Poisonous Snake Bite While Canoeing or Kayaking

By way of disclaimer, let me state that I am no expert on snake bites, I am not a herpetologist, and have never been bitten by a snake! I do benefit from the distilled wisdom of others as to how I would handle the situation if I were unfortunate enough to be bitten while paddling myself.

I will start with some observations. First, the bite on the Hiwassee in 2007 article here is a rare event. I have never heard of one before or since. In 30 years of paddling in north Georgia, I have never seen a poisonous snake on a river, only harmless water snakes. I have seen quite a few copperheads in my neighborhood, and a couple of rattlesnakes in the north Georgia mountains, so I know they are out there. I have never seen a water moccasin or a coral snake in the wild, but then I seldom paddle in south Georgia or Florida.

Second, since there are only 4 species of venomous snakes in our region, it behooves you to know how to identify them correctly….the emergency room is going to want to know, assuming you did not kill the snake and bring it with you! Google Images is a great place to spend a bit of time. In particular, get to know the difference between poisonous and non poisonous snakes.

Third, apparently the snake can control the amount of venom injected, and about 25% of bites are said to be “dry bites”, i.e. no venom. However, the odds are still that you will be envenomated if bitten. Also the size of the snake matters: bigger snake, more venom available.

So…if you are bitten, what do you do? Everything I learned as a child and later is now considered wrong! No tourniquets, no cross cutting the bite, no suction and snake bite kits, no ice. Keep the bitten part still (?splinting), and elevated slightly above heart level, and GET TO A HOSPITAL. There, they will make the decision whether or not to use antivenin, and they can provide other drugs and supportive measures. Simple, huh?

If you Google ‘poisonous snake bite treatment’ you will see lots more information, but what I have said above is what I would do for myself.

Let’s get back to where we started….we are paddling, possibly in a remote area. Lots of our rivers run by roads and houses, so that is the best place to go for help, or rather send one of your companions for help, because you are going to be resting! If you are not near a road or house, and are a long way from the takeout, you may have a problem. A cell phone would be good, if you have service and know your exact location (maybe you have a GPS too?). Otherwise, split your party, have some stay with the victim, and the rest go for help,

either a bushwhack out, or paddle to the takeout. I can’t imagine trying to paddle with a snake bite; besides the likely discomfort, all the physical activity is probably going to spread the venom. So you paddling out is the last resort.

So, next time you pull over to the bank, check overhanging limbs, and watch those rocks where you might be tempted to put your hands. Frankly, I think walking into the woods to relieve yourself might be your bigger risk, maybe snakes, but mainly poison ivy. Good luck,

and keep this information in the back of your mind, but don’t lose sleep over it.

by Dick Hurd, MD
August 26, 2010