The Things We Saw: Camping For Critters

Our son’s Boy Scout troop went on a weekend campout in the Cossatot River region, and in a show of solidarity, my wife and I decided to tag along. I’d never heard of this state park before, or the Cossatot, but having been there, I urge anyone who finds themselves in in western Arkansas to visit.

But the point of this article is not to ooh and aah over the beauty of the Cossatot or the amazing park staff at the Visitors’ Center, but rather, to talk about the encounters we had with the local wildlife. Because you can bet that The Natural State earned its reputation, and then some, on this trip.

So here in no particular order are the beasts we experienced there.

Coyotes

Other than the two taxidermied animals on display at the Cossatot River State Park Visitor Center, we never laid eyes on an actual coyote. But we certainly heard them off in the distance! Never during the day, mind you. Only at night, or early in the morning, when we weary campers were busy trying to get our beauty rest. The howling was shrill and seemingly endless. During an impromptu astronomy lesson in the middle of the night, the boys heard the howls and thought it was people pranking us. “Actually,” I said, “I believe those are coyotes”. Coyotes?!? Half the boys nope nope noped their way back to camp immediately.

As menacing as coyotes look and sound, they typically don’t pose a direct threat to humans… though you’d do well to keep an eye on your outdoor pets.

Spiders

Female wolf spider with young. Northshore Trail, Flower Mound, Texas, USA. (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

They grow our favorite eight-legged freaks big in the Cossatot region. Wolf spiders, correctly identified by one particularly sharp Scout, were common around our campsite and the cabin around which we had gathered. One of the boys spotted a female carrying her young, as in the photo above. Another wolf spider decided to “help” us strike a tent on our departure day. As fearsome as the wolf spider may appear, you have to work pretty hard to provoke it into biting you — and no known fatalities from its venom have been recorded.

Image courtesy: BBC

As we were gathering our belongings and getting ready to hit the road, one scout noticed a black widow crawling onto his backpack. A black widow won’t bite unless you are giving her a really good reason, but the venom of the female black widow spider is highly toxic, plus she was acting pretty agitated as we tried to urge her from the crevasses of the (understandably freaked out) scout.┬áIt’s hard not to shudder, thinking that there we were, camped out on the ground with these things surrounding us! Are you ready for the outdoors now?

Yeah, the creepy-crawly factor was strong with the Cossatot region, and the spiders were actually the least of our worries. Which brings us to…

Giant Red Headed Centipede

Image courtesy: Missouri Department of Conservation

One part of the Scout trip was a service project that involved cleaning up the nature trail near the impressive Cossatot River Bridge. I was with another scout, a bit off the trail from the rest of the group, when I spotted a critter just like the one pictured above slithering our way. I cautioned the boy to keep his distance and called out to our guide what I had found. “Everybody get back!” she cautioned. Using her trash picker, she was able to grab it and show it to our group. “If you see one of these, stay away!” This critter’s venom can cause moderate to severe reactions in people, ranging from nausea to heart attack, and were apparently quite the nuisance to camping soldiers in the Civil War.

While she didn’t know its official name at the time, a Google search revealed that this is known as the giant red-headed centipede. Seems fitting enough!

Northern Water Snake


During the troop’s river snorkeling adventure (which uncovered a whole other level of cool invertebrates including crawfish and water pennies), we encountered a Northern Water Snake squiggling through the water, stopping occasionally to poke its head up out of the water to breathe. This species is small and nonvenomous, though at first (as I declare in the video) it sure appeared to have the markings of a copperhead snake. Of course, we had nothing to fear from this fellow, who was probably looking for a place to get some sun without being bothered.

Okay… are we ready for the critters to get less unpleasant? Let’s move on, then!

Walking Stick Bugs

Image courtesy: National Geographic Kids

Not so easy to spot this fellow! A master of camouflage, the walking stick (in the order of phasmids) can completely disappear almost anywhere on a tree or branch. The five-legged one we found crawling into the troop’s garbage can, however? Not so much. With a little patience, we were able to rescue the critter and set it free to live the rest of its days, but not before gathering around to check it out and reflect on how cool it was. My son also found a deceased walking stick bug around the campsite, and insisted on giving it a proper cremation at the campfire later that night. So, that happened.

Armadillos

Image courtesy: Arkansas Democrat Gazette

Dead armadillos are not hard to find in Arkansas; in fact, our caravan narrowly avoided running over a couple on the final leg of our journey to the campsite. Seeing a live one in the wild here in Arkansas is a different story, one that we were happy to experience. During part of our service project that involved blazing a certain trail, I spotted a grayish-brown blob, roughly soccer ball sized, about twenty yards off the path. It started to wriggle, and then raised its comically tiny little head. We stayed for a bit to watch it forage through the leaves and ground cover before proceeding to the trail’s end.

The western Arkansas animal kingdom is a wonderful, wide, and varied, and certainly we enjoyed seeing and hearing critters that we city-slickers don’t experience in our urban setting.

(Well, except for the coyotes. We have those.)