pretty. It simply didn’t look like it could kill me. But, I read on to discover, it could.
Before my first summer ended in Florida I’d memorized the adage, “if his nose is black, he’s bad for Jack.” Words that would help me know if I was about to die at the fangs of a coral snake or scare off a friendly king snake with my mighty screams.
As I got older and fell ever more in love with Florida’s swampy bits and wooded inroads, I lay aside my fear. Their brightly patterned bands and fatal nibbles were, in fact, the furthest thing from my mind as I made my way to Lake Chautauqua at the north Clearwater park of the same name.
I love the overgrown, abandoned feel of this park. Amidst the walking trails, a crumbling chimney hides under vines and palms. Some paths are clearly marked while you can find your way on others only by the least foliated spots.
That was where I saw her. She was beautiful, slithering along a downed tree. I stopped, the sudden silence filling the space where the crunching leaves had been. I squatted, hoping to come closer. I raised my camera.
Over 30 years of Florida living and mental recitations of the old adage left me woefully unprepared for this moment. I floundered; was a black nose bad for Jack, or a friend to Jack?
I raised my camera as she wound her way around twigs and glided over leaves closer to me. As the sun bounced off the rough umbered bark of the fallen tree and the wind moved through the oaks and pines, my heart raced.
A coral snake! A real, live coral snake.
A venomous, potentially deadly coral snake. And me with no cell phone or clear idea of where in the tiny park I had wandered into.
Before my heart could explode with sheer terror, she slithered beneath the log. Gone, without pausing for so much as a photo, much less to kill me as I always imagined she would.
I stepped carefully around that fallen tree and made my way to a path on the other edge of the park, senses heightened. I was no longer afraid; instead, I regretted wasting the moment on fear.
The bright clusters of purple berries, the wild coffee and Virginia creeper- all these things paled as I looked at every pile of deadfall, wishing fervently for another glance. It was one of the best moments I’ve ever had in Florida.
I did not see another coral snake that day, but I will be back. I know she’s there, somewhere.
This time, I’ll be ready.
More about the park:
Best for: Plant, bird and reptile lovers. Limited parking. No facilities. Lake fishing allowed. The park is not large, but bring water as the days grow warmer. Chautaqua Park East, 2312 Landmark Drive, Clearwater, 33759.