Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

Gold Country rattlesnake season picking upWith summer starting this week, Mother Lode hikers, joggers, gardeners and others spending time outdoors should be aware that it's rattlesnake season.

The creepy critters with a nasty bite become more active as the weather warms. Local hospitals are already reporting a bump in encounters this year.

Representatives at Sonora Regional Medical Center and Mark Twain Medical Center in San Andreas said their emergency rooms have each seen four patients for rattlesnake bites so far this year.

At Sonora Regional, a typical snake season totals about six bites from May through September, hospital spokesman Bruce Chan said on Monday.

"It's been active," he said.

Mark Twain saw its first snake bite in February.

"That's really unusual," said Kelly Fobia, director of the emergency department.

Northern Pacific rattlesnakes are the only rattlers that inhabit the region. They can be found throughout the Sierra Nevada foothills, as well as along the coast and west of the Cascade mountains.

The venomous snake is typically shy, non-aggressive and nocturnal.They tend to be more active during daytime periods of mild temperatures, and are not active at all during the winter months. In the heat of summer, they seek cooler, sheltered locations like tall grass and shady areas under tree stumps and rock outcrops.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife says rattlers generally only strike when deliberately provoked and almost always retreat when given space to do so.

Bites can be serious, causing chills, weakness, numbness, changes in the heart rate and blood pressure, unconsciousness, muscle spasms and other symptoms. Though rare, deaths are possible.

Fobia said most victims that come through Mark Twain Medical Center are bitten on the hand, with someone unknowingly reaching into a space where a snake is hiding.

"And of course there's playing with snakes," she said of another common reason for a bite. "Usually with a bit of liquid courage."

Most of Tuolumne and Calaveras counties are in snake country, something Fish and Game said residents should be aware of.

To avoid a bite, wear hiking boots and loose fitting pants, avoid tall grass and weeds, do not put your hands in spaces where you can't see, avoid wandering in the dark and always step on objects like logs and rocks, never over them.

If bitten, stay calm, remove jewelry in case of swelling, immobilize the affected area and go immediately to a hospital.

While local hospitals have seen a small jump in snake encounters, the same hasn't been true with everyone who deals with the legless reptiles.

Debbie Veysey, a local reptile expert who is regularly hired to remove rattlesnakes from properties, said it feels like every year is a busy year.

She said she 's getting steady calls for snake removal jobs, but not more than she received last year.

"Geez, I had 10 rattlesnakes in a week last year," she said. "This year, I haven't had that happen."

Statewide, there haven't been as many calls for snake bites to the California Poison Control System.

Stuart Head, executive director with the state poison control organization, said the agency received 117 calls through May, which is the latest data available. Last year, Head said, was much busier for rattlesnake calls. "It's more normal this year," he said of statewide snake incidents.