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There's a Sucker Born Every Minute

by Tamia Nelson

Ticks don't get no respect. But paddlers can't avoid them. And not only are ticks, well, unesthetic, they also carry disease. That's enough to tick any paddler off. Still, they're here to stay. We'll just have to adapt, so Tamia passes on a some tips for living with ticks.

May 17, 2005
Updated June 7, 2016

Article by Tamia NelsonI'm just lucky, I guess. I've never knowingly played host to a tick, despite having spent my whole life exploring waterways, mountains, and fields in some of the best tick country in North America. (NB: That was true when this column first went to press, but 11 years later my luck ran out.) And for a long time I never gave ticks much thought, either. Not until Lyme disease hit the headlines, that is. Suddenly, ticks were big news. They still are. As the world warms up, tick‑borne diseases are being seen in places they haven't been noticed before. Now, with summer just around the corner and the paddling season well under way, it's time to get to know the enemy better.


Ticks are arachnids, near kin to mites, spiders, and scorpions. Seen from above, a tick looks a lot like a diminutive plastic guitar pick, with its head at the pointy end—ideally located for getting under your skin. But you'll need to have keen vision to look a tick in the eye. Few adults grow longer than half an inch, and many are much smaller, down to an eighth of an inch or even less. They're not flashy dressers, either. Ticks have learned that it doesn't pay to advertise. Camouflage colors like brown and blue-black are their usual fashion choice. And where can you expect to find ticks? Almost everywhere, from the seacoast to the mountains, though they're particularly fond of brushy and wooded areas. In other words, ticks hang out in the same places that canoeists and kayakers do, and chances are good that you'll meet one of these little bloodsuckers up close and personal someday. That being the case, let's take a look at…


Ticks are out for blood. Your blood. It's nothing personal. It's just part of their job description. Both males and females need blood to grow up big and strong. In fact, females can't lay eggs without a blood meal. But ticks don't spend all their time eating. They get around, spending only a part of their lives on their hosts. Baby ticks—tick larvae—hatch from eggs deposited on tangled grass stalks or similar sheltered places. And if adult ticks are small, baby ticks are miniscule, no larger than a grain of sand. They grow up fast, though, heading for the top of the nearest stalk just as soon as their infant bodies harden in the air. There they wait patiently with outstretched legs to hitch a ride on the first warm-blooded creature to pass by. Then, having climbed aboard a suitable host, they lose no time in locating a good feeding spot and getting stuck in. Their first meal is a memorable one, often taking days to complete. At last, however, they're bloated with blood and ready to leave the table. They don't wait for the check. They just drop to the ground and spend the next month or so quietly digesting what they've eaten.

The larvae put on weight in the process, molting and emerging as "adolescent" nymphs. The nymphs then hitch a ride on a second host, once again gorging themselves to repletion and dropping off. This time around, though, they emerge from their postprandial nap as adults. Sex now replaces food as the most important thing in their lives, and their next blood meal is followed by an orgy. Soon each mother-to-be is looking for a place to deposit thousands of fertilized eggs. Then she dies.

Talk about candles in the wind.

By now you know what our part in all this is. Guess who's coming to dinner. There's just one question left to ask: When can we expect our uninvited guests to arrive? The answer depends on where we're paddling. Local weather conditions play an important role, too. In North America, you'd better plan on having ticks dropping by for a meal anytime from ice-out to the first frost in autumn, with late spring and early summer probably being the peak season.

What's that? You say you'd rather not play the obliging host? Then you'd better learn a few…


Nobody likes to find a tick enjoying a meal at his expense. That's why no Chamber of Commerce puts images of engorged ticks on its website, and why you won't find any pictures of these little charmers alongside the seagulls, lighthouses, and blood-red sunsets on the postcards in seacoast shops. Still, the real problem with ticks isn't their esthetic shortcomings. It's their eating habits. They suck blood, right? That makes them mobile hypodermic syringes. They also play the field, taking hosts as they come. We've all heard of the problems associated with shared needles. There's no better way to spread disease. It won't come as much of a surprise, then, that tick-borne diseases (TBDs for short) are a growing problem, especially now that more and more people are spending time—camping, canoeing, kayaking, even building vacation homes—in tick country. Giving your host a present is only good manners, of course, but the gifts that ticks give us are the sort that most folks would just as soon forego. They include Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia (aka "rabbit fever"), relapsing (tick) fever, and erlichiosis. Some of these are familiar names, already the stuff of headline news. The rest soon will be.

Want to learn more about TBDs? You should. First, talk to your doctor. She may have some useful handouts. The "Patient Page" in the Journal of the American Medical Association is also worth a look. You'll find the link on the JAMA website. Then get a good book. The latest edition of Medicine for Mountaineering has an excellent section on tick-borne disease. Lastly, don't overlook the pamphlets published by many state and provincial departments of natural resources. They, too, repay the effort of seeking them out. In the meantime, here's a life-size portrait of the enemy, as exemplified by Ixodes scapularis, the common deer tick and the Lyme disease vector.

Poster Children -- (c) Tamia Nelson

With more than 20,000 new cases reported annually in the United States, most of them in the Northeast and Central Midwest, Lyme Disease is the poster child of North American TBDs. If diagnosed early, it's eminently treatable, but if neglected it can progress through three increasingly unpleasant stages, culminating in debilitating and intractable systemic illness. Worse yet, the only vaccine was withdrawn after less than four years on the market. Early diagnosis is obviously critical. Unfortunately, the characteristic bull's-eye rash at the site of the original bite is often absent or overlooked, and the poppy-seed-sized nymph—the most aggressive feeder—is difficult to spot during the one- to four-day period needed for transmission of the Lyme disease organism. The best defense, therefore, is the same as for other TBDs…


Clothes are your first line of protection. Shorts and sandals don't cut it in tick country. Long sleeves, long pants, and high boots are what you want, and light-colored fabrics are a plus. (Wellies are great when ticks are on the prod, but be sure to blouse your pants or tuck them in.) Gloves and hats make sense, too, particularly if you're fond of bushwhacking.

What if covering up doesn't appeal? That's understandable. Hot, humid summer days certainly make long pants and rubber boots less than attractive. Then you'll have to resort to chemical barriers. Diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET) insect repellents also repel ticks, though DEET isn't without drawbacks and dangers of its own. It attacks some plastics and synthetic stretch fabrics, and high concentrations probably shouldn't be applied to infants and young children. An alternative to smearing or spraying repellent directly on the skin is to spray it on clothes or onto a "bug suit," a light mesh coverall which is then pulled over your other clothing. But impregnating garments with DEET is a tedious business, and the treated fabric is extremely flammable until thoroughly dry. Moreover, the whole process has to be repeated every week or so, and after every heavy rain. That's too much trouble for many paddlers. Instead, they squirt insect repellent onto the cuffs of their shirts and pants and daub it onto a bandana that they then drape around their necks. It's better than nothing.

But wait! Technology may have the answer. A new line of outdoor apparel with a catchy name promises to make the job easier—at a price. It carries the idea of impregnated clothing one step further. The catalog copy claims that BUZZ OFF™ garments offer "reliable, proven protection from mosquitoes, ticks, no-see-ums and other biting insects," while also reassuring buyers that the "odorless and invisible…treatment is bonded to the clothing." So "there's no need to keep applying messy sprays." OK. The ad copywriter thought ticks were insects. They're not. Still, the rest of the pitch sounds pretty good, doesn't it? Yes. But.… That "invisible treatment" is permethrin. It's an insecticide, not a repellent, and it's also toxic to fish. Moreover, the stuff apparently does come out in the wash, a little bit at a time. (The ad copy says only that the treatment lasts "through 25 washings.") Not so good. What goes down the drain ends up in the river. And at a time when every week brings news of yet another assault on the world's aquatic ecosystems, I'm not eager to add to the problem. That means no BUZZ OFF™ for me. Of course, if you live in tick country you may feel differently.

In any case, whether you opt for nothing more than long pants and high boots or go the high-tech route, every defense, no matter how cleverly contrived, will fail sometime. That's when you'll have to tackle the enemy one on one. The mission objective is simple:


If you've spent the day deep in tick country, portaging through the bush, you have one more chore ahead of you when you make camp. Ticks are slow movers, even when they're hungry. It takes a while for them to settle down to a meal, and it takes even longer for any pathogens circulating in their systems to cross over into yours. Remove the tick before this happens and you've won the battle.

But you have to find the enemy first. It won't be easy. Ticks are shy. They like cozy, sheltered places—places like your armpits, crotch, and backside. Unless you're a contortionist with a magnifying mirror, you'll need the help of a friend. A good friend. This is no time for false modesty. Be prepared. And finding the tick—not an easy job if it's a nymph the size of a poppy seed—is just the beginning. If it's already stuck in, you've got to get it out. The medical literature isn't much help here. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommend "relaxing" the tick's mouthparts by touching it with a hot needle (or by daubing a little camphor, alcohol, turpentine, or kerosene onto its body) before grasping it with tweezers and backing it out. Good luck. While this advice is echoed by some authorities, it's condemned by others and ignored by still more. Medicine for Mountaineering disdains detail, telling you only to extract the offending beastie "carefully" with tweezers and clean the wound afterward. That sounds simple enough, I suppose. But ticks dig in, remember? Sometimes there's precious little visible tick to grasp. What then? Farwell, who's played host to my share of ticks as well as his own, has none too pleasant memories of field surgery with a variety of less than ideal tools, including a government-issue P-38 can opener (the type fondly known as a "John Wayne"). His only printable comment echoes the advice in Medicine for Mountaineering: be careful. Since ticks often head for your tenderest bits before chowing down, think twice before cutting too deep. In fact, think twice before cutting at all. If you can't do the job safely, it's time for professional help.

At least there's one thing everyone seems to agree on—crushing a newly removed tick between your nails is a bad idea. Flick it into the fire, instead, or drown it in alcohol. Then wash the bite. Later, if you notice an infection at the site or an unexplained rash, or if you experience flu-like symptoms, seek medical attention promptly.

It's time to put things in perspective. Yes, ticks bite people and carry disease. And few of us find them attractive. But every year more than three-quarters of a million people require medical attention because of dog bites in the United States alone. That's over 2,000 dog-bite victims a day, or 60,000 a month—nearly three times the number of reported cases of Lyme disease in the latest year for which data is available. You don't let your neighbor's dog keep you a prisoner in your house, do you? So don't let ticks keep you sitting at home. But don't let them play you for a sucker, either. They're here to stay. Unless you never venture away from a paved parking lot, you're bound to meet up with one sooner or later. Be ready. Get to know your enemy, dress sensibly, check yourself and your companions often for uninvited guests, and see a doctor whenever it's warranted. Where these little bloodsuckers are concerned, there's no easy option. Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, whether you're on the beach or in the bush.

Now that's the ticket!

Questions? Comments? Got something to add? Then email Tamia.


Copyright © 2005, 2016 by Verloren Hoop. The moral rights of the author have been asserted.

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