The Flying Snakes of Knobby Rock

by Marc Evans, KNLT Board Chair, and Tom Dupree, Sr., businessman, philanthropist & founding member of KNLT’s Board

It was the spring of 1992. I was just starting to explore a large tract of what appeared to be old growth forest on Pine Mountain, in Harlan County, Kentucky. As the ecologist for the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission, it was my job to conduct natural areas inventories throughout the state. I had identified this tract from examining aerial photos and then flying over it in a helicopter. Now, this was the fun part, called ‘ground truthing’, where I got to play Daniel Boone and explore the area on the ground, to document the significance of the site and determine if the forest here was in fact old growth.
At the base of the mountain, next to the tract I was getting ready to explore, was a small set of quaint log cabins around a picturesque lake which I soon found out was Camp Blanton, a private camp used by Boy Scouts, church groups and other local folks for reunions, fish fries and other events. It turns out that this camp was an important place for many local people who have fond memories of their youth there. I was told that the forested slope above the camp was basically trail-less and was called The Jungle because the forest was so dense, dark, and difficult to hike through.

The first day of ground-truthing was a cool spring morning, but the warmth of the sun on my face let me know it was going to be a beautiful day. I was told there was a large rock outcrop, called Knobby Rock, part way up the mountain that had a great vista over the Cumberland Mountains and the forested slopes of Pine Mountain. (Later, I was told by others that it was called Knotty Rock, not Knobby. Knobby or Knotty, it’s a cool place.) There really wasn’t much of a trail at all so I just started following the creek upstream as it came down from the mountain. After sloshing through the stream for a ways, I cut up a steep slope to the top of a ridge and then followed the ridge up until all the sudden I could see this massive sandstone outcrop ahead of me through the forest. The rock juts up at a steep angle so I had to scramble up it trying to be careful not to fall. Now I could see how it got the name Knobby Rock. The whole surface of the steeply slanted rock was covered in protrusions of varying sizes and unevenness due to differential erosion. It was difficult to walk on without falling so I was paying close attention to where I put my feet.

Now this is where the story gets strange. As I approached the top of the outcrop I suddenly realized I was not alone. I was being watched by at least a dozen sets of eyes belonging to a bunch of black snakes all lying along the top of Knobby Rock (with a large cliff dropping off behind them). I was startled to say the least, but apparently the snakes were even more startled than I because all of a sudden – and this is no exaggeration – the snakes, as if of one mind, suddenly jumped off the top of the cliff! (Actually, since snakes don’t have legs, they couldn’t really jump; rather they hurled their bodies from the top of the cliff.) I watched this happen and could hardly believe my eyes. I rushed up to the top of the rock from where the snakes had leapt, thinking there had to be a ledge or something they dropped down onto to escape from me. But there was no ledge, just a straight drop far down to the forest canopy below. I was mystified. Did I just watch a bunch of snakes pull a lemmings jumping into the sea kind of suicide? What the heck just happened? Well, the snakes were gone and there was no evidence of what I had just witnessed. So, thoroughly puzzled, I went on my way up the mountain to further explore this most interesting place. But in my mind I was already formulating my plan of attack for the next morning. I was going to sneak up on those snakes (if they were still alive!) and try to solve the mystery of the lemming snakes.

So, the next morning, a carbon copy of the day before, I set out to put my plan into action. I retraced my steps up the mountain and as I approached Knobby Rock I stopped before I got too close to frighten the snakes. Instead of following the trail to the base of the rock I cut off into the forest and started a stealthy approach trying to keep low and be as quiet as possible. I stayed in the forest and skirted the edge of the large outcrop. As I got closer to the top, and where I hoped the snakes were, I started to belly crawl through the very thick vegetation of mountain laurel and catbriers so I could sneak up as close as possible. Sure enough, as I crawled to the edge of the rock I could see the snakes sunning themselves right where they were the day before! Ah ha! They didn’t commit suicide! So with a burst of energy, I jumped up and ran toward the snakes. All the sudden they saw me coming, and I could see the startled look in their eyes!

Again, as if of one mind, all the snakes hurled themselves off the cliff top. But this time I was close enough to run to the edge just in time to see the strangest sight one could ever see, flying snakes! Ok, well maybe not really flying, but as I looked down from the top of the cliff I could see snakes writhing and twisting, almost looking like a dance, as they fell through the air. Could this get any stranger? Then, as the snakes hit the tree tops they simply grabbed on and wrapped themselves around the branches and slithered away, as if this was something they did all the time! A few weren’t able to grab the trees and disappeared through the canopy. Well mystery solved, apparently a unique escape behavior, nothing more.

My curiosity piqued, I asked several herpetologist types I knew if they ever heard of snakes jumping off cliffs. I got some pretty funny looks and statements about spending too much time alone in the woods. So I then did a bit of a literature review (albeit not comprehensive) on snake behavior. Much to my chagrin, I could find no mention of black snakes jumping off cliffs. There is a well-known group of snakes called flying snakes but they live in Southeast Asia and are considered to be unique in the world. Here in North America black rat snakes are well known to be semi arboreal, easily climbing trees. I’ve even seen them go straight up the side of my house! But no mention of them jumping. Unfortunately, I did not get photos, and I never saw the snakes lined up there again and I have revisited Knobby Rock probably a hundred times or more since then. With no one to corroborate my story, I moved on and wrote it off to one more of the many strange experiences I’ve had while exploring Kentucky. But I always wondered if what I saw indeed really happened…..

So was this the end of the story? I thought so. But it’s funny how things come around….

Fast forward 20 years. It turned out that the forest tract was indeed old growth, the largest known in the state and in fact had never been commercially logged. Thanks to the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust, who raised the money and negotiated the purchase , The forest is now protected as Blanton Forest State Nature Preserve and is the largest Nature Preserve in the state and still growing. This area is also part of KNLT’s mega conservation project, the Pine Mountain Wildlands Corridor, which stretches 125 miles and includes the entire Pine Mountain ridge running through five counties.

KNLT could not have been so successful and protected all the land it has over the last 20 years if not for our friends and benefactors. It was at a recent meeting where we were recognizing one of our most important and long term benefactors, Tom Dupree, when we heard a story like no other….. the story of the raining snakes…..

Once upon a time, a long time ago, there was a boy. He was 14 or 15 years of age. That boy is 84 years old today, so: “You do the math” as they say. A mathematics professor would say, “You do the arithmetic”; but, I digress.

When I was in my mid-teens my family lived in Harlan, Kentucky, I was very interested in scouting, so interested, in fact, that I stuck with it until earned my Eagle badge, but I digress again, The reason l am telling this is that this outdoor interest took me to the boy scout camp at Harlan, a place called Camp Blanton.

Camp Blanton was located very close to downtown Harlan, but behind a hill called Sookie Ridge, which served to isolate it from urbanization by the city of Harlan. The area held not only Camp Blanton but the beginning of Blanton Forest, a large tract of old growth. The local theory to explain its escape from the loggers was that the creek behind the ridge was too small to float out the logs on the spring tide. It was close, however, because the Cumberland River was just across the ridge. But the purpose of this diversion was to establish where Blanton Forest was and how I found it. It changed my life.

At Camp Blanton, probably the first time I was there, I was invited to take a hike up to the “jungles” (which included Knobby Rock). I was told there were caves to explore and giant trees to sit under (or hug!) and a beautiful green canopy high overhead with little or no under growth. I wanted to see that. l am an unrepentant romantic who falls hopelessly in love with beautiful places and smiling dogs, imagined characters in Huck Finn and just all kinds of crazy things. I immediately agreed to come along.

The reality was better than the description. We proceeded along the creek bed which was nearly dry at the time of summer camp, and, in about a quarter of a mile, we found a well worn trail that turned straight up the mountain. In a short but breathless walk we were in the giant trees and a cathedral like atmosphere. The chirping of birds that were there sounded almost like they were echos, coming from the air around us. The air was still, though there was wind in the canopy of the forest.

At places on the mountain there are huge jumbles of giant boulders and even larger house size boulders. This made for “caves” (Really, crevices) that you could use to climb up and all around in what the locals had named the jungle. The discovery of all this was a deep joy to me. I hiked in Blanton Forest every time l got a chance, and I often went by myself, missing whatever had been planned for that afternoon.

For a fifteen year old boy, entering an old growth forest alone can be a little spooky. Your imagination plays tricks on you. Your blood pressure and heart rate increase slightly. I too, was pretty tense when l was in the forest. It was a little like being in a very large cathedral and having the feeling that someone else was in there with you, perhaps, even looking at you. That was my frame of mind.

I say this to set the scene for what comes next. One day early in my acquaintance with Blanton Forest l was hiking around the path that is found right at the base of Knobby Rock. As I remember, l was walking counter clockwise to the rock, so the rock was on my left and the forest was on my right. I was looking for snakes because they hang out around rocks. It is not a pleasant experience to be bitten by a Rattle Snake or a Copperhead.

Suddenly wham!! Something hit my cap bill, knocking it off my head and then, with a splat it hit my feet! I looked down and there was a five foot long blacksnake laying across my feet, trying desperately to get in gear and away. It only took him a second or two and he was outa-here and on the way up a tree. Of course, l nearly passed out from fright and had to sit down for a while to get my heart rate back to something near normal.

As soon as I got back to camp, l went to the camp superintendent who lived there on the grounds. He had encouraged me to explore the forest. I told you to watch out for “snakes” he said. “But if I told you they dropped out of the sky you wouldn’t have believed me. Nobody would, They sun on the rock and when a hawk flies over they jump off that rock to hide in the woods. They don’t bite. While they’re falling they wiggle in a swimming motion to try to land with their underside down. They hit the ground hard, but it doesn’t seem to hurt them. I bet that snake was more surprised to see you than you were to him”

So, there you are. That was just about seventy years ago and apparently Marc Evans has learned that they still won’t believe it.