No grizzly bears or rattlesnakes,but yes-yikes!-we do have ticks
Here in the Oregon Cascades on the west side of Mount Hood we don't ever have to fret about grizzly bears, rattlesnakes or even the dreaded curse of poison oak. I truly appreciate that.
However, before you start to celebrate our good fortune, please listen up. Unfortunately, there is an exceptionally hazardous critter waiting for us out there hereabouts that we most definitely do need to worry about.
When I first moved to the mountain, I had no idea that these little disease carrying ectoparasites lived among us up here.
I've had to learn the hard way.
I live in the Zigzag area on the north side of the Sandy River.
This time of year, not only are the wildflowers returning, so are our local populations of deer ticks (also known as blacklegged ticks.) These are the tenacious teeny-tiny buggers who carry the infectious and potentially debilitating Lyme disease bacteria.
During the winter months these miniscule eight-legged bloodsuckers simply become inactive and burrow into the leaf litter. Regrettably, they emerge in the spring and wait for that next unsuspecting host to amble past.
And that, dear friend, could very easily be you or me.
(Full disclosure: A tick I unknowingly picked up during a day hike in the Salmon River area in the early 1980s successfully burrowed into my back and ended up giving me Lyme disease. More on this sad but true tale in a bit.)
Because I thoroughly enjoy hiking through prime tick habitat, for my own survival I've had to learn everything I can about deer ticks on the west side of the Cascades.
First of all, if you're going to walk through brushy, open areas or grassy meadows —especially with southern exposures — chances are good Mr. or Mrs. Deer Tick might realize that you're heading their way and prepare to leap out onto you.
Remarkably, the scientists inform us how ticks can detect their hosts by sensing carbon dioxide, scents or vibrations. We've even got a word for how they actively hunt us: "questing."
This is the behavior of the tick climbing out onto the tips of grass or leaf blades then extending and waving its front legs in hopes of hopping aboard us as we innocently pass by.
These doggone little leeches even have itty-bitty claws at the end of their eight creepy-crawly legs to help them grab ahold of us.
Ticks are amazing survivors. Their questing, of course, works.
Over the last two decades hiking up through the open brushy areas on the south-facing ridge above my house, my legs and arms have been successfully "quested" by hungry ticks more times than I care to count.
I've therefore learned that whenever I must negotiate through these tick-prone ecosystems, I need to stop and me-tic-ulously check my extremities for these dangerous, hard-to-see hitchhikers.
Here's what I've discovered about ticks.
As soon as they've established themselves on your body, they immediately begin climbing upward. It might take them quite a while to find your particular patch of epidermis in which they want to stop and bite into you, pierce your skin with their barb-like mouth parts, and start drinking your blood.
This slow climb pre-bite process is in our favor.
That's why stopping to check yourself — especially your legs, arms and shoulders — is so important.
But beware, these little critters are super difficult to see. The youngsters, known as nymphs, are particularly teensy-weensy —about the size of a darn poppy seed.
That's why, if you enter tick habitat, it's a good idea to tuck the legs of your pants into your socks. Sure I know, that looks a little dorky. But so what? Would you rather risk looking dorky or contracting a life-altering debilitative disease?
Tucking your shirt into your pants is also required. Your intent/challenge is to keep these peewee invaders on your clothes and off of your skin.
Wearing light-colored clothing is also a must. If you're wearing dark colors the odds are good that you might not see hungry Mrs. Deer Tick making her way up your extremities.
Of course, if you're like me, during the summer months you want to wear hiking shorts and short-sleeved shirts. This ups the ante for you to be extremely diligent in checking your limbs for ticks. If you have somebody with you, use the buddy system. If you're alone, do your best to visually scour your front and back yourself.
Due to my determination to keep ticks from biting me, I've been fairly successful the past several years in avoiding their bites. But even with all my preventive actions, I've still come back home and found ticks on my clothing … and me.
Luckily (knock on wood) it's been a while since a tick has successfully sunk its mandibles into me. Ouch! When this happens, just like the books say, I use tweezers to gently pull the attacker out. But, if they chomp into you where you don't have nerve endings, you might not feel that bite. Thus, here's another good idea. Once you've returned from tick country, disrobe and check your entire body. Taking a shower is also recommended.
Last summer, I got back home from a long day hike in the woods above my house. This sojourn included moving through open tick country. I took all my necessary precautions. I was proud of myself for outmaneuvering the local deer tick population yet again.
Not so fast, buster.
This time, I didn't take that shower. Later that night, while reading in bed, I noticed something crawling on the pillow right there beside my head.
All I could figure was this (please insert your favorite swear word) ectoparasite had managed to climb up into the hair on my head.
Now, out in the wild, whenever I stop to do my tick checks, this practice includes methodically running my hands through my hair.
Lyme disease and me
OK, back to 1980 and that aforementioned day hike I took with my girlfriend up into the Salmon River backcountry.
I think it was two nights later that Karen noticed something on — make that in — my back, up there by my left shoulder blade.
"What's that?" inquired Karen, a registered nurse.
I couldn't feel anything. I had no idea what she had found.
Karen grabbed a semi-engorged tick with her thumb and index finger and—Presto! Whammo!—she yanks the sucker right out.
We both hear this remarkable loud suction "pop" sound that this swift extraction maneuver makes.
And we both have to laugh at what Karen is suddenly holding in her hand. A complete—head to butt—adult tick with a swollen belly full of my blood.
Our laughter didn't last long.
A day or two after that tick had been removed, Karen noticed a big red circle around its bite site. I could see it in the mirror. Of course, today, we all know that a key diagnosis point for Lyme disease is the distinctive red "bulls-eye" rash.
But this was the early 1980s, before "Lyme disease" and the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria that causes it had really been thoroughly publicized.
Here in the Pacific Northwest we were happily living in the pre-Lyme disease awareness era. (By the way, it was first discovered on the other side of the country in Old Lyme, Conn. Hence the name.)
Within a week or so, I started feeling ill: headache, fever, night sweats, fatigue.
We now know that these can be the symptoms of Lyme disease. But back then, the medical doctors, a little stumped, deduced that I must be suffering from walking pneumonia.
I doubt if I ever mentioned that tick bite to them. Why would I? Sure, it seems like a no-brainer today. However, in 1980 why in the world would I think that a little tick could give me full-on pneumonia?
I just remember that for several months I was extremely sick — down for the count and bedridden most of that time.
I developed excruciating pain in my left shoulder joint. It was so severe that I finally went to the doctor and received a shot of cortisone, injected directly into that joint. Today, we have the benefit of knowing that Lyme disease can lead to serious complications that can affect our joints, neurological system, and even heart.
Long-term symptoms can include meningitis, brain inflammation, muscle twitching, chronic joint pain, arthritis and even memory loss.
What's more, this tick-caused disease can be misdiagnosed as multiple sclerosis or even type II diabetes.
The big question
I think I lucked out. After those two to three months of illness, my body overcame the attack of the (then unidentified) Lyme disease bacterial infection.
But I sometimes wonder about the lingering consequences.
For a whole bunch of years, I have been under the care of an allergist and immunologist for various autoimmune disorders. Who knows? They could have been triggered or partially anchored by that darned devastating tick bite from so long ago.
So, here's the big question.
I also sometimes wonder if I'd trade ticks for grizzly bears or rattlesnakes or poison oak.
Nah. Probably not.
What the heck. I'll take my chances with our hard-to-see and easy-to-miss teeny-tiny tenacious ticks.
Wish me luck!
Longtime mountain resident and former Sandy Post editor Paul Keller pens his "Beneath Wy'east" column once a month here on the Post's editorial pages.