When a rafter was stung by a scorpion, she assumed she’d be fine. Within hours she lost her ability to see or speak clearly. It was the beginning of a nightmare that nobody in her group of experienced adventurers saw coming. After all, there aren’t supposed to be deadly scorpions in the United States. But as her condition grew more frightening, they began to believe they had a serious emergency on their hands. In this episode, a collaboration with the Out Alive podcast, we investigate how an unfortunate backcountry incident turned into a medical and scientific mystery.
This episode was brought to you by YETI, maker of ultra-durable coolers, bags, and drinkware designed to go anywhere you want to go. Learn More about YETI’s products built for the wild at YETI.com.
Maren: From Outside Magazine, this is the Outside Podcast.
Abigail Barronian: I think early on, immediately after being stung, I was like ‘maybe this is going to sort of be interesting. Maybe there’s something interesting here. When I was in the pit of despair I was like ‘abso-fucking-lutely not.’ Like, there’s nothing interesting here. I don’t like this.
Maren: When senior Outside editor Abigail Barronian was stung by a scorpion at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, her first thought was that it might make a good story. Initially, before her symptoms became strange and frightening, it didn't seem like something to worry about—just one of those things that happens when you're in a wild place that you'll laugh and regale your friends about later.
But as the situation developed, it started to feel like she was living through a true-life survival tale.
When we heard about what happened, we decided to collaborate on an episode with our friends at the Out Alive podcast, because this is exactly the kind of story they specialize in. If you like what you hear today, subscribe to Out Alive wherever you get your podcasts.
Abigail: My name's Abigail Baronian, I grew up in Washington state, and spent a lot of time in the cascades with my parents and brothers, and in the Olympics. I grew up skiing and backpacking and swimming and fishing. And, yeah, I have always spent a lot of time outdoors.and then this summer started spending a little more time on rivers.
Which took me into the grand canyon, which is the scene for our story.
Maren: In June 2022, Abigail hiked from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to Phantom Ranch to meet up with more than a dozen of her friends. She was going to tag along for the last ten days of a 16-day trip down a 225-mile section of the Colorado River. A Grand Canyon trip is the holy grail for many river rats: remote, stunning scenery packed with incredible views and class-V rapids. Her first week was both beautiful and challenging.
Abigail: Incidentally hiked in with COVID. Which I didn't know at the time, but later discovered with a PCR test after I got off the river.
Fortunately everybody on our trip got COVID before I got down there, so I didn't get anybody sick, but we'd been on an exciting trip with health stuff. And the COVID detail’s relevant. I promise.
Maren: With three days left in the trip, the group made camp at Whitmore Wash, a popular resting spot along the river.
Abigail: We're camped out at Whitmore wash. It's crazy hot, like 115 midday. And so my friend and I had dumped a bucket of water out on the sand and then laid out this canvas mat, hoping that the evaporating water would cool things down and we're sleeping with our Paco Pad's a couple feet apart and I just have a sheet pulled over me. It's maybe like 10:30 at night and we're laying under stars, pillow talking.
Grayson: We had just started to like, you know, nod off and like, say goodnight.
Abigail: And he feels something crawling on his arm
Grayson: I was like, what the fuck is that? Get it off of me and I flicked it off of me.
Abigail: But inadvertently flicked it directly onto me,
Grayson: And it went right into Abby's bed sheets
Abigail: Like full four speeds straight onto my thigh. And whatever it was, stung me immediately.
Grayson: Pretty soon she was screaming
Abigail: I was like, oh fuck. That didn't feel like anything I've ever experienced before.
Grayson: She was complaining of this kind of like burning pain
And immediately like rolled over to try and stand up. And as I was rolling over, I'm tangled in the sheets with whatever it is, that's stinging me and it gets me on the other leg. And I was like, I'm sure it was just a wasp or a red ant or something. But honestly it felt pretty big.
Abigail: We had been searching for scorpions with black lights, the previous couple of nights, just cuz it was fun. And if you didn't already know scorpions, glow fluorescent under a black light, like you're at a rave. So it's really fun to look for them. So I knew these puppies were around.
Grayson: And so we started looking through the sheets and I turned on my headlamp and we're looking through the sheets and we're looking through the sheets. And then finally, like, I looked over and my headlamp fell on the sand.
Abigail: And we see this little scorpion with its little pinchers, like straight up in the air and it's just scuttling away. And I was like, oh shit.
Grayson: And Abby's like, ‘oh my God, it's a scorpion.’
Abigail: Incidentally, this friend is Outside contributing editor-at-large Grayson Shafer. Just to, just to put some blame on him in the public sphere.
Grayson: Because who throws a scorpion on their sleeping friend?
Abigail: And Grayson smacks it with the flip flop and it dies and we're like, great. We know what we're in for. Everyone was asleep at this point. but we called over two of our friends that were on this trip with us, just to be like, ‘Hey, this thing happened, like, what do you think?’ And one of them, uh, has a WFR
Maren: WFR, spelled W-F-R, stands for Wilderness First Responder, a certification given to those who complete training for how to respond to medical emergencies in the backcountry. It's standard for guides, search and rescue professionals, and even the military.
Abigail: He actually had been stung by a scorpion before. And he's like, yeah. You know, people tell you it's, it's no worse than a wasp sting. I do think it's worse than a wasp sting. Like I, I got stung by a scorpion and woke up the next day. It was really feverish and my joints were really achy, but you're gonna be okay.
Abigail: And, and I was like not really that freaked out. It hurt really bad. Um, like, and the, and the pain at first did feel reminiscent of a really bad bee sting. But I was like, whatever, I'm gonna wait this out. It's gonna suck. Like, but I'll be okay. And they monitored me for anaphylaxis, cuz that would be the thing that would kill you if you got stung by a scorpion.
And I knew enough to know that.
Maren: Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction, and it can kill you, though it's an exceedingly rare response to a scorpion sting. If, as an adult, you're unlucky enough to encounter a deadly species of scorpion, heart or respiratory failure would be the most likely causes of death. But worldwide, of more than 2700 documented species of scorpions, only 30 or so can be fatal for a healthy adult, and none of those are generally thought to live in the United States, which is why Abigail and her friends were unconcerned.
So, without much to do other than wait it out, Abigail's friends got her a cot to sleep on, and they went back to bed.
Abigail: I'm lying under the stars and they go to bed and I'm like, man, my tongue feels kind of funny.
And it was this weird, like cooling sensation across the tongue. And I was like, that's, that's weird. And I had taken an Oxy that a friend had in his med kit in case something big and serious happened outside. And I'd taken it, cuz I was like, I know this is gonna hurt really bad.
And I was like, maybe it's just from the drug. Like maybe I'm passing out. And it got really hard to keep my eyes open. I was like, okay, I'm gonna fall asleep. And then I got this crazy sensation that started to spread over my whole body. Like, like all of my limbs were asleep. Like my face, my neck, my back, my arms, my legs. And my chest started to get really tight. And I was like, okay, this is kind of scary. But like, I have venom in my body. Like, this is just what venom feels like, I guess. And, then I opened my eyes and realized that I couldn't see the stars.
My eyes wouldn't track. So I would open my eyes and my eyeballs would just like roll around in my head and I didn't have any motor control over them. And that was when I started to get kind of freaked out.
So I knew that scorpions, that they had a neurotoxin that was like a word that we had thrown around after I got stung. And so I was like, okay, it's gonna maybe affect my nervous system, but I didn't expect it to do what it did, which was totally impair all motor function, like very seriously.
Maren: It turns out, the neurotoxins in scorpion venom work by making your nerves hyper-sensitive: causing the sodium channels that are supposed to open and close to transmit messages to get stuck in the on position. This can cause extreme pain and make some movements difficult to control. In Abigail's case, her brain would tell her eyes to move, and instead of moving a little, they would move a lot. But she didn't know any of this at the time: all she knew is that she was trapped in what felt like a horrible dream.
Abigail: I don't know if you've ever had a nightmare. You're like trying to run away from something, but your body won't respond or you like open your mouth to yell and like nothing comes out. And that really freaked me out. And so I went to wake up Grayson and I was like, tried to say his name and it wouldn't come out.
I like had to think really, really hard to get my vocal chords to engage and actually say the name. And when it came out, I could hear my voice and it sounded really weird and like pinched and slurred.
Grayson: Like she was very, very drunk.
Abigail: And I was like, oh shoot, like something really bad is happening.
Meanwhile, the points on my legs, we think it stung me three times twice on the first leg and once on the other. And it stung me kind of at the top of my thighs and, where it had stung me was like on fire, like pulsing, just like kind of the pain that you would imagine. But then the rest of my body was like tingling. And if like, even if like fabric brushed it, it would like make me Yelp because I was so sensitive and my skin felt like it was like on fire.
And so I'm just as uncomfortable as I've ever been in my whole life and try to wake Grayson up to be like, ‘Hey, you know, I'm having a really serious reaction, I think you guys are gonna have to consider evacuating me.’
But it's like two in the morning. And, and he started kind of talking through what that would look like and you know, that we couldn't, we couldn't get an evac until the morning. And I was like, I can't actually communicate with you to discuss whether I think I need an evacuation, cause I can't really speak. So like, you're gonna have to talk to everybody else about this.
And like, I can't make this decision for myself. And he was like, I bet you'll feel better by the morning, but when the sun comes up we'll talk about it.
Everybody else is asleep. And I'm just sort of like, except for when I wake him up, alone in the world.
Maren: This is where a lot of people would start to panic. But Abigail was determined to stay calm.
Abigail: In that period, kind of between maybe like midnight, when the really scary symptoms set in, and I don't know, maybe 5:00 AM when the sun rose. And I was just kind of there alone with my thoughts and my cornucopia of uncomfortable sensations.
I did my best to not let a thought loop happen, where I would like ruminate on the same thing, because I knew that was dangerous, both for my experience and my mental health, but also was, was worried that a panic loop was gonna make it, so I couldn't breathe. And then I would actually be in more serious trouble.
But kind of the arc of feelings and thinkings was like, when will this be over? I'm so miserable. I want my mom. Basically that like, I'm so sick and I just want somebody to come in and like, tell me it's gonna be okay, feeling.
And then, um, I would sort of dip a toe into the pool of panic of like, do I have neurological damage? Like, what's this gonna look like when I get back home, am I gonna be able to like, have a conversation with my boyfriend? Am I gonna be able to like, go for a run at like, what, what are my limitations gonna be like, what's really happening to me.
And I would dip into there for a second. And then I thought of it as like, as if someone was tightening a lid on my chest, like, like a jar lid, and I'd feel like it screwed tighter and I'd be like, okay, I gotta get outta that.
And then I would just focus on my breath and like, that was really the only thing that I could do. To sort of observe my thoughts and sensations rather than be a prisoner to them.
Honestly like, and sorry mom and dad, but, I have spent some real, like concerted time, uh, experimenting with psychedelics in the last few years. And I think that my experience taking psychedelics really was helpful in this context. They gave me a lot of practice, in like taking a situation and being like, this is what you're experiencing right now. And it's uncomfortable and it's weird and you don't have a lot of control over it, but you're gonna be okay. And it's, it's gonna pass.
But yeah, I did honestly think of it as a bad trip and that helped me get through it.
Maren: Even in these wee hours of the morning, alone with just her pain and her breath, Abigail knew she didn't want to be evacuated.
Abigail: In part, cuz it's amazing down there and I didn't want the trip to end like that. and I, it felt like an affirmation of how serious this was if I had to get heli'ed out and I didn't really wanna believe that it was that, that serious.
And so I'm like sitting there laying there suffering, being like, okay, by morning, I'll feel better. And then Dawn broke and I watched the sky get light. And I was like, oh no, I'm like, just as bad as I've been.
Grayson: She was scared because she felt just as bad as she did when she went to bed. Of course, then we realized that the, you know, from 10:40, at night to 4:30 in the morning is really not that long a time for the venom to wear off. And so, we thought maybe we could just allow her to wait it out until after breakfast.
Abigail: And that was when a few other people got involved. We had someone on our trip, who's an EMT. And he came over and took my vitals. What was really encouraging was that my vitals were steady the whole time.
Grayson: Other than being paralyzed, She was more or less. Okay. Which seems weird to say.
Abigail: I never had like a really elevated heart rate.If anything, everything was lower. My body temp was really cool. My breathing was really slow. My heart rate was really slow.which sort of tracked with the entire experience of just feeling like I'd been really slowed down.
And I kept thinking too about this visual of like a bug and a spider. And how you like get paralyzed. And it was just, yeah, it was really interesting to be like, wow, the venom is real. It was really effective. And if something wanted to kill me right now, it couldn't, I would have no defenses. And that was really, really interesting.
Abigail: Around seven in the morning my vision got better where I could open my eyes and actually like, look at someone in the face and see their face and not have my eyeballs do the weird roving thing. and also my speech improved. and by that time someone else had used the sat phone to call a good friend of ours, who is an ER nurse and teaches WFR courses and her partner who is a former grand canyon guide.
Grayson: And they were looking up the symptoms and they were like this, like, This isn't supposed to happen.
Like somebody who gets stung by a scorpion, shouldn't have full body paralysis. And they both immediately were like, evacuate her. That's not normal. But, then they both did some research and found that the symptoms that I was having while very uncommon for an adult are pretty common for a small child.
And like if a little kid gets stung by a scorpion, it can be really serious. but this sort of like systematic, neurological response that I was having wasn't totally unheard of for a scorpion sting and that made me, and I think everybody else feel a lot better
Maren: But even with the knowledge that Abigail's reaction wasn't completely unprecedented, she was mostly immobile and in a lot of pain, and the decision about whether to evacuate her still hung in the air.
Abigail: I was still totally miserable. Anytime somebody touched me, I would cry cuz I was so sensitive.
Grayson: Even just like a down sleeping bag, like brushing against her skin was like intensely painful in this altered state that she was in.
We were trying to decide, do we try to let Abby tough it out and play through, or do we push the red button like they do in Alone and have a helicopter come in and fly her out.
Abigail: But I was like, okay, I don't think I need an evacuation. I think I'm gonna process this. Like it's gonna be more traumatizing to get helicoptered out of here and like be alone in a hospital and Flagstaff. And then the group had a discussion and they decided that if I didn't wanna get evacuated, they weren't gonna evacuate me. They're not gonna force me onto a heli.
Grayson: Sometime like mid-morning, she started to improve. She was able to see a little bit. she was able to feel a little better
Abigail: And so they put me on a boat. We didn't have any super scary water that day. And they put me on a boat with our best rower and a person on either side of me. And I just like laid there all day and like, couldn't really move. And they like had to like peek me up and like put me on the boat. And then when they set me down, I would just cry for a couple minutes cuz it was so uncomfortable.
But throughout the day I sometimes continued to improve. And by the time we got to camp that night I was able to walk. I think, I think it took until like dinner time for me to be able to walk without somebody like there to sort of steady me. But then by the next morning I could like carry my bags and move my stuff around.
Grayson: And like within about 24 hours, she was completely back to normal.
Abigail: Yeah. Had like tingly hands and feet for a couple days, and then I think I've made a full recovery. I still am really sensitive and, and was for a few weeks after that, to like things that would normally make my, my, my limbs fall asleep happened quicker. Like one night I woke up and my face had fallen asleep. So clearly my nerves were sensitive or, or something. But yeah, that's the whole story.
Maren: Or, it's almost the whole story. At the time, Abigail thought that the scorpion that stung her belonged to a common and relatively harmless species. But when she tried to find an explanation for her unusually severe reaction, she began to realize that she'd had a closer call than she'd thought.
Maren: When Grayson Schaffer saw a scorpion scurry out a pile of crumpled bed sheets after stinging his friend Abigail Barronian three times, his first instinct was to swat the creature with a flip flop.
Grayson: I thought two things. One, we need to save the scorpion in case we have to deliver it in the helicopter to the paramedics who will rescue Abby. Or two, I need to get it mounted in some cute way as it keepsake for her.
Abigail: For the record, my impulse was not to kill her. She can go on with her life, but unfortunately now she's my prisoner.
Grayson: I went directly to taxidermy. I found a bottle of formaldehyde so that she can keep it, for all time.
Abigail: She's like smaller than my thumb. And just totally wrecked me.
Maren: It turns out, Abigail's little prisoner would be essential to helping her make sense of what happened to her in the aftermath. Because, like any good journalist, once she was back to work, she started asking questions.
Abigail: I'm an armchair scorpionologist. I process my trauma through research.
Maren: Her curiosity about her tangle with the scorpion led her to a kind of fascination with her attacker.
Abigail: What's interesting and cool to me is that her little pincers are so small. Like she doesn't look very scary. And I learned, um, that scorpions with smaller pincers have more, uh, toxic venom, more serious venom and the bigger, the pincers, like the scarier, the scorpion, the less powerful the venom, because he needs his pincers to hunt.
Maren: Clearly, Abigail's scorpion had some really good venom, if it could immobilize a healthy adult for nearly 24 hours. Abigail's experience left her with a lot of questions that she just couldn't leave alone, starting with: why did this sting affect her so much more than it should have? So, she dove into research, reading papers about scorpions, trying to get to the bottom of it. At one point, she listened to an episode of the comedic science podcast "Ologies," that focused on scorpions and featured Lauren Esposito, Curator of Arachnology at the California Academy of Sciences. So Abigail reached out to Lauren to share her story and get her perspective on what happened.
Abigail: So long story short, I was on a trip in the grand canyon and was stung by what I assume is an Arizona bark scorpion.
Lauren Esposito: It's probably a reasonable assumption.
Abigail: Yeah, I actually have it in like a little jar if you wanted to see a picture and tell me if I was right, but, I feel pretty safe in that assumption.
Maren: Abigail went into her conversation with Lauren armed with a slew of questions about what she assumed was a non-lethal species of scorpion that is common and widespread throughout Arizona and southwestern New Mexico: centruroides sculpturatus or the Arizona bark scorpion. But pretty early in the conversation, there were signs that she might have something else on her hands.
Lauren: So, what I would say is that your reaction to this scorpion venom is a pretty unusual one. And it's like a pretty extreme case. It's actually probably the most extreme case that I've heard of in people telling me their stories and stories that I've read about scorpion envenomations here in this country.
Lauren: But, it's not entirely dissimilar to the kinds of reactions that we see occurring in close relatives of the Arizona bark scorpion. And I mentioned this because there's been a few instances we know of where close relatives of the Arizona bark scorpion have been. Moved through human activity accidentally into parts of Arizona. And these scorpions are pretty much all distributed in Northern in sort of Northwestern mainland Mexico. And there's about a dozen of them that are capable of delivering lethal envenomations to adult humans. And so when you mentioned that you have the specimen, I would actually be interested in taking a look at it to determine whether it’s really an Arizona bark scorpion, or whether it's one of these really very rare instances of, uh, another species being inadvertently introduced into, um, the desert Southwest on the US side.
Maren: But still, Lauren was pretty sure it was an Arizona Bark scorpion. Maybe Abigail's reaction was because she was recovering from COVID and immunocompromised, or because she was stung three times.
Regardless of what kind of species it was, Abigail wanted to know more about the scorpion that stung her. Because while this was a bad night for Abigail, it was certainly the worst night of the scorpion's life.
Lauren: So if we're talking about a female scorpion on a moonless night, in the middle of the summer, who probably just came out from whatever crevice she was hiding in. And to be quite honest, like if you were sleeping on a piece of canvas she may have crawled in there the morning before.
And when you opened things up, like, she was like, oh, like I'm free again. It's nighttime. Like, let me get outta here because I was like trapped in this moving object on the river all day.
So what, but what she would be doing aside from getting away, if that was indeed the case is out looking for some food. Bark scorpions are typically sit and wait predators. So they'll just like find a tree, or a plant to hang out on. And they're called bark scorpions, because oftentimes they're found like under, like the bark of dried trees, because that's like the crevice that they hide in.
So like being in sheets for example, is like prime time for Arizona bark scorpions. Like that's their, one of their favorite places to hide when it comes to human habitations, cuz it's kind of like the bark of a tree. So it's just right up their alley for like a perfect like hiding spot or crevice, so she'd be like out eating, like she's probably already made it at this point for the year. Um, and so she'd just be kind of doing her thing.
Maren: When Abigail got off the call, she sent Lauren a picture of the scorpion. I had her record what happened next in a voice memo.
Abigail: So I have been texting with Lauren Esposito, And, um, I sent her just photos of the scorpion in a little jar from aldehyde. Pretty immediately she was like, ‘it is a bark scorpion. Probably Arizona, but the view from the top will confirm.’
And then when I sent a photo of the top of the scorpion. She was like, ‘that's actually maybe not an Arizona bark scorpion. Um, can you get a picture of the head?’
And so I, I pulled the scorpion out of this little jar for Malda Hyde, um, and sent her these really close up videos, pulling the arms out so that you could see the head. And, um, she texted me back and said, ‘I'm pretty certain that this is not, Centruroides sculpturata.’
Maren: In other words: not an Arizona Bark Scorpion, but likely one of its far more deadly Centruroides cousins from Northern Mexico. For Abigail, this meant that she was envenomated by a far more dangerous critter than she realized.
For scientists studying scorpions, it brings up a number of questions: Is this a one-off incident? A lone scorpion that was perhaps transported outside of its normal range by human activity? Or has a new population been established, meaning that the United States is now, for the first time, home to a deadly species of scorpion? Does this scorpion even belong to a species we know about, or could it be a new one? Abigail plans to send her specimen to a scorpion specialist at a university in Mexico to verify the exact species.
Meanwhile, she has emerged from the experience relatively unharmed, but not unchanged.
Abigail: You know, I came out of it and was like, am I traumatized? Like, do, do I have some stuff to work through? And I think all told I came out pretty emotionally intact.
I will never sleep out again. Um, I just don't, I've always thought of, of bugs and snakes and arthropods and little creatures as just like, they're not gonna bug you if you don't bug them.
And, and just haven't really given them much, much thought other than like, awareness. Right?
Um, But this was sort of this moment of like, oh yeah, there are things in the back country other than your own poor decision making or clumsiness that can really hurt you. And so have a little more respect for the critters.
Maren: In the end, Abigail's friend–and flinger of scorpions–Grayson Schaffer may have summed it all up best.
Grayson: mistakes were made. Scorpions were thrown. Everyone lived.
Maren: Thank you to Abigail Barronian for speaking with us and recording voice notes for this episode. Thanks also to Grayson Schaffer for telling his side of the story, and for preserving Abigail's scorpion for science. Thank you to Lauren Esposito for her expertise, and to Dr. Leslie Boyer, M.D., Professor Emerita at the University of Arizona, for providing information about scorpion envenomations.
This episode was a collaboration between the Outside Podcast and Out Alive, and was produced by me, Maren Larsen, with editing by Louisa Albanese and Michael Roberts. Music and sound design by Jason Patton.
Listener, do you have a story about an interaction with a critter you'd like to share? Record it as a voice memo and email it to us at email@example.com. And if you're enjoying this show, leave us a review wherever you listen, or tell your friends about us the next time you encounter a creepy crawly.
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