We were on a short hike back to a good fishing hole and had not yet reached our destination when the sneaky little vampire showed up. It grabbed hold, and positioned itself for a nice meal of warm blood.
It was a tick — a tiny, silent hitchhiker that comes from that wonderful family of insects that also brings us spiders, scorpions, chiggers, and mites. You likely cringe, itch, or feel your skin start to sting, just at the mere mention of their names.
But ticks have a special place in the realm of dastardly bugs, since they can potentially carry a lengthy list of nasty pathogens. And there are a lot of ticks in our outdoors world — nearly 900 species of these ectoparasites make earth their home. They come in many sizes, with some as tiny as a fleck of pepper.
Ticks live the same way those most notorious Transylvanians allegedly did — by hematophagy — surviving on the blood of others. While Dracula inexplicably always seemed to need a painfully thin and emaciated young female to provide his nutrition, any human will do for ticks, along with any other mammal, birds, and even reptiles and amphibians.
Some ticks have preferred hosts, as Dracula obviously did, or still does. The one positioning itself on my arm for a fine meal of Type AB-positive blood was a blacklegged deer tick. It had not yet gotten started with that banquet, so it was easily dispatched with a pair of tweezers that are part of the customary fishing ensemble.
While a mosquito buzzing around your head is annoying, and the flies that want to land on your picnic lunch are disgusting, ticks are inherently dangerous to humans, and their pets. Ticks can carry Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, relapsing fever, tularemia, tick paralysis, ehrlichiosis, Colorado tick fever, basesiosis, tick-borne meningoencephalitis, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, anaplasmosis, and something that looks like it came from the remains of a Scrabble game called cytauxzoonosis.
I remember paging through my dad’s medical journals as a kid, and being astonished at the names of various diseases and ailments. Decades later, the names still have that chilling effect. Although it occurs most often on the other side of the world, add Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever to the list of words you never want to hear your doctor say.
Closer to home, our tick-related concerns focus on American dog ticks, blacklegged ticks, and lone star ticks — the three species most common in Ohio and Michigan. We need to be aware of them, but not to the point that the potential presence of ticks prevents us and our pets from enjoying the woods, a camping trip, or a good hike.
As with most potential risks in the outdoors, sensible precautions will drastically reduce any potential problems. You can avoid certain areas at certain times of the year when ticks are likely present in numbers. Many parks and natural resource offices issue advisories on this subject.
Also, know your adversary. Ticks don’t fly or jump, but they prefer to catch a ride from ground level, and then work their way up as they search for an area to bite. Long sleeves, boots, and long pants, with the pants tucked into the boots, thwart most tick attempts to find the right bite site.
A tick repellent that contains the chemical permethrin can be applied to your clothing ahead of time. Once it dries, it has good staying power.
There are also many clothing options that come with a built-in repellent to keep the ticks, mosquitoes, ants, flies, chiggers, and midges away. A company called Insect Shield has been at the forefront of this technology, impregnating clothing and gear with an effective layer of protection that reportedly lasts through 70 launderings.
Deer ticks, the sinister primary vector of Lyme disease, are present in larger numbers in areas where deer populations are more significant. The woodsy region around West Point in upstate New York has a lot of deer, so not surprisingly, the U.S. Military Academy there had one of the highest instances of Lyme disease among military installations.
Once the Army started using an insect-preventative treatment on its clothing and uniforms, the number of cases of the disease dropped significantly.
Even with proper prevention and precaution, it is a good idea to do a thorough “tick check” when returning from the woods, camp, or a hike down the trails. And don’t forget to check the dog, too, since they are a suitable host for these tiny blood-suckers, and closer to the ground where the ticks are present.
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.