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Snake lovers hit southern Illinois for annual migrations

SHAWNEE NATIONAL FOREST – You don’t have to be a herpetologist to savor the slice of this federal forest where a stunning array of reptiles and amphibians congregates beneath soaring limestone bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River.

Whether trained zoologist or weekend hiker – or in my case, someone with a lifelong aversion to the scaly creatures after a frightening childhood encounter on a family trip to Florida – a visit to the place locals call Snake Road offers a glance of biological diversity worth the 100-mile detour from St. Louis into rural southern Illinois.

For 2 months each spring, the U.S. Forest Service closes a 2.5-mile road segment to car traffic to allow migrating snakes, lizards, frogs and salamanders to move freely from their winter habitat along and beneath the bluffs to their summer feeding grounds in the low-lying swamp to the west. The road is again closed each September and October as the migration reverses.

Before the federal agency first restricted vehicular access to the LaRue-Pine Hills/Otter Pond Research Area more than 4 decades ago, hunters “would come down here with pickup trucks and shotguns and shoot every snake on the road,” said Charlie Hoessle, 83, a retired St. Louis Zoo director and unabashed snake lover who has visited the area since the 1950s.

Snake Road now attracts visitors from across the country, said Chad Deaton, a Forest Service wildlife biologist.

Snake Road is no “Raiders of the Lost Ark” – the snakes don’t dominate the landscape but instead blend into the natural environment. So patience is a virtue and, with all things Mother Nature, so is a bit of luck.

That said, warm and sunny days when the ground is adequately heated offer the best viewing conditions, according to Deaton, with late morning and late afternoon particularly good times of day.

Hoessle, who was hired by famed zoologist and “Wild Kingdom” TV host Marlin Perkins at the St. Louis Zoo, calls Snake Road an invaluable living classroom to help better understand the natural environment.

“They’re not cuddly like cats and dogs. You don’t get a lot of affection,” the former exotic pet store owner said, describing the reptilian aversion of many. “But it teaches you an appreciation for wildlife in general. This is a natural world. Man and beast have to live together.”

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