Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Snakes Alive!!!

Not in Oregon any more ...

Alright, confession time.  When I finally confirmed our family was moving to Hong Kong Island from Bend Oregon, I was somewhat excited to see that there were no predatory animals on the island.  Snakes, yes, but from what I read, snake sightings are VERY RARE, and besides, they tend to run away.  Although the snakes that are on the island can be venomous (with the two to worry about being cobras and a small green snake that can be aggressive), the other snakes such as pythons and giant rat snakes are non-venomous.  The bite may hurt but they will not (likely) kill you.  But no mountain lions, bears or other large animals that can lurk in the minds of runners, and occasionally show themselves during the most unexpected time of a run.   Don’t read this to mean that I don’t like and appreciate these animals  and their place in the ecosystem, I have just had enough interactions to give a quiet cheer knowing that I probably wouldn’t have to worry about them while exploring the trails of Hong Kong. 

Thinking back to the words that I read that snake sightings are “VERY RARE” I should have known that that applies to the person who spends most of their time in the shopping malls (seemingly the preferred way to spend time off for the average Hong Kong worker), versus the ultra-runner who seeks out interesting, unpopulated trail on a regular basis. 
We moved to Hong Kong mid-August.  My first three weeks in Hong Kong were hot and humid – ugh – I’d come back from a run more drenched than if I had stood in a shower with the water on full blast.  Living in the high desert of Bend, I never had to worry about sweating so much I couldn’t keep my shorts up.  Now I finally know why shorts have the waist cord – that little cord is all that keeps me from certain jail time for indecent exposure.    But, no snake sightings…to that point.
The green in this map of HK island is all park with trails!!

Hong Kong Island is the most densely populated island in the world.  Some 1.2 million people are squeezed onto this island of 31 sq. miles.  So how is this so livable?  Thanks to the visionaries who planned the city development, almost 40% (I've also heard this quoted as 70%, but I'm not sure) of the island is dedicated to green space.  The green space is divided into multiple major parks which encompass the central part of Hong Kong Island. Pretty much from anywhere on the island, one can be on trail or a connector to trail in a matter of minutes.  The trail might be paved, but at least it is car free and usually surrounded by greenery.  Trail running here is a mix of asphalt, stone, stairs, single-track dirt, and technical rock and root running.  And very hilly.  I think last week in my 90+ mile of running, I managed over 17,000 ft. of gain, and that’s without trying to get in hill repeats. 
Once we found a permanent apartment, I started frequenting the trails on the north east side of the island.  Since I hadn’t seen any snakes in my first three weeks, I was growing bolder in choosing my routes.  One morning I spied a marked but not well maintained trail going up a large stream towards the top of Mount Butler.  After about a quarter of a mile off the main track the trail turned into rock hopping up stream.   Water, rocks, sun.  These are the three things I think about back in Bend when I am in rattle snake territory.  It usually is the recipe for snakes sighting, especially in the morning when snakes are out warming up their bodies.  But is that the same in Hong Kong?   I shouldn’t have been surprised when I jumped on a rock, and out of the rock one step ahead moved the largest snake I had seen to date.  Five to six feet long, and with a circumference of my lower forearm.  I think as soon as it felt the vibration of me landing near a rock where it was sunning itself, it decided to get out of the way.  So it moved, faster than I’ve ever seen a snake move, in a direction away from me.   My snake radar was on extra high for the rest of the run…
Similar to first snake I saw - probably Chinese cobra
Three days later, and still with a little extra hop in my step from my snake sighting from a few days earlier, I was out on a longish run.  In my mind, there were two areas to be weary of snakes in Hong Kong, one was rocky terrain next to water, and the other being the very dense rocky, rooting overgrown trails where I would imagine a snake would be happy hanging out under the leaves or terrain underfoot, or better yet, in the trees which are overhanging the route. 
This is the type of terrain I thought I'd see a snake...but I was wrong
In my three hours of running, I had made it through what I thought was the snakiest terrain, the rocky rooty overgrown stuff, and was congratulating myself on not seeing any snakes.  I let out a sigh of relief and checked my watch, thinking I had only about 20 some minutes before I was done.  As I glanced at my watch, I heard what sounded like a large animal moving through the brush on the hillside to my left.  As I turned my head left to see what it was, I saw the mid-section of a snake, the circumference of my calf, shooting out of the brush on the hill about an inch behind my left shoulder.  Three thoughts came to mind in that instant: 

1)      This was a very different snake than what I saw three days earlier – dark greyish green with a light belly versus the solid black color of the other snake, and HUGE;

2)      It was moving really fast;

3)      If the body was at my shoulder, the head was somewhere around my legs…
SPRINT!!!  I had just had a snake conversation with an Aussie friend who recalled an incident from his boyhood in Australia where a cobra chased his friend on the beach. 

Can't get this image to load right, but look at it with your head tilted right...this is where the snake came in - from the left side at shoulder height.

Similar to the midsection I saw near my left shoulder.  Snake I saw was darker - olive/grey with light belly.
I didn’t know if this particular snake was chasing me, or if it was chasing something else and I got in its way, or worse, something else was chasing it…but my feet reacted before anything else, and I sprinted.
About a minute further down the trail, I came to an intersection where there are always people.  I really really wanted to see people.  But there were none.   I stopped, and just stood there, shaking and laughing because I really wanted to cry, but I can’t because I live here now and I can’t just leave tomorrow.  WTF!!!??? was all I could think.    My husband is dying to see a snake, and I can’t keep away from them.  And a huge snake…HUGE…how are the citizens of Hong Kong not terrified???
I still had about a mile and a half of trail before I hit the road that led to home.  To say I shook the rest of the way is an understatement.  I jumped 10 feet at any rustle in the brush.  I finally saw other humans, and they had the look of complacency - - even happiness.  How could anyone on this trail be …just be… with monsters lurking in the brush?? 

I’ve told this story to really anyone who will hear it here in Hong Kong.  I just want to know if anyone has had something similar.  Is this a regular occurrence – giant snakes coming out of the brush??  Two large snake sightings in three days?  Here is the general consensus of those locals who I have polled:

1.        The snake was likely a giant rat snake or a python.  If it was a python I should be “happy” because sightings are very rare.  
2.       Large snakes don’t really chase down their prey; they wait for the prey to come to it.  Therefore, the snake was probably spooked by something, and moving in the general direction of downhill.  I was just unfortunate enough to cross the trail at the exact moment it came hurling out of the brush.

3.       These big snakes will bite when spooked/cornered.  I’m probably luckier than I think I am.

My general conclusion is that I have used up all my snake karma for my time in Hong Kong; therefore, I should not see another snake for a really really long time.  Although this theory was tested, only a week later, when I was out running with a new friend from Hong Kong, Claire Price (ultra runner extraordinaire – keep an eye out for her results).  We were in a dry and sunny section when my foot almost landed on a small snake.  The little snake (6 inches??) was confused and couldn’t figure out how to get away.  My brain registered the snake a second before Claire yelled “snake!”   Then she said she “never” sees snakes in this area.  Her other comment was that my shoes – which are bright green – might be a part of the problem.  She has been running the same trails for years, and has had a few snake sighting, but nothing like my experiences in such a short time.  I have since changed to different colored shoes.  And haven’t seen another snake…