Scary Canoe Stories

From the air, the river looked innocent enough: A mocha-brown flow etched its way through the forest in lazy S’s. But paddling it was another matter. An unusually dry season reduced the normal torrent to a trickle. The shallow bottom and exposed rapids compelled us to carry our canoes more than they carried us. After four grunting sodden days, tragedy struck. Just before sunset my brother Nick, the team technologist, jumped out of the canoe for another pull when he stepped on a freshwater stingray. Its stinger whipped upward three times and impaled his foot, injecting massive amounts of venom.

According to the indigenous Machiguengas here, these stingrays are among the Amazon’s most feared creatures. Though their venom is not as lethal as, say, the surucucu snake’s, stingrays are harder to avoid, maddeningly well-camouflaged in the river’s murk. Few people die from the poison itself (ensuing infection is more dangerous) but as our Machiguenga companions warned, humans know no greater pain than stingray venom. We didn’t bother to ask if an antidote exists.

Nick yelped and leaped and performed a Christlike scramble across the water. On shore, he collapsed in a heap, writhing in pain. I hurried over to see what happened. Blood oozed from all three puncture wounds. The venom turned the surrounding flesh white and red, making his foot look like raspberry revel ice cream. We could see the poison working its way up Nick’s ankle. Where would it stop?

I tore apart my pack looking for the satellite phone Globalstar had graciously loaned us, and I dialed Hennepin County Medical Center (out of mindless, panic-stricken impulse, I suppose). In moments, I was miraculously put through to Dr. Dan Keyler, a co-director of toxicology research for the University of Minnesota. More miraculously, he is one of the world’s foremost snakebite experts. But when I told him I was phoning from a remote Amazonian tributary, he thought my call was a prank.

Somehow, my adrenalin-fueled jabber kept Dr. Keyler on the phone. “I’ve heard of these stringray attacks,” he told me. “But never actually treated one. They’re exceedingly painful.” I could hear him rifle through pages of medical text in search of a field treatment. Meanwhile, our Machiguenga companions had carried my moaning brother to a clearing in the jungle and were moving about. After 30 seconds which took an eternity, Dr. Keyler finally had an answer: Submerge the foot in water as hot as Nick could endure. “The heat will denature the venom,” he said.

I thanked Dr. Keyler profusely, promised to call back in a few hours, and hurried over to the Machiguengas to pass along the treatment, but they were way ahead of me. They had already started a fire, put water on to boil, and prepared to submerge the foot.