Snakebit: Once-in-a-lifetime trip almost leads to tragedy

Staff writer

Erik Barnes thought he had come up with a great father-daughter project several months ago.

“I told Paige and Rayna that, at our age and our comfort level with outdoor activities, we ought to plan a trip for each of them — do something unusual before they are wives and moms and I am too old to go along,” he said. “I thought the timing was just right.”

He and Rayna settled on a canoe trip and struck out after July 4th, heading to the Current River near the bootheel of Missouri for a 36-mile river trip.

“The first day on the water, July 6th, was great,” Erik said, “cool in the early morning with mist and a slight fog. We ran into a little rain, but pretty soon we floated out of it.”

They passed caves, waterfalls, boulders, and lush scenery.

“We had planned to go 10 or 12 miles a day and figured that would make it a three-day trip,” Rayna said. “But it was easier to do than we thought.”

They traveled 21 miles and arrived at a campsite between 4 and 5 p.m.

They set up their tents, got a fire started, and had supper. Rayna was carrying their trash to a nearby receptacle when Eric heard her scream.

“She just screeched and yelled ‘Oh God, a snake just bit me!’ I saw it and knew immediately it was a copperhead,” Erik said. “She was scared and crying, and I was thinking, ‘Now what?’”

Rayna was wearing water sandals, and Erik could see puncture marks on the top of her foot. Her foot was inflamed, and she cried that it hurt too much to walk on it.

“We didn’t have cell phone service, but there was a caretaker’s post up a hill from the campsite,” he said. “I tried to hurry her up there, but the pain was getting worse and she was afraid she was going to lose her foot.”

“Or die,” Rayna said.

They struggled up the hill. The caretaker and his wife had a radio and called for an ambulance. The nearest one was 35 miles away.

“A neighbor was a first responder. He heard the radio call and came right over,” Erik said. “He was familiar with snake bites and had a kit with just about every remedy for every kind of snake. He told Rayna she would not die or lose her foot, but the pain was going to get a whole lot worse.”

He marked the spot on her foot where the swelling started. Marks would be made every two hours or so as the swelling crept up her leg. If it reached her knee, antivenin would be needed. Antivenin is more painful and potentially more dangerous than the snake bite, they learned.

Erik climbed to the campsite for their phones and his wallet. The ambulance arrived, and they went to a hospital in Salem, Missouri, 45 minutes away.

“Again, the medical people were familiar with copperhead bites and calmly explained everything,” Erik said. “They planned to watch the swelling, administer antibiotics and pain medication.”

Rayna finally went to sleep, and Erik called his wife, JoLanna in Peabody to tell her, “Everything is OK, she is OK, Rayna is in the hospital, but she is OK…” Rayna’s mom was not happy with him.

On July 7, Rayna’s mother canceled the canoe rental and in the course of her explanation, the man on the phone offered to contact a friend who was a Missouri Fish and Game ranger, Austin Kunkel.

Kunkel agreed to take Eric back to where he had left his truck as soon as Rayna was dismissed.

“Honestly, you cannot begin to know how many people went out of their way to help us,” Erik said. “Every person we met or dealt with just bent over backward. Even the insurance lady in the hospital said she would find someone to take me back to my truck. There was no one we met who didn’t do something very helpful.”

Rayna was dismissed the afternoon of July 7, her foot the size of a football, discolored, and so painful she could find no relief. They had some prescriptions filled, and Kunkel took them 50 miles to the small town of Eminence, where the Barneses had left their pickup before heading out on their canoe trip.

They got a cabin for the night, said goodbye to their ranger friend, ate some supper, and finally slept.

Friday, they drove back to Kansas. Rayna’s swelling had gone down, and the pain was easing up. They got home about 2:30 p.m. and took her to her regular physician to be sure there was no risk of blood clots or infection.

“You know, except for the snake bite, everything that could go right, did go right,” Erik said.

“And we did have a good adventure,” Rayna added. “With all that is wrong with our world, we only ran into great people.”

Last modified July 14, 2016