Out There: I should have known better


I should have known better. A man is foolish to stay where he's just been stung by a yellow jacket.

A friend agrees to pose for backpacking photographs on a woodland trail. We shoot a few setups, then, suddenly, I am bowled over by searing pain.

It feels like someone has placed a glowing charcoal briquette on my neck. It is, instead, the sting of a yellow jacket.

I continue working. The sting hurts, but the pain will pass. I fail to notice, however, that I was stung by a species of yellow jacket that often builds huge paper nests underground.

These nests are not unlike the nests hornets build in trees. They are much larger than hornet nests, however. Each may contain thousands of yellow jackets.

When this yellow jacket stings a victim, it emits a pheromone that prompts others of its kind to swarm the creature unfortunate enough to disturb the nest. In this case, I am that unfortunate creature.

I am composing another photo when I am stung a second time and a third and a fourth. My photo subject exits the scene immediately. I decide to gather up my photography equipment before making my escape. I should have known better.

In seconds, I am covered with hundreds of stinging yellow jackets.

They boil out around one leg of my tripod, which I have inadvertently stuck in the entrance to their hive. The tripod is left behind as I sprint to safety. The yellow jackets, however, are not. They cover me like a black-and-yellow veil.

My friend, who has dashed into a nearby house, receives several stings as he tries to brush the yellow jackets off my head and clothes.

"My God," he exclaims. "They're everywhere. We must get you to a doctor."

Had I been allergic to their stings, the yellow jackets would have killed me. They nearly killed me, anyway. By the time my friend drove me to the nearest hospital, I was in shock.
The physician who attended me counted more than 300 stings. It felt like a thousand. I was admitted to the hospital and kept overnight for observation.

When I returned two days later to retrieve my photography equipment, yellow jackets still swarmed it. It was more than a week before I got up enough nerve to get it all back, and, in doing so, I received several more stings.

I should have known better. Never bring a venomous snake into your house.

Driving slowly through a campground on patrol, I spy an enormous rattlesnake warming itself on the roadway. It is Independence Day weekend. The campground is full of visitors.

As park ranger, I must protect those visitors. The snake, I decide, must be captured and moved. Besides, it will make a great photo subject.

I have captured dozens of rattlesnakes before, but none as large as this. She thrashes terribly when I grasp her with snake tongs. Soon, however, I have the gigantic reptile stuffed in a small cage.

I transport the snake to a friend's house. He agrees, hesitantly, to help me measure her. She stretches six feet, two inches.

We transfer her to a cardboard box, so she won't be so crowded. It is past midnight now, so I must wait to photograph the rattlesnake. I seal the box with duct tape and place it on my kitchen floor.

I arise early and grab my camera. But when I lift the box, it is surprisingly light. The snake has pushed a hold through the cardboard and escaped … inside my house!

Certainly such a large animal cannot hide for long. But my search efforts are futile. I cannot find the deadly reptile.

I have seen victims writhe in agony after being bitten by venomous snakes much smaller than this one. I imagine the terrible pain I will feel when the snake strikes from its hiding place and buries its inch-long fangs into my flesh.

Brave friends are called in to help search, but the snake isn't found. There is nothing else to do. The next day, I move out of the rental property. On the door I post a note. "Beware! A large rattlesnake escaped in this house and was never found."

When I drive past the house three years later, it still is vacant.

I should have known better. I should have left the scene at the first hint of danger. Of course, I didn't.

I am walking to a photo blind when a doe appears at the woodland edge. I step behind a tree and watch her. She looks over her shoulder, training her ears behind her. She seems unaware of me.

A 10-point buck now appears, upper lip curled to catch the doe's scent. The doe wheels away and disappears. The buck turns, too, but remains in view. I raise my camera. The buck suddenly turns and faces me, only a small sapling between us.

Snorting and pawing the ground, the deer advances. His spinal hair is erect, his ears laid back. I place a bigger tree between us and yell, "Scat!"

The buck doesn't flee. Instead, he approaches even closer.

Suddenly he springs. His antlers rattle when he crashes into the tree.

Two scenes rush through my mind: an acquaintance killed by a rut-crazed buck he had raised from a fawn; a fellow photographer relating his horror as a rutting whitetail he was photographing gores the deer's owner, nearly causing his death.

As the buck before me tries to regain his addled senses, I turn and run faster than I ever have. I suppose that pleased the deer, for I never saw him again.

I don't leave rattlesnakes in the kitchen anymore. And when I see a buck raise his hackles, I know it's time to hit the road.

I can't seem to avoid yellow jackets, though. I still get stung on occasion, but, when I do, I react instantaneously. You've never seen a fat man run a 100-yard dash as quick as I.

You see, now I know better.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net.