The Snakes of Bloodroot Island (at Hudson Mills)


The author’s grandsons sit on the retaining wall of Bloodroot Island watching the snakes warm themselves in the sun. Photo by Doug Marrin.

“Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” – Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark

At Hudson Mills Metropark, nestled along the banks of the Mighty Huron, is a world full of serpentine wonders. Here, among the embankments, a secret society of snakes thrives, hidden in plain sight - a settlement of Northern Water Snakes.

“They are pretty common in our area and throughout Michigan,” explains Stephanie Kozak, Interpreter at Hudson Mills. “They typically are most active around April and June because that's when they meet and breed. But you can see them swimming and feeding on amphibians and fish throughout the summertime and basking themselves on the banks of rivers and ponds and anywhere close by our waterways here in Michigan.”

Northern Water Snakes come in a variety of tans, grays, and browns. Photo by Doug Marrin.

A favorite hangout for the snakes is among the rocks supporting the bridge and rampart to Bloodroot Island. The imagery alone is worth a visit. Hey kids, would you like to go to Bloodroot Island and watch a pit of snakes? They’ll be in the car before you can grab the keys.

As you lean over the edge of the stone retaining wall on a sunny day, you might spot these fascinating creatures lounging on warm rocks or peeking out from the water's vegetation. However, a bit of a spectator's warning: your newfound friends are a tad shy. Your presence might just send them writhing against the current of the Mighty Huron in search of a quieter sunbathing spot.

“They are a very nervous snake,” explains Stephanie. “They usually try to bite if they're handled, cornered, or restrained. It's always best to keep your distance.”

It’s a lesson one young adventurer found out the hard way. Joe Shannon of Saline wrote into the Sun Times News that his seven-year-old grandson was catching crayfish at Mill Pond in Saline when he spotted a water snake and grabbed it. While water snakes are not poisonous, they don’t take being handled (ahem) lying down.

“They are aggressive and, as my grandson learned, will bite,” wrote Joe. “The bites were not deep and required no bandaging. After I cleaned him up, he grabbed his net and got back in the creek. I think he learned his lesson.”

A close look shows the red marks on Joe Shannon’s grandson’s hands and wrists where the water snake repeatedly bit him. No skin was broken. The young outdoorsman shook it off and went back to catching crayfish. Photos courtesy of Joe Shannon.

A bite is not the only bad thing that could happen to you.

“If handled, they do release a foul-smelling anal secretion,” says Stephanie with a laugh. “It's like a musk with a pretty intense smell that will stay with you for a long time. So, although we may be interested, intrigued, or excited about a snake, I discourage handling it for the stress of the snake itself and the potential of getting bit or the musk. It’s pretty foul smelling.”

The Northern Water Snake is patterned with a tan, gray, or brown wardrobe. These intricate designs, which often appear as square blotches, may blend into bands, camouflaging them beautifully against their aquatic backdrop.

“They are non-venomous but have some similar markings to our one venomous snake in Michigan, which is the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake,” explains Stephanie. “They are often confused with the Massasauga.”

She goes on to explain that the Massasauga isn’t a water snake. If the snake is active in the water, it’s almost guaranteed to be a Northern Water Snake. Like the ultimate Michigander, you’ll find water snakes enjoying the refreshing waters across the lower and upper eastern peninsulas. And they’re a bit of a conservationist by helping to keep certain populations in check and doing some minor cleanup.

“They are great at eating frogs and fish,” says Stephanie. “They often will eat dead fish as well, helping to clean up our fish populations. They also benefit our fishermen because they often consume stunted or overcrowded fish populations.”

The snakes love the rocky warmth and protection and proximity to water. Photo by Doug Marrin.

So maybe the next time you’re at Hudson Mills, doing a lap, or just having fun, take a moment to peek around the rocky serpentine sanctuary of Bloodroot Island. You might catch a glimpse of the Northern Water Snake basking in the sun or taking a peek at you from among the stones.

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