Slithering snakes, especially of the venomous variety, normally instill intrepidation in many folks, but not Aaron J. Veselenak of Rogers City.
A self-taught naturalist and a historian, Veselenak has made it his mission to study the eastern massasauga, Michigan's sole venomous snake that still can be found today in parts of Alpena and Presque Isle counties. During the past five years, he and his 13-year-old son, Gavin, have driven to local areas of both counties in search of what were once known by early pioneers as "swamp rattlers."
With a little luck, they find the rattlesnakes crossing roadways on warm summer evenings, and in the interest of helping to save them from being run over by vehicles, carefully remove them from the road.
Aaron J. Veselenak
Veselenak has turned his interest and his research into a recently published book, "Swamp Rattler: Facts, History and Status of Michigan's Sole Venomous Serpent." The 76-page volume, which contains a number of photographs, plus many facts and anecdotal accounts, was published in Alpena at Sarge Publications.
By writing his book, the author hopes to provide not only a better understanding of the eastern massasauga, but also to interest people in the preservation of this snake that is listed by the state government in Michigan as a "species of special concern."
"Aaron Veselenak has taken on the difficult challenge of getting the reader to care about an animal that's clearly not pretty or cuddly, one you will probably never encounter in the wild, but which can kill you if you do," said Dr. Patrick J. Rusz in a foreward to Veselenak's book. Rusz is director of wildlife programs for the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy.
According to the book, eastern massasauga rattlesnakes are small and relatively docile. Unlike northern water snakes, they rarely bite humans unless someone is foolish enough to try to handle the snake without protective equipment. A few facts about them included in "Swamp Rattler" are:
Veselenak, who refers to his searches as "rattlesnakin,'" will give a presentation on his new book May 17 from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Alpena County Library.
"Sometimes we get 'skunked' and don't find any," Veselenak writes of his 'rattlesnakin' excursions. "If one is spotted slowing crawling across a paved or dirt road, I stop the car and get out to examine it with a flashlight while it is frozen in the car's headlights. It is quite a thrill but a very cautious undertaking. The massasauga is observed for awhile. Sometimes I pick it up with special metal snake tongs. Pictures might be taken. Never, however, do I or anyone along get too close or do anything foolish. The experience is purely educational and never frivolous. At the end, the snake is always let loose on the side of the road."
The most massasaugas ever found by Veselenak and his son in a single night of rattlesnakin' was six.
Veselenak has a BS in political science from Lake Superior State University and an MA in political science from Central Michigan University. He also minored in history and economics in his undergraduate studies.
Currently, Veselenak is an adjunct instructor of Michigan history and American government at Alpena Community College and a self-employed residential painter in his hometown of Rogers City. He likes to write about various historical and nature-oriented events in the state of Michigan, and has always been interested in Michigan's eastern massasauga rattler. He only began to seriously study them, however, after finding a few while searching for mountain lion scat (droppings) in remote areas of Presque Isle County as a volunteer for the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy.
Copies of "Swamp Rattler" will be available for purchase and signing at Veselenak's upcoming presentation at Alpena County Library.