We’ve heard about the dangerous creatures lurking in the swamp. Alligators, snakes, panthers, insects, even Swamp Thing and other demons are the only types of creatures that could thrive in a place as spooky as a wetland.
Now, I may be a fool, but I’m not afraid of any of these things. Well, I am very afraid, actually, but none of them would prevent me from spending the night in a swamp. I’ve been on a few nighttime swamping trips and I’ve learned how to avoid falling in the water. (And being shrouded by darkness and surrounded by water is really exciting! When I don’t have so many small people to take care of, I’m going to go on an overnight trip in the Okefenokee Swamp.) My fearlessness in the face of a night in the swamp was why, when Matt and I saw CNNHN when that family got stuck in the Everglades and weren’t rescued until the next morning, I, trying to be cool, said, “That wouldn’t be so bad.”
“Are you serious?” Matt said. “There’s all kinds of things that could get you in there. There’s panthers in there.”
“Yeah, but they’re rare. You just stay in the boat.”
“I would still be scared.” This from a man who captures wild animals for a living!
So what exactly could get you in the Everglades? What did the family have to be afraid of, really?
Well, there are all those snakes–both constrictors and vipers. The Burmese python, which can grow to be eighteen feet long or longer, feeds by wrapping its heavy body around prey and squeezing tighter and tighter until all the air is forced out of the lungs and its captive suffocates. Then, with much maneuvering and effort, swallows the body whole and goes about its business with a lump digesting in its middle. These snakes can grow large enough to eat a deer. Big ones could certainly kill a person, but Burmese pythons are elusive and not typically considered a threat to humans.
The venomous snakes that live in the Everglades–the coral snakes, cottonmouths, rattlesnakes–are certainly concerning. Bites from any of these will do serious tissue damage and could be life-threatening, but anti-venoms are readily available. But these snakes aren’t usually encountered when you’re in a boat, you’re more likely to come across a venomous snake while hiking in densely vegetated areas. So, although their presence could creep you out, death by snake in the Everglades is not likely.
Next, the panther. This is essentially the same cat that grabs mountain bikers in California, stalking them, pouncing like a house cat on a mouse, and killing them with those terrible teeth and claws. In Florida, however, their reputation is not so formidable. Panthers are extinct through much of their southeastern range, and although there’s a holdout population lurking around in the south Florida, there’s only a few. I’d say if you so much as glimpse, much less get picked off by, a panther in the Everglades, it’s some kind of cosmic sign and you should buy a lottery ticket.
And finally, the alligators. Alligators ambush prey, grab whatever hapless animal they target with their bone-crushing bite, drown it, and then throw their long muscular bodies into a death roll that rips the dead prey into bite-sized chunks. Not a pretty way to go. Alligators are definitely deadly, but only in certain circumstances. If you fell in the water or went for a swim, probably an alligator will come after you or at least check you out. But sitting on a boat, they may not even notice you. As a kayak guide once told me: the alligator doesn’t see a person sitting in a kayak; the alligator sees something the size of a kayak that’s much too big to eat. And, of course, they’re more afraid of us than we are of them.
And, in the Everglades, the insects are potentially life-threatening. Mosquitoes might seem like a mere pesky nuisance, but their disease carrying potential makes them risky. You could catch encephalitis or West Nile virus and find yourself in a miserable predicament.
It doesn’t sound like the family that got their boat stuck in the Everglades encountered any scary wild animals at all. However, it did rain. Without appropriate camping gear, sleeping outside in the rain can be pretty miserable. In fact, the weather, and exposure to it, is probably the most concerning part of getting stuck unexpectedly in the wilderness.
If the mosquitoes don’t get you, I suppose the rain will. If you’re going to die in the Everglades, it will most likely be at the hands of Mother Nature herself. Exposure to the elements, dehydration, hypothermia. With the family exposed on the boat in March, when nighttime temperatures can still drop into the thirties, rain could chill them faster than a python could gulp them down. It might take longer than one night to go out this way, but the weather is by far the most dangerous thing lurking in the Everglades, which, with all those wild animals, seems odd. Mother Nature’s shifting atmospheric conditions, the one aspect of wilderness we cannot kill or otherwise influence in our favor, is fiercer than her beasts.