This is the amazing lifesaving side story of the 2022 annual trip of the San Diego Fly Fishers Club (SDFF) to the Upper Kern River by way of the Forks of the Kern Trail
It was fairly late in the day. My buddy Mike from Atlanta, a first-time fly fisher, and I hiked the long 2 miles back up and over the mountain back to the Huck site after a long day of battling kern river rainbows (KRR). We passed John and Delia Cooley going the other way on the trail… going up river to get in another hour or so of fishing before dark. The Cooleys have a ton of wilderness experience so I didn’t even think about worrying about them. I knew that Pauly was way up river… like 6 miles… so, I didn’t expect him back until the sun went down. As mike and I hiked back I did notice looking down from the trail that 3 young backpackers had moved in on the upriver side of the mountain (rattlesnake creek pass) while we were fishing upstream from them. There is really no trail down to the river from there so I liked their choice of scrambling down to the primitive site that exists down below. Plus, they were on top of one of my favorite fishing holes. One I always take beginners to. My wife has caught fish off those rocks… Mere, my niece and nephews… Vickie and Alyssa who I taught just a couple weeks before. They have all caught fish there. And even on this trip Bruce Bechard from SDFF called it “his hole”. Little did I know how big those rocks would turn out in this story.
Well, tradition at the huck site involves happy hour: a little food and sipping JD while we watch rises to the point where one of us musters enough strength to get up and cast at them with a size 18 anything.
It was 6:03PM when I sent the SOS on my Garmin InReach Satellite Communicator device.
I will never forget the look on that kid’s face when he ran into the Huck Site Yelling, “My brother has been bit by a Rattlesnake!” I have seen that look before. You never forget a look of fear like that. I focused on remaining calm for that kid… who is now a lifelong friend, Stephen. But, on the inside I was wigging out. I briskly walked Stephen to my inreach device on the other side of camp and pressed the SOS button. A first. I have never discharged a bear spray. I have come close. But, now I have pressed the SOS button on my Garmin InReach.
While assuring Stephen everything would be fine, I asked him some simple questions and found out his brother Nick was bit and that another friend was with him. Stephen literally ran the 1.25 miles over the mountain (rattlesnake creek below) on the trail downriver to the huck site where we were. He was breathing pretty hard when he ran into the Huck site.
What I didn’t know… because I was focused on Stephen and getting a plan from the IERCC (The International Emergency Response Coordination Center) was that Steve Massey, Ryan Tracey and Patrick Cooley from SDFF were forming a plan to run hike back with Stephen to Nick, the victim at the bite site. All this coordination was all going on behind me. I found out later they were getting ready for the hike/run up stream to the site of the incident (putting on proper clothes, shoes, etc. grabbing water) and Steve Massey was getting his trauma bag which included a Stethoscope and blood pressure cuff, along with helicopter landing panel, and signaling mirror.
Well, Stephen noticed the SDFF rescue team first and said, “I should go with them.” I said “Yes.”, as Ryan approached me. Ryan and I made a plan. I’d drive Comms from the huck site with IERCC while they ran/hiked/jogged back to Nick, the rattlesnake victim. I have a decade of messaging experience on the InReach and it just works better when standing still while the satellites are locked. I told Ryan that once he got there to do an SOS from his own InReach device so that IERCC could lock the coordinates at the site of the victim. Then Ryan and I could do inreach to inreach messages from our devices to update on status between Nick and the IERCC.
From John: “Delia and I were walking back on the trail towards basecamp when we heard yelling from a long way down the mountain at the river. We could see someone waving at us but couldn’t understand what the person was yelling. Delia and I started to turn to continue hiking when the individual started yelling again; we heard the word “SNAKE.” Delia and I stopped and debated what to do. We then heard the phrase “SNAKE BITE.” We quickly formulated a plan. Delia started running to the Huck Site while I started plunging down the several hundred foot drop to the river.”
Delia ran into Ryan, Steve, Patrick and Stephen coming the other way. She turned and joined them on the trek to Nick, the bite victim.
From John: When I arrived a few minutes later I found two guys in their 20s. The victim, Nick, was calmly sitting on a rock holding an electronic e-reader. Andrew, the guy who flagged us down, was standing nearby holding a small first aid book. Nick pointed to his ankle where he had circled with a black Sharpie pen two large puncture wounds and had written the time of the bite – “4:55 p.m.” Nick proceeded to list all of the classic venom symptoms he was experiencing, including swelling of the ankle and a metallic taste in his mouth. Nick and Andrew referred to their first aid books. Nick said the only viable treatment was to remain calm and try to get to a hospital within 6 hours.
There was no possible way to get to a hospital in six hours . . . unless we could bring in a helicopter. I told them that my wife was running to camp where we had a satellite communicator and – bonus – a Navy Corpsman. Nick and Andrew were very relieved to hear that information.
There were now 5 SDFF people on site with Nick (the bite victim, his brother Stephen and the other friend). We’d learn later how important and how lucky it was to have that many people on site.
From Ryan: “Somehow Steve Massey ran the whole way and carried the stretcher in flip flops which were destroyed by the time he made it back to camp. When Patrick and I saw him take off with just those and a med kit, we both took a minute to load our bags with water and head lamps. Really glad we did because that came in handy on the way back.”
From John: “Thank God Corpsman Steve was there. He quickly asserted control and started questioning Nick about his condition. Steve removed a stethoscope and blood pressure cuff from his heavy medical bag. Meanwhile, Ryan moved into a clear view of the satelites executed an SOS on his Garmin InReach.”
From Steve: “When I got there, Nick was in mild pain and started to show symptoms from the Hemotoxin. Began by taking his vital signs- Blood Pressure, pulse, and respirations. Nick had an elevated Blood Pressure and was complaining about respiratory discomfort, along with pain radiating throughout his body to include his head.”
The bite was on Nick’s ankle. Steve told me later doing a tourniquet was not an option because the poison was already coursing throughout nicks body.
I had already warned the IERCC that they were going to get a 2nd SOS from the victim site and they confirmed with me when they got it. Ryan and I were now “InReaching” each other with updates as the info poured in.
From Steve: “Nick was calm until the toxin caused muscle spasms, nausea, and just sheer concern for his life. I told him to focus on breathing and keeping his blood pressure down- heart rate down to slow spread of venom through his bloodstream. When that started to calm him down and the pain increased. I recommended he find a Mental (happy Place) and focus on that until extraction. I held his hand until it was time to move him to helicopter.”
Then the wait…I got the ETA on my Inreach from IERCC: “40 minutes”. Ryan got “30 minutes” shortly thereafter. The 5 from the SDFF crew had the two other boys gather up all their backpacking stuff for the hike back to the huck site.
From Steve: “Stephen, Nicks brother found the snake and got my attention. I went over with Patrick and John and saw that it was a juvenile not adult rattlesnake. Knowing this made more sense as young rattlesnakes cannot control their venom discharge, which is why Nick’s medical symptoms had become so severe.”
Those of us who live in rattlesnake areas like California know the juvenile rattlesnake is the most dangerous. What I understand to have happened is Nick accidently dropped a piece of trash and the wind got it. He ran for it before it went over the rocks and into the river and stepped right next to the juvenile rattlesnake. It bit him immediately without even rattling. It rattled as it slithered off to a crevice in the rocks.
From Steve: “Every 5 or so minutes I was retaking Nick’s vitals and they were definitely on the “not so good side”, but not terrible yet. Nick was concerned about making it out alive and I calmed those emotions as best I could.”
From John: Our group cheered at the first sounds of the helicopter. It overshot us and disappeared up the canyon. But two minutes later the helicopter returned, circled and broadcasted over its loudspeaker that they were going to land 1/4 mile up river. We listened in complete disbelief as the voice on the loudspeaker directed us to hike up with Nick and meet the helicopter. Nick was in no position to walk anywhere. I was concerned he may lose consciousness at any moment. We quickly formulated a plan. Ryan and I ran up river to try to convince the helicopter to land closer while Steve, Patrick, Stephen and Andrew would do their best to carry Nick up river.
From Steve: “When the helicopter arrived on scene it made several passes to look for a safe landing zone. It was just in time as Nick’s lip were turning blue (cyanotic). On their final pass they told us on the loud speaker that they were landing a ¼ mile down river. Now that might sound easy- but man we are talking about moving a 165 LBS kid along a goat trail through God’s country with no stretcher. Not an easy or even safe plan, but it was all we had so we made it happen! Ryan and Patrick along with John made movement to the helicopter to talk with the medic. They came back with a backboard to carry Nick instead of the way we were carrying him.”
Unfortunately, the helicopter could not make a safe landing on the side of the river where Nick was. It had to land on the other side of the river, ¼ mile away. That meant everyone carrying that kid on a stretcher across the “Killer Kern” as the sun went down. Various folks slipped and fell on that journey across the river. But, Nick was not dropped into the water.
From John: “Ryan and I took off running cross-country up the canyon to find the helicopter. After ~10 minutes we spotted the distant lights of the helicopter – in a meadow on the opposite side of the river. A man in a flight suit was approaching on the opposite side. After yelling back and forth across the river brought us to an impasse. I didn’t think we couldn’t hand-carry Nick to the helicopter and the flight medic on the opposite bank said the helicopter couldn’t land any closer to the victim. But the helicopter had a backboard and the flight medic offered to carry it across the river and help carry Nick. ”
At the same time, Steve, Pat, Stephen and Andrew carried Nick along the river towards the helicopter. Delia was there and had seen the helicopter land from her perch on the trail and ran back down the mountain to guide the group to the helicopter’s location. The group carrying Nick was exhausted, but they had gotten Nick several hundred yards farther up the canyon closer to the helicopter. When the two groups met the flight medic began to examine Nick while Ryan and Patrick assembled and secured the backboard. After Nick was strapped to the board, our group of six grabbed the backboard while Delia led and cleared the path.
From John: I thought carrying the backboard would be easy. However, Nick was heavy, the trail was rocky and narrow, and it was now close to 8:00 pm and getting dark. We walked up river for a while then carefully went down the steep riverbank to enter the water. Delia grabbed people’s phones and Nick’s e-reader before lighting up the river with a headlamp .The water was opaque and up to our waists; we could not see our feet or the many large rocks under the surface. None of us were wearing wading boots or had a wading staff. Steve was only wearing flip-flops. Frequently, someone would yell out “stop” or “slow down” as they lost their footing, twisted an ankle or banged their shins on a rock. I think each one of us fell in the water at some point while struggling to keep the backboard above water. I remember worrying during the crossing that Nick may survive the snake bite but drown during the river crossing.
From John: The helicopter pilot was waiting for us at the top of the bank. He took the flight medic’s spot on the backboard while the medic ran ahead to get an IV ready for Nick. We all walked the last 100 yards and loaded Nick – still on the backboard – into the helicopter. Our group then backed off and took cover behind rocks and trees to avoid any debris kicked up by the helicopter as it took off.
It was now 840 PM. It was dark. So now dark, the 5 SDFF members and the 2 boys with all their gear and walked back the 1.25 miles to the Huck Site over the mountain to camp in the dark of night. The rest of the SDFF group at the Huck site waited nervously. It was now after 10PM. When I saw the flashlights coming down the trail I thanked God in relief.
From John: “After the helicopter flew away, we plunged again into the river. We had to cross the river again to get back to the Huck site. This time without having to carry Nick, but still difficult because it was dark. Steve gave up trying to wade in his flip-flops and simply swam across the river.”
From John: “Ryan, Steve, Patrick, Andrew, Stephen, Delia and I hiked back to the site of the snake bite, gathered our own personal gear, distributed Nick’s gear among us, and slowly started hiking back up the mountain to the trail. At the top, Delia and I found our fly rods where we had dumped them along the trail, and the group started walking the mile back to basecamp. We arrived around 10:00 p.m. – more than four hours after the ordeal started. Patrick’s girlfriend, Sarah, had dinner waiting for us.”
Stephen and his friend ate dinner at the Huck site, got refilled with water and hiked back to the trailhead in the dark to their vehicle to make the journey to the Visalia Hospital where Nick was taken by helicopter. Lots of “thank yous” and hugs before leaving.
I have messaged with Stephen numerous times since the incident and happy to report that Nick will be fine, but has a road to recovery. He was discharged from the hospital a full week after the incident. It’s now many weeks since the incident yet, he’s still swollen and there is still a lot of pain. But, he’s not dead. All in all, he received 22 vials of antivenom.
I’m trying not to be overly dramatic, but these 5 SDFF members (Steve Massey, Ryan Tracey, John, Delia and Pat Cooley) saved that kids life. They are true heroes. Of course, it would have been a lot worse without a Garmin InReach to “call in the cavalry”.