Given their cryptic habits and propensity for camouflage, looking for reptiles and amphibians is a scavenger hunt at the best of times. But that's part of the appeal: for every frog that hops into a pond there's a handful you don't see; for every lizard you spot, there's a dozen you won't. And snakes? Better if you don't know. Sure herpetologists (reptile and amphibian people) develop a search image that raises the probability of finding something, but it still requires work: turning over rocks and logs, digging in muck, poking in holes. Sometime in the last century, however, a lightbulb went off for true aficionados: why knock yourself out when you can hunt critters from a rolling La-Z-Boy? That means driving roads at night—a.k.a. "road cruising."
Given the right conditions and a co-operative stretch, a road at night is a herpetologist's best friend; a kind of one-stop shopping in the Foul & Loathsome aisle at NatureMart. If it's a warm night, reptiles move about, sometimes adorning the surface to soak up heat. Raining? Amphibians are on the move. Cloudy and humid? Everything mobilizes.
Road-cruising requires its own set of skills. In Eastern Canada, where I logged the majority of my night routes as a grad student, I learned to distinguish, at speed and through pouring rain on jet-black pavement, three species of salamanders and five species of frogs. It was also a way to locate spring breeding ponds: when we clocked an ear-splitting chorus of frogs through an open car window, we'd stop the vehicle (ostensibly safely; in reality not so much), grab boots, nets, ear-plugs (really) and slosh off into the blackness.
In hot and dry places like deserts, road cruising is often the only way to discover what lives there. One night, when coastal fog enticed a litany of creatures onto the road, I drove half the length of the Baja Peninsula with some Mexican herpetologists listening to mariachi radio between screeching halts ostensibly to photograph yet another bizarre specimen, but more often to have the creatures empty their bowels, bladders and musk glands on us. At one stop I clambered excitedly out of the car to pick up a dead rattlesnake that wasn't; while making this unwelcome observation a scorpion scurried up my leg.
Years later, I encountered a similar scene in the desert of deserts, Death Valley. When a freak fog descended it was like a switch was thrown, and the once-empty road sprang to life. The first thing we saw were millipedes, centipedes, spiders and solifugids — strange, ghost-like arachnids with enormous fangs that appeared to blow across the pavement like wisps of dried grass. Then there came a baby desert horned lizard, button-cute and the size of a quarter. And plenty of snakes: juvenile gopher snakes sadly squashed in record numbers; a tiny desert nightsnake (go figure), with its mild-manners but paralyzing dose (if you're its lizard prey) of rear-fang-delivered venom; determined sidewinders threw measured coils ahead in what seemed an awkward, legless limp over pavement but was, in sand, one of nature's most exquisitely efficient forms of locomotion; and there was even a gorgeous, grey-white rosy boa, subtly striped in pastel pink.
Though I hadn't done a good road cruise in years, last week's incinerating heat and the visit of a scientist friend whose lifetime bucket list included seeing a rubber boa lured me once again back to this lost art. After spending the day in 35C heat in Pemberton, visiting den sites and a number of other tried-and-true locations, we'd returned to Whistler with our Plans A, B and C abject failures, knowing our last and only chance lay in the cooling (but still warm) darkness. So we grabbed a Thermos of coffee, left Whistler at sunset, and hit a dirt road in the nether-reaches of the Pembysphere just before the witching hour. This was critical because there typically is a witching hour in this enterprise, in summer moderated by the interplay of temperature and dewpoint. Our first hour turned up nothing but bears and scampering rodents, and then boom, within a five-minute window western toads appeared everywhere, and 10 minutes later, the first rubber boa slithered into view.
The scene of herp-nerds spotting something on the road (let alone something they are actually looking for), slamming on the brakes, and hopping out excitedly with headlamp beams swinging is something right out of a Th Far Side comic. And bonus, my friend's first rubber boa was a female as big as they get. Handling the harmless animal reminded me again how tactile a snake is — how it can flow innocently through your hands like water or resist with the muscled grip of a handshake — like a squeeze from your subconscious. A reminder of the treasure that is unseen nature.
After a few photos, we let her go on the side of the road she was heading for, having helped her passage just as a pick-up roared by. We found more after that, but the raw thrill lay with the first — and the knowledge that Plan D actually worked.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.