EAST CAMPUS: Local couple takes trip to look for snakes

Friday, October 14, 2011 | 5:33 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Two months ago, Rachel Brekhus, her husband, Wayne Brekhus, and a friend were driving along a two-lane highway in Arizona when they suddenly spotted a snake on the road.

Most people would hardly have given it a second thought, but not this couple.

They stopped the car on the vacant highway and went back to study the snake.

Seconds after they resumed driving, a semi-truck came barreling down the highway, just missing them.

"We could have still been stopped there," Rachel Brekhus said, reflecting on the close call.

Snakes. Just the thought of their slithery, scaly bodies can be repulsive, but the creatures are fascinating to this East Campus couple.

They take at least two trips a year to find cottonmouths, and go on other random excursions to see different species.

Rachel Brekhus, a humanities research librarian at MU and secretary of the East Campus Neighborhood Association, picked up the hobby with her husband after moving to Missouri 12 years ago. It was something to do outdoors together, and both knew they wouldn't get bored with it.

Rachel Brekhus said that though a lot of people who know her associate her with a love for snakes, it's really her husband's hobby. 

"I'm just along for the ride," she said.

Even so, she said, "it probably still puts me in the 90th percentile of people in terms of identifying local snakes."

When the couple travels in October and April to find cottonmouths, their destination is Snake Road in southern Illinois, which Wayne Brekhus described as a section of dirt road that's closed off to accommodate migrating snakes.

"It’s fairly reliable, so we try to go there," Rachel Brekhus said.

Wayne Brekhus said people come from all over the country to see the snakes.

"It's a great place to get out and enjoy some snakes," he said. "It has a really high percentage of venomous snakes, too, which makes it really nice."

They also like traveling to Arizona, where they spent their honeymoon.

In August, they were in the Sky Island region of southeastern Arizona looking for twin spotted rattlesnakes. These snakes love obscure mountain areas, Rachel Brekhussaid. To see them required hiking up a mountain.

They never found the rattlesnakes, but as they were walking down, she lost her footing, illustrating one of the hobby's dangers.

She raised her right arm slightly to show where the ring and middle fingers of her hand were taped together. 

"When people see my hand, they expect me to say I got a paper cut from a book at the library,” she said. “I fell down 10 feet of a slippy, rocky mountain."

The couple, who live near an entrance to Clyde Wilson Memorial Park, also search for snakes around Columbia. They have seen black rat snakes and a copperhead on the trail. 

Rachel Brekhus said her favorites were two male copperheads in combat dance she spotted in 2001 on the Katy Trail in Rocheport. It didn’t look as if they were trying to hurt or bite each other; it was a dominance match.

"They were twining around, trying to pin each other like wrestlers on a mat," she said. "One finally left because he realized he had been beaten."

The enjoyment that comes from traveling and finding snakes is mutual, Wayne Brekhus said, adding that he loves being able to share this hobby with her. 

"It's great to develop mutual interests with someone you love," he said. "I love spending time with her. Having a hobby that gets us outdoors to remote and secluded and romantic places makes it all the better."

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