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Hiker Comes Home With 17 Ticks

By Craig & Kathy Copeland, originally published in "Don't Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies, the Opinionated Hiking Guide"

Nature is our home. Hikers understand that better than most. But when we suddenly find ourselves home to nature -- as did an acquaintance who napped in a meadow and later discovered 17 ticks clinging to his skin -- we're alarmed and revolted.

If there's a benefit to ticks, perhaps it's their ability to remind us it's a conceit to imagine we're separate from nature. Still, it's understandable we prefer to separate ourselves from ticks. Here's how to do that.

Ticks are vile, insidious creatures, but slow and easily thwarted if you're vigilant. In the Canadian Rockies, they're active from April through mid-June.

Look at your pinky fingernail. Wood ticks are generally smaller than that. They have dark, reddish-brown bodies with eight legs. Their protruding mouths have barbs too small to see. Ticks are arachnids but lack the speed and seeming intelligence of spiders. They climb onto grass and shrubs. When an animal or a hiker brushes past, the tick slides off the vegetation and clings to its victim. It spends three or more hours crawling upward, searching for moist flesh. Upon choosing a drilling site, it secretes a kind of glue, then bites -- painlessly, unnoticed -- and begins sucking blood. It drops off when gorged.

A tick bite can cause Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Lyme disease, or tick paralysis. Contracting one of these tick-borne illnesses in the Canadian Rockies is unlikely. Yet it's possible, so beware.

Spotted fever is potentially fatal. Symptoms include fever, headache, chills, muscular pain, coughing, and a spreading rash. The primary symptom of Lyme disease is bull's-eye skin lesions: circular red patches about two inches in diameter, with a clear centre. The lesions can appear anywhere, not necessarily near the tick bite. Symptoms of tick paralysis are numbness, drowsiness and loss of coordination, all of which can disappear soon after the tick is removed. If you suspect any of these maladies, see a doctor fast. With early detection, antibiotics are highly effective. But not all ticks carry disease. Even the carriers don't transmit disease immediately upon biting; it takes hours.

Learn to recognize tick habitat. They thrive on sunny, grassy slopes below 2000 m (6560 ft), especially those frequented by large mammals such as deer, elk or bighorn sheep. To sprawl or even sit in ticky terrain is to offer yourself for dinner. Inspect your clothing and your body occasionally while hiking. Do it again thoroughly at day's end. Ticks will favour your groin, armpits, neck and scalp but can bite almost anywhere. Ask a companion to check your head and back. If you're hiking with a dog, inspect it as well. Dogs can transfer ticks to people and into your vehicle or home.

Finding and removing ticks before they bite is easy. If you discover one burrowed into your skin, the sooner you detach it, the safer you are. Let a doctor do this. If you attempt it yourself, forget about suffocating the tick with Vaseline, or burning its butt with a match. You'll only make the tick regurgitate and defecate, increasing the likelihood of disease transmission. Don't use normal tweezers; they're too big and might crush the tick, spurting its gut contents into your wound. And don't use your fingers, or you might contaminate whatever else you touch. If you do touch it, wash your hands afterward.

You want to remove the entire tick -- mouth and all. Use fine-pointed sliver grippers, or a specialized tick-removal tool. Gently hold the tick by its mouth without grabbing or squeezing the body. Lightly, steadily, pull it directly back until your skin "tents." Hold it there, perhaps several seconds, until the tick lets go. If its mouth breaks off and remains attached, pull it out like a splinter. Drop the tick into an empty film canister along with a damp scrap of paper to keep it hydrated, in case your doctor wants a laboratory analysis. Clean your tick removal tool. Wash your wound with soap and water, rub it with an antiseptic wipe, then bandage it. Record the date and time you were bitten. Monitor yourself for signs of disease.