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Poison Oak
Tick Facts
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Poison Oak

The following is from Santa Barbara Day Hikes by Ray Ford

I’ve discovered an amazing thing in the years I’ve been hiking in the Santa Barbara area—the people who are the most susceptible to poison oak (to me it’s simply “oak”) are the ones who seem least likely to recognize it. I’m not sure why that’s true but it is. I’ve got a friend who is so allergic to it that he starts breaking out just by looking at a picture of it in a book. You would think he’d have antenna by now that could pick it up like radar, warning him when he’s within a half mile of it.

But when we are out on a hike and I hear him say, “Gee, what’s this?” I don’t even have to look—I know he’s in the oak again. You would think after a while that he would finally learn his lesson.

There are probably more myths concerning poison oak than just about any other backcountry problem. No you don’t get it from scratching. The mugwort probably won’t work. No, it can’t get in your bloodstream and spread. Yes, you can get it from the branches, even if all the leaves have fallen off, as in the wintertime.

Simply put, you get poison oak by coming into contact with the offending bush, whether in leaf or stick form. What causes the irritation is the oil, a sappy, whitish liquid known as the Rhus antigen, which was named after its discoverer. All the plants which cause this reaction (such as poison oak, poison ivy, or sumac) have the same basic oil. The reaction to all of them is known by the same name—Rhus dermatitis.

Only those areas which come into contact with the oil will react and only to the extent that they are sensitive to it (why some people have sensitive skin and others don’t I will never understand. I’m just glad I’m not). While the ability to react is somewhat determined by genetics (if your mom and dad get it you probably will too), repeated contact with the oil can increase your sensitivity. If aren’t allergic to it now, don’t brag about how you can crash right through the stuff. You may regret it later.

Contact can be direct, from the plant leaves and vines, or indirect, by coming into contact with the oil at a later time, either from contaminated clothes or perhaps from man’s best friend—your dog. An absolutely awful way to get it is through inhalation of the vapors, such as from a trash fire or while sitting around a warm, toasty campfire stoked by someone’s careless use of of poison oak for kindling. Ever thought of what oak might be like on the inside of your mouth or throat? Or to wake up in the morning with your eyes swollen shut? Once the rash breaks out (usually in about 3 days) scratching will make the blisters run but the fluid release by your incessant itching is serum, not the Rhus oil. You might infect the area but you won’t cause the oak to spread. 

Surprisingly, neither antihistamine creams nor calamine lotions stop the reaction. All they do is help keep the itching down and help stop the fluid from running once you’ve started scratching. If a few blisters do appear after a trip into the mountains, they can be treated with any brand of over-the-counter cortisone cream and a good antihistamine, such as Benadryl (dephenhydramine). The rash should be gone in a week. If not, consult your doctor.

What should you do if you think you’ve made contact with this obnoxious plant (there must be some reason of its existence, but though I’ve tried, I haven’t come up with one yet) there are a number of things you can do. First of all, get the clothes you were wearing off as soon as is practical and keep them separated. Then take a long shower, starting off with as cool water as you can handle (this helps keep your pores closed), and wash yourself as thoroughly as possible. Wash your clothes by themselves with a potent detergent—cycle them through twice if you want to be sure to get the oil off.



The following is from Santa Barbara Day Hikes by Ray Ford

“Oh gross, man.”

That’s what my high school students say to me when I tell them to check for ticks while we are out on a hike.

It used to be that all you had to worry about when it came to ticks was a gross-out or two, especially if you missed one on the periodic “body checks” that are necessary in the backcountry, and you were forced to use a pair of tweezers (a handy item, even on day hikes) to twist one out.

But today, Lyme disease has everyone worried. This tick-borne bacterial infection is spreading faster than any other ailment with the exception of AIDS. It has been reported in 46 states and afflicted more than 30,000 in the US last year.

Lyme disease is caused by a spiral bacterium spread to animals and humans by ticks. When the tiny creatures bite they can inject the organism into you. One of the  characteristics of ticks which make them a perfect host for such a disease is their ability to transmit microorganisms from one generation of ticks to the next. At the site of the bite, a red, circular rash with a clearing in the center appears. A few days or weeks after the bite, flu-like symptoms may appear, as well as pain in the joints. If untreated the symptoms can spread to the nervous system and cause aching in the joints similar to arthritis.

Lyme disease can be cured if treated early through the use of penicillin or other antibiotics. Unfortunately, because the tick bite may not be noticed or possibly because the symptoms are vague enough either to be ignored or mis-diagnosed, the disease is often not treated quickly enough. While rarely fatal or long lasting, it can cause chronic symptoms that are difficult to get rid of.

Fortunately for us, the main areas where this disease has been contracted are east of the Rockies, in the Midwest and Northeast, especially New York. Still, you can minimize the danger of your contracting Lyme disease (or being bitten by any tick). A vaccine for dogs is available though there is some concern among physicians about its long term effect or safety. For more information consult your physician.

You’ll find ticks in some areas and some time frames more than others. Narrow trails, especially those with grass fringes that you can rub against, such as the Matias Potrero Trail, are prime tick areas. The period between March and June is tick season, though you’ll find them (or more accurately, they’ll find you) throughout the year. 

One way to help is to dress and act accordingly. Pants tucked into your socks will help keep them off your legs and light-colored clothing will help you spot them. An insect repellants such as DEET can help repel them. Above all, a full body check should be done every half hour or so, more often in areas of heavy infestation.

Despite these precautions, should you find one beginning to burrow in, don’t panic. A tick takes a number of hours to latch on and ready itself to feed. It may be as much as 24 hours before it is capable of transmitting a bacterial infection to you.

To remove the tick (“Oh gross, man”) place the tips of your tweezers over the mouth parts, as close to the skin as you can get them. This lessens the danger of pulling off the body and leaving the mouth parts behind. Pull steadily away from the skin extremely slowly until the tick lets go. I’ve always had good success twisting counterclockwise while pulling (I’ve been told they bore into you in a clockwise direction). If the head stays in it should work itself out in a few days. If not, see your doctor.

Afterwards wash the bite area, apply a disinfectant, and cover with a bandaid.


The following is from Santa Barbara Day Hikes by Ray Ford

“Water has more life in it than any part of the earth’s surface.”

Thoreau, Walden

Beware the crystal clear water—it may contain organisms known by the state of California to be harmful to your health. The culprit is known as giardia (pronounced gee-ar-de-a), a teeny-tiny protozoa that resides in the upper part of the small intestine, once ingested. Giardia has a life cycle that is composed of two stages. The first is the reproductive stage; the second the cyst, a stage in which the germ is encased in a hard shell. 

It is the second stage which causes the problem. The cysts remain alive in even the coldest water for as long as 3 months, even when frozen (don’t eat the yellow snow or even the stuff that looks as pure as Ivory flakes). As few as 10 of the little buggers can cause you to come down with giardiasis and if you’ve swallowed a hundred or more you’ll get it for sure.

Giardia comes from animal droppings or in some cases from human waste (always bury your waste in a hole at least 8” deep and never, ever closer than 100 feet from any water source). As the animals wade or wallow in a stream or pool the droppings enter the water. In some cases rain may wash the animal wastes into it. When ingested, the water-borne cyst attaches itself to the wall of your upper small intestine and your stomach’s heat activates it, causing it to go into the reproductive cycle, causing sickness and in the process producing more cysts. 

Though not life threatening, the disorder (giardiasis) it can be incapacitating, causing diarrhea, vomiting, gas (lots of it), loss of appetite, abdominal cramps, and bloating. These symptoms may last up to 6 weeks. In short, it’s no fun.

Even if the water is clear, cold, and free running it may harbor giardia cysts. They been found bubbling up from what appear to be the purest of springs. You can’t tell if they are present by the taste. Nor by the smell, or the look of it. The usual amount of time between ingestion and the onset of symptoms is about 2 weeks, meaning that you won’t know you’ve got it until quite awhile later and you might even mistake it for something else.

The best way to prevent the disorder is to bring enough water along with you so that you needn’t depend on what nature offers.  But this can be difficult to do on a long day hike and especially on a full day’s mountain bike ride. Other than bringing your own along there are really only 3 other choices: boiling, filtering, or chemically treating it. The surest way to destroy the giardia cysts, as well as other organisms, is to boil the water for at least a minute, preferably 3-5 minutes to be safe. Chemical treatment by use of iodine or chlorine isn’t considered as reliable as the use of heat, but it does provide a handy and relatively simple way to deal with the problem. Recent studies indicate that these chemicals may not work because they can’t penetrate the cyst’s hard shell. Use iodine rather than chlorine if you have a choice. It is more effective. Another drawback to use of these chemicals is that they make the water taste funny. 

What may be the most practical choice (especially if you backpack) is the use of a filtration system to remove the cysts. “First Need”, “H2OK”, and “Katadyn Pocket Filters” all have been tested by the EPA and found to work on the giardia cyst. 


The following is from Santa Barbara Day Hikes by Ray Ford

“What do you do when you’ve been bitten by a poisonous snake and you’re hours from the nearest medical clinic?” the article starts off. I can picture the news anchor person reading the story cheerfully off the teleprompter. “We’ll tell you at eleven,” she says, a smile on her face.

”Don’t get bitten in the first place,” I want to scream out, as if I yell loud enough everyone who is watching Channel 3 will hear me. 

I’ve got to admit it—I’m deathly afraid of rattlesnakes. They are the only thing that caused me to have nightmares when I was a little kid. When we came to California in the 1950s all my relatives seemed to be hung up on earthquakes. Not me. I could see snakes in my dreams. Everywhere. Big ones too. Ugly ones, with big fangs and about a thousand rattles. I get chills every time I go to the Museum of Natural History and push the button that makes the rattlesnake buzz (I still push it anyway).

Rattlesnakes are known as pit vipers because they have small holes, or pits, on either side of their triangular-shaped heads, just under their eyes, in which infra red receptors are lodged, enabling them to track their warm-blooded prey. A thin heat-sensitive membrane covers the back of these pit organs. The angle at which heat passes through the small holes and strikes the membrane provides a sort of solar radar tracking system. Rattlesnakes actually don’t see very well.

There are 31 species of rattlesnakes in the Western Hemisphere (a comforting thought), 6 of them found in California. Fortunately, only one of them reside in Santa Barbara County—the Western Pacific Rattlesnake—known under its Latin name as Crotalus viridis, a name that is more benign than its bite. 

The Western Pacific Rattlesnake inhabits a variety of habitats ranging in elevation from sea level to 6,000’, which means you can find them anywhere in the County (another comforting thought). Personally I’ve sat near the top of San Rafael Peak and watched one of them warm up in the morning sun, so I know they’re everywhere. The peak is 6200’ in elevation.

Because they are cold-blooded, rattlesnakes are dependent on the environment for heat rather than relying on their metabolism to provide it. In the Santa Barbara area, where winters aren’t severe, they hibernate singly or in small numbers from late November through early March (this is good news, folks!). This means that you only have to worry about them from mid-March through the start of October.

Soon after awakening in the spring, rattlesnakes mate, giving birth a litter of from 6-to-12 live little ones, which are active almost immediately. Because they are inexperienced, they are the ones most often seen in the daytime.

Where will you find the Western Pacific Rattlesnake? Usually on rocky outcrops, rocky ledges, brush-covered slopes, rocky streams, and wherever you find piles of brush or debris. I’m always wary when passing the cone-shaped nest built by the pack rat. I figure there’s a rattlesnake lurking somewhere, waiting patiently for a tasty meal. 

In the Santa Barbara area, rattlesnake coloring varies. Blotches that range from light brown to a dark black run the length of the snake, making it look like it has a diamond-covered topside. While the lighter colored ones are extremely beautiful, those that are almost black are menacing looking and seem to have an evil aura about them. 

It has taken me a long time to accept the fact that these creatures play an important role in nature and deserve to be left alone.

Though the rattlesnake would prefer to rattle out a warning than strike, people do get bitten by them. Their range is about half the length of their body, usually a circular area about 1-2’ in diameter, though every time I see what I’m sure it will be able to leap out and get me, even if I’m a safe 15 feet away.

Each year about 20 people in the U.S. die from poisonous snake bites, mostly children and the elderly.  Rattlesnakes account for about 60% of the bites and nearly all the fatalities. In the 30 years I’ve lived here, I only know of one person who died from a rattlesnake bite, but it can happen.

What should you do? While a number of remedies have been suggested over the years, ranging from use of snake bite and antivenom kits to cryotherapy (cold therapy), the most cautious—and probably best—treatment is to immobilize the affected part of the body using a splint and to keep the patient as calm and inactive as possible while heading to the nearest emergency room as quickly as possible.

So, what do you do when you’ve been bitten by a poisonous snake and you’re hours from the nearest medical clinic? Don’t get bitten in the first place! I can’t say that enough. Watch where you walk. Watch where you put your hands and your feet. Look first before stepping over a log or putting your hand up on a rock or a ledge.

And if you should see a rattlesnake, appreciate it for what it is—a necessary part of nature’s web of life—and stay clear. From afar, I’ve found that they are very beautiful creatures.

Tick Facts

The following is from a USFS pamphlet.

The Western Black-Legged Tick (Ixodes pacificus) is the only tick of the 49 species occurring in California known to transmit Lyme Disease.  The tick has three active stages: Larvae, nymph, and adult. In its immature stages, the larvae and nymphs feed on small rodents such as rabbits, lizards, and birds. Adults feed on larger animals such as deer, dogs, and humans. In all of the stages, the tick feeds by imbedding its mouth-parts into the skin of the host and taking in a meal of blood.

Preliminary studies indicate that white-footed mice and deer may be the primary reservoirs of Lyme disease in California. Larval and nymphal ticks acquire spirochetes from the blood of infected mammals as they feed. Then the infected nymphs and adults transmit the spirochetes to other mammals, including humans. However, in California, only a very small percentage of the ticks tested for Lyme Disease are infected with it. 

Adult ticks are most commonly found from December through June, during the part of the year when humidity is at its highest. The adult female is red-brown with black legs and is about 1/8 inch long. Males are smaller and entirely brownish-black. Both are teardrop shaped. 

While the Western Black-Legged Tick has been found in 50 of the 58 counties in California, it is most common in the humid coastal areas and on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. It resides on grasses and brush in both rural and urban settings. They do not fly, jump, or drop from trees. Instead, they climb onto the tips of vegetation, typically along animal and hiking trails, and wait for a host to brush against them, a type of behavior that is known as questing. 

To Avoid Them
Tuck pants into boots or socks and your shirt into your pants. Wear light-colored clothing so ticks can be seen easily. Apply insect repellant on pants, socks, and shoes. Avoid trail margins, brush, and grassy areas when in tick country. Check yourself and your children frequently. Prompt removal of ticks may prevent transmission of the disease.

To Remove Them
Use tweezers rather than your fingers. If you must touch the tick, use tissue to protect your hands. Grasp the tick’s mouth parts as close to the skin as possible. Gently pull the tick straight out in a firm and steady manner. Do not twist or jerk the tick. It has harpoon-like barbs and does not screw into the skin. If the mouth parts break off and remain in your skin, consult your doctor. Wash your hands and the site of the bite with soap and water. Apply an antiseptic afterwards.

Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service



Mtn Lions

The following is from Santa Barbara Day Hikes by Ray Ford

Caution. There are many places in Santa Barbara County where mountain lions are present and could become a threat to you or your family. Mountain lions are unpredictable, especially given the extended drought conditions and they have been known to attack without warning. Over the past century there have been very few attack that resulted in death or serious injury but any time you enter mountain lion country, there is a potential that one could occur.

Your safety cannot be guaranteed; however, you can take precautions that may significantly reduce the danger for yourself, your companions and your family.

  • Travel in groups; hiking alone increases the risk to yourself and your ability to seek help should you have an encounter.
  • Be aware of your surroundings and be alert to any unusual noises or sounds.
  • Keep your children or other youngsters within sight at all times.
  • Use walking sticks. They not only provide an excellent walking aid but could be used to defend yourself if necessary.

If You Encounter a Mountain Lion

  • DO NOT RUN! Running may stimulate a mountain lion's instinct to chase. Instead, stand and face the animal.
  • Hold your ground, wave your hands and shout. When possible, move slowly away from the lion while continuing to face it.
  • If the lion behaves in an aggressive manner either by stalking you or coming closer, throw stones at it.
  • Convince the lion that you are not prey and that you may be dangerous to it.
  • Do everything you can to appear larger. If you have small children with you, place them on your shoulders if you can.
  • Do not crouch down in an attempt to hide. The lion has already seen you well before you saw it.
  • Continue to move slow

Report the Incident
Be sure to report to the incident as soon as possible to alert others to the situation.


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Last Updated: Monday, July 27, 2015