PUT-IN-BAY, Ohio -- As an ambitious graduate student at Northern Illinois University, Kristin Stanford had her life all mapped out -- earn a masters degree, complete doctoral studies, and then step into a career of relative obscurity, working comfortably for a state or federal agency studying wildlife.
Now, on most mornings she takes a ferry to work, wearing what she calls "grungy clothes," and then spends some of her time kneeling in the sand and reaching under rocks, hoping to pull live snakes out before they bite her, or spray her with musk and feces.
"I didn't have this as any part of my career plan," said Stanford, whose unofficial title these days is: "The Island Snake Lady."
At one point more than a decade ago, she was offered a two-week role as a field assistant, helping a doctoral student with research work on the Lake Erie Islands. When that individual bailed out on the program in the eleventh hour, Stanford was offered the short-term post, studying the endangered Lake Erie water snake.
Thirteen summers and thousands of snakebites later, Stanford is still on the islands. And there are a lot more of the rare snakes swimming these rocky waters today than there were when she took that first ferry ride in 2000.
"I got here by accident," Stanford said. "I had never heard of the Lake Erie Islands until just a month before I came to work here. 'People live there?' I asked when someone first mentioned this place. I'm a kid from the Chicago suburbs, so this was a different world for me."
And these islands are the only place on the planet where you will find the Lake Erie water snake, a subspecies of the Northern water snake.
The snakes are not poisonous, but with their tiny, sharp teeth, they have a nasty bite. They are a dull gray or brown in color and blend in well with the limestone shorelines. They grow to nearly four feet in length and unlike their Northern water snake cousins that dine primarily on amphibians, the Lake Erie water snakes have adapted to feeding on fish.
Their numbers were dangerously low when Stanford first arrived and the snake was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Stanford quickly got acclimated to the distinct culture, climate, and ecosystem of the islands and was attracted to the unique research opportunity the snake work presented. She captured snakes, measured, weighed, tagged them with tracking chips, and started a big public relations campaign on their behalf.
"Research programs on a larger scale have bigger hurdles to clear," she said. "Here, I had to start local, but once the people got to know me really well, the cooperation was fantastic. I wanted them to know this was an endangered species and saving it was important."
Julene Market, an island native whose family operates the Miller Boat Line that provides the vital daily milk runs to and from the mainland that transport both passengers and freight, said Stanford excelled in communicating with the local populace.
"Kristen has done an outstanding job in educating the Lake Erie Islands residents that we can live peacefully alongside the Lake Erie water snake," Market said. "Before Kristen, I viewed the water snake as a nuisance. I now look at them in a different light; that they are beneficial to the natural balance of our lake."
Stanford made the permanent move to the area in 2003, worked to make the islands' summer residents aware of the snake and its value in controlling invasive fish species such as the round goby, and she started a nature camp for the children on the island, which has grown to the point that she now has a lunch box-toting snake army.
"It's exciting to see a whole new generation getting involved in this," she said. "Some of these kids are 16 and some are as young as four or five years old, but they all know this snake is part of what makes these islands a special place, and they want to help preserve that. They are the next property owners on the islands, so we are laying the foundation for long-term conservation efforts."
Stanford was urged to take on the island snake project by Northern Illinois professor Rich King, whose work with snakes has included a quarter century of research studies on the Lake Erie water snake. He credits Stanford with helping restore the snake population around the islands to the point that it has recently been removed from the threatened species list.
"Kristin certainly has been the face of Lake Erie water snake recovery, from shortly after it was listed, until delisting in 2011," King said. "Her ability to handle both the science and the public relations aspects of the project are unique."
Stanford, 35, was recently honored with the 2012 Wildlife Diversity Conservation Award by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife. She has earned her doctorate from NIU and continues to serve multiple masters on the state and federal level. This summer, she will teach a field herpetology course at the Ohio State University Stone Lab and supervise several students in their research projects at Stone Lab.
Her efforts received an unexpected boost in 2006 when Mike Rowe, the self-deprecating host of Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel, visited South Bass to film a segment for the show. Rowe was bitten several times and experienced the snakes' odoriferous defensive mechanism, as well. The episode aired numerous times, was viewed by more than 10 million people, and was voted by viewers as one of most popular of the season.
"I guess that helped build the 'snake lady's' reputation," Stanford said. "Just about every time I ride the ferry and I'm in my Snake Lady clothes, people recognize me from the Dirty Jobs episode. It's fun, and it just brings more awareness to this project."
Stanford said researchers in her field usually have long-range plans for their projects, but very rarely get to see it through like she has.
"This is a dream for any conservationist. So many people have helped in this effort. We've created a willing, Snake Lady army who all say they want my job. You see that kind of passion, and it makes you feel like you are really making a difference," she said. "It is much more than just about the snake."
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6068.