It was supposed to be a fun outing in the Florida Everglades for Scott Schreck and his family. They were in from Ohio, and took a friend’s airboat out to see gators and catch some fish.
Schreck, 44, his wife Carrie and his three young sons took off from Tamiami Trail around noon Thursday. He said he was headed back to the boat ramp around 5 p.m. when he missed the narrow airboat trail and ended up stuck in a marsh.
The family ended up spending a cold, wet, scary night in the Everglades with mosquitoes, alligators and other wildlife.
After a harrowing 20 hours in the swamp, the family was rescued and taken to Kendall Regional Medical Center to get checked out.
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Schreck, an avid outdoorsman, later met with the South Florida media to talk about his ordeal.
“You need to know that area,’’ he said.
On the way back, the boat got wedged in vegetation about 10 miles north of the Tamiami Trail. He couldn’t power it out of the mess.
“These boats spin very easily, but at that point we couldn’t get out.”
Wearing camouflaged shorts, a T-shirt, tennis shoes, a lifejacket and a baseball cap topped by a battery powered headlight, he got out of the boat and began cutting trees and plastic bags for some makeshift shelter.
“The lifejackets kept us warm and we huddled together.”
The family played charades to pass the time.
Though he admitted to feeling a bit scared at one point, Schreck said his primary concerns were surviving and protecting his family — “just surviving, keeping them warm,’’ he said. “I was just worried about them.’’
Kids fell asleep
Though Schreck and his wife spent most of the night awake and huddled around the boat, he said their children — Drew, 9, Luke, 7, and Zane, 3 — were able to sleep despite the heavy rain.
“Kids slept,” he said. “I made a little lean-to over the top of the airboat, put a box in there, set it up, kept the rain off, put a whole bunch of lifejackets on top.’’
The mosquitoes were unrelenting. At “three o’clock,” Shreck said he heard an airboat going back and forth nearby. He shot a flare into the sky. No one spotted him.
When one of his rescuers later told him about the dangers of getting lost in the vast swamp, “that’s when it hit me,” Schreck said. But, he said, “you have to be strong.”
He said he didn’t panic.
“We saw more alligators than we could count. So, that was cool.”
Rescuers from Miami-Dade Fire and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation found the family around 1 p.m. Friday after searching more than hundreds of miles of wetland.
This was the family’s first Everglades excursion. They came down from Seville, Ohio on a spring break trip. John Joseph, a family friend and fellow Ohioan, let them borrow his small, camouflage-painted airboat
It was Joseph who called authorities when the family didn’t check in with him on Thursday evening.
Law enforcement, fire rescue and wildlife agencies launched a massive search, using helicopters, airplanes and at least six airboats.
The area covered some 1,000 square miles in three South Florida counties north of Everglades National Park. It is covered in tall, sharp-edged sawgrass and dark cypress tree stands that limit visibility.
It’s also home to alligators, Florida panthers, bears, mosquitoes, snakes, turtles, a vast array of birds and fish. Finding anyone lost in such conditions is a challenge, said Miami-Dade Fire Rescue spokesman Lt. Arnold Piedrahita Jr.
The boat was painted in camouflage, making it even harder to find.
“It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” he said.
Although wet and cold, the family appeared to be in good health even after spending the night in the wilderness, which was swept by strong thunderstorms Thursday and more rain Friday.
Piedrahita said the missing family’s boat had issued a “ping” signal that located it Thursday afternoon, but that contact was lost.
Rescuers who found the family the next day helped Schreck pull the airboat out of the brush, and he followed them back to the Tamiami Trail.
The boys stepped off the boat first, bundled in heavy beige firefighters’ jackets.
Schreck said his wife and kids were “troopers” during the ordeal.
Schreck is a golf pro who oversees three courses in northeast Ohio.
Mike Cavey, president of Granite Golf Properties, which operates the courses, said Schreck is an experienced outdoorsman and fisherman who hunts ducks in northern Ohio marshes from an airboat.
“So it’s not like a rookie going into the middle of the Everglades and doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Cavey said.
But that didn’t impress Everglades airboat captain David Wilson, who called Schreck “reckless” for venturing out into the Everglades on an airboat for the first time in rough weather with his young family.
“They shouldn’t have been out there,” said Wilson, who has driven airboats for Gator Park for almost 20 years. “They’re from out of town, they don’t know the area — they’re lucky they didn’t spend a week out there.”
However, Schreck said the experience didn’t sour him on the Everglades.
“We caught some fish, had some fun,” he said. “I want to thank the hospital, the fish and wildlife commission and Miami-Dade Fire Rescue. We might even spend a couple more days here. I would even go back to the Everglades.”
But, his wife won’t, he said.
“Right now she said, ‘No!’ ” he said.
Miami Herald photographer Walt Michot contributed to this report, which was also supplemented with information from The Associated Press..