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Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

As a grandpa, I just can’t help myself.

When I’m outside with my grandkids (Kate is five, Will is one) I can’t help dispensing factoids about nature. With Will, it’s pretty basic, “Look at the birdie.”

It’s different with Kate. At times, her curiosity is insatiable. Sometimes she surprises me with the knowledge already rattling around in that five-year-old brain. At times, she rolls her eyes and gives me that, “Oh grandpa, can we talk about something else?” look.

Saturday morning was another story already.

The entire family traveled as a pack on the Tunnel Hill Bike Trail, ostensibly to walk Beau. That worked out fine — with two kids to chase around, Beau got plenty of exercise.

But, more than anything, it was a laid-back opportunity for family bonding. The walk passed quickly as we traveled the shady trail. We spotted a few birds, kicked a few black walnuts off the trail and simply enjoyed each other’s company.

We were about two-thirds of the way through the walk when we met a pair of bicyclists. We reeled in Beau’s telescoping leash and stood by the side of the path as they passed.

However, both cyclists stepped off their bikes and pointed down the path.

“Did you see the big snake?” they asked.

The answer was “No.” But, just a cursory glance revealed a 3-4 foot black snake about 20 feet in front of us.

By this time Kate, who was getting a horsey-back ride from my daughter, began clamoring, “Let me see. Let me see.” It was the first time in her brief life Kate had ever seen a snake in the wild.

That’s also the time I learned that my daughter is terrified of snakes. On one level, she wanted to satisfy Kate’s curiosity, but it was also clear she was calculating the risk/reward of this scientific endeavor. Rather than walking closer to the docile critter, she turned to one side, affording Kate a better view.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not a huge fan of snakes myself. If I’m walking through the woods or along the shore of a lake and a snake skitters off between my legs, I feel bolts of electricity (read: fear) circling my heart.

I once caught a small water snake while fishing for crappie at Harrisburg Lake. When I pulled the critter out of the water and the pendulum effect pushed the snake right into my face, I dropped the rod and reel and attempted to run away.

My wife delights in telling anyone who will listen that I resembled a cartoon character at that instant, my legs were churning but not carrying me away.

This wasn’t one of those instances. We saw the snake from a “safe” distance. And, it didn’t seem bothered in the least by our presence.

In order to finally pass, I walked behind the snake, scratching the path with a stick, forcing it to crawl off into the grass. Kate again squealed with delight was the snake slithered off.

We finished the walk without further incident. However, we entertained several friends later that evening. Kate regaled each guest with the tale of her snake sighting.

At the time, I didn’t realize the small snake had made such a large impression. Hearing her tell the story made me smile each time, both at the wonder of seeing the world through five-year-old eyes and the beauty of our natural world.

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LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.


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