Crocs And Copperheads

April 2017 Feature Austa Cook

Sprawling across the borders of Kentucky and Tennessee, Dale Hollow Lake took the cake as the number one best houseboating lake in America, according to votes from our Facebook fans. Clearly a boating hotspot, it’s cherished by natives and visitors alike for its beautifully pristine water, excellent fishing and beloved resident snakes.

Wait, no.

What resident snakes?

If you’re like most of us, you probably don’t even think of snakes when you think of Dale Hollow Lake, or any other well-loved houseboating getaway spot for that matter. But one houseboater can tell you why you should sit up and pay attention to her story, because some basic environmental smarts and quick action can make sure you’re prepared for anything while out houseboating—even meeting the business end of a snake.

Theresa Mazzoli has been houseboating since she was 6 years old with friends and family at Lake Cumberland, Ky. She and her husband, Nick, have been houseboating together since they bought their first houseboat in 1999. Originally a nurse, Theresa retired from the medical profession in 2008 to sell houseboats full time at Elite Boat Sales. She and Nick live in Louisville, Ky., and enjoy houseboating at Hendricks Creek Marina on Dale Hollow Lake, where their houseboat is located.

“It’s a much better job on the lake versus the hospital,” she laughs. 

Unbeknownst to her, however, that experience wearing scrubs would come in handy later.

Nick and Theresa were out on their 2006 Funtime houseboat Hydrotherapy one Friday night last June. A typical evening full of music, fun, and fire, the couple relaxed on the bank of the lake and enjoyed the view of the moonlit crests. When they were ready to call it a night, they dropped their shoes off on the shore so they wouldn’t track gravel and dirt into Hydroptherapy and headed off to bed.

The next morning after breakfast, Theresa and Nick climbed onto the bank to catch some sun. Her husband went to slip his croc shoes on.

Unexpectedly, Nick felt like his foot had been poked by a stick. Looking down, he blanched.

“I think it was a snake,” he told Theresa. The coils of a reptile could just be glimpsed through the holes on the top of the croc.

Oh boy, I went into nursing mode,” Theresa remembers. “You could see the swollen head and pits on the side of the snake’s head.”   

She recognized the reddish glint to the scales and told Nick to sit down, gave him a Benadryl, and got on the marine radio to ask for help in capturing what she believed was a copperhead. To hold the snake in the meantime, she put a box over Nick’s shoe and weighed it down with a rock, hoping it wouldn’t escape while they rushed to get help.

“We headed in the runabout full speed to the boat ramp at our marina to get to the car and head to the small hospital in town. I called poison control in the parking lot on my cell, of course, to make sure they were doing what they were supposed be doing,” she says.

Within the first 15 minutes of being admitted to the hospital, Nick’s foot only had a little dot of blood between the toes. It throbbed like a wasp sting.

The ER doctor asked, “Are you sure it was venomous?”

But as the hours progressed, time revealed the truth—Nick’s foot doubled in size and the swelling started working up his leg. Poison Control told the couple they were not to put a tourniquet or ice on Nick’s leg, as the cold pack would constrict the vessels in his foot and hold the venom there longer, possibly leading to the loss of his toes. 

“They did liver enzyme testing each hour for four hours to make sure his blood clotting factors were not affected by the venom,” Theresa explains. “With no new changes in his liver labs, they decided on not using the anti-venom.”

The hospital doesn’t use anti-venom unless it’s strictly needed, as it can often make the patient sicker than the bite itself. When Nick was discharged from the hospital, the couple went back out on the houseboat for the week with a prescription order of pain meds.

“I told Nick he could have either a pain pill or a cocktail, but he couldn’t have both,” Theresa says. “He said, ‘Honey, pour me a tall one.’”

After a round of antibiotics, several weeks of elevation, and the use of crutches, Nick finally felt recovered from his encounter with the cornered copperhead—which, it turns out, was a 24-inch-long juvenile with only one tooth.

“The doctor said that the juvenile bites are worse, because they give you all the venom they save up instead of saving for their next victim,” Theresa explains.

Nick’s reaction?

“Well, if I was going to get bit,” he said, “you’d think it could’ve at least not been a ganky one-toothed one.” 

This experience, though it ended well, has changed the way Theresa handles her job as a houseboat broker. She now makes sure to advise all her customers about the different precautions that should be taken around the lake, including watching where you leave your footwear.

“As a broker, I tell customers, ‘Who cares if your carpet is dirty? Take shoes off on the boat and keep on your toes!’” she says. “Copperheads also love to hide under the roots of trees on the bank side, so make sure to check the tree roots before you tie up your boat. And definitely check your shoes!”

Theresa also had the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife give her a case of Kentucky Snake identification books so she could regularly hand them out around the dock. Spreading awareness like this will help ensure that no one else has to find a copperhead in their croc like Nick had.

Speaking of Nick, a few weeks after his snakebite, one of the teenage houseboaters at the Mazzoli’s dock started limb line fishing and went to check a line on his jet ski. Lo and behold, there was a large rattlesnake on the bank.

“Of all people, he called for Nick, asking for assistance and bringing it to him,” Theresa laughs. “My husband is not a fan of any snake now, water snake or venomous, after these encounters.”

Photography by Theresa Mazzoli

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