Having spent a lifetime in the woods, there are a few things out there that terrify me. I speak not of grizzly bears and nefarious snakes, and other critters that can seriously change my lifestyle, if not end it. I refer to the tiny skin-eating, flesh- drilling, often invisible vermin that I thoroughly despise.
Chiggers are at the top of the list. I’ve never seen a chigger, and I don’t think you can, unless you have a magnifying glass, but with good eyes they’d look like a tiny dot. If you’ve never had an encounter with a chigger, which can only happen if you don’t live in the south, you can’t know what I mean. Having said that, I was attacked by chiggers once in South Dakota, but it was in southern South Dakota. I’ve never heard of chiggers in the north. They’re actually a mite, and the good news is that they have never caused any debilitating illnesses other than painful, maddening itching. So far.
A chigger bite is a force to be reckoned with. It will drive you crazy with the itching, and the more you scratch, the worse it gets. At some point the sore will develop into a small boil that will eventually burst and drain down your body. Very disgusting. The sores will be red, easy to see, and will make you hesitate to be seen on a beach in a swimsuit or to simply wear shorts.
One of my worst encounters was picking raspberries in Maryland. I don’t like to think about it. Another was on a hog hunt in Texas where we spent some time in tall grass fishing for bass. Again, that was an unpleasant memory. My legs have never been the same.
There are many suggestions for preventing chiggers from enjoying your flesh. Once, in Texas, I was advised to stuff several clothes dryer tissues into my socks. I did, and I was never chigger-bit, though I can’t say the dryer tissues really worked. Of course, there are many repellants on the market that you spray on your clothing. Some of this stuff is so lethal that you don’t dare get any on your skin.
Then there are remedies for the bite itself. A popular one, which I understand has been disproven many times, is to paint the bite with fingernail polish. Doesn’t work, say the experts. Rather, there are several medications that are recommended, which allegedly work.
And then we have ticks. Another menace that terrifies me. Seeing a tick crawling on my body may cause instant panic and hysteria. Unlike chiggers, ticks will cause all sorts of medical problems, including death.
Our Rocky Mountain ticks are usually easily seen. They’re sort of a burgundy color and large. You can readily spot them whether they’re crawling on you or are dug in. These are bad boys and can cause Colorado Tick Fever and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. My most serious encounters occurred while spring turkey hunting in the Black Hills. Once, I picked 40 or 50 off me. I obviously sat in some pine needles loaded with the nasty critters.
My first experience with ticks was when I moved west to work as a wildlife biologist with the BLM. The federal government required us to get tick shots from the local doc. I never liked it, and I don’t know if it worked or not. I haven’t heard of anyone getting tick shots in a long time.
Ticks outside the west can be tiny, often called « seed » ticks. My earliest memory of them was back 40 years ago when I climbed into a pile of logs in Texas from which to ambush a turkey. I emerged from there in a large hurry when I discovered I was quickly becoming a buffet for lots of the little devils.
A big mystery is the appearance of ticks in the east. For 8 years I worked for the US Military Academy at West Point as post forester and game warden ( in southern New York State.) That was back in the late 60’s and early 70’s. I spent most of my time in the woods, often taking lunch breaks lying in the leaves on the forest floor. I never once saw a tick nor did I hear of one. Then, some years later, ticks began showing up. And, as many of us are aware, so did Lyme disease, which was discovered in Lyme, Connecticut in 1975. This is now a common disease, especially in New England, and is now found around much of the country. I know dozens of people who have it.
Once, I was hunting deer in Rhode Island. I was standing on the ground, and was aghast to see dozens of ticks crawling up my trousers. I got out of there in a hurry after brushing them off, with and without my pants on.
There are other ticks that cause serious issues and illnesses. One, the Lone Star tick, can cause severe problems with serious consequences, including an allergy to red meat with nasty symptoms. And now comes word of yet the discovery of another tick that can cause immediate illness, including death.
So is this an attempt to keep you out of the woods or away from lake shores and streams? Not at all. Fact is, the odds of contracting one of these diseases (other than Lyme) is extremely low. It’s a good idea to do a thorough tick check every time you come in from the woods, and a better idea to prevent them from making contact with you by using recommended repellents.
Review the website from the Center of Disease Control (CDC) for helpful information about tickborne illnesses and prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/ticks/index.html
Pocket guide for tick identification: https://www.lymediseaseassociation.org/images/NewDirectory/Resources/LDA_Brochures/TickCard.pdf