Put all your cougar, bear, wolf, and Sasquatch fears aside. The biggest nuisances on the trail you’re sure to encounter this spring—especially if you venture south and east are ticks. While they’re not too much of a concern in Western Washington, their range is expanding and areas that were once tick free are now crawling with them. Last summer I was shocked when my fellow guidebook author Tami Asars brushed one off of her while we were hiking the Tiger Mountain Trail (TMT). Yep—ticks on Tiger. The warming and changing climate has been a boon to helping these resilient arachnids colonize new territory and find fresh new meat (you) to feed on!
Other than the fact that most people (this author included) find these hard shelled arachnids disgusting (and fascinating too I admit) it’s their role as a disease vector that raises alarm. Ticks are parasites that live off of the blood of their host. And hikers make great hosts and ticks will cling to them if given the opportunity. Generally active in the spring, they do not hibernate and can be found crawling around anytime when temperatures are warm. I pulled one off of me while hiking in New Hampshire a couple of October ago. Autumns have been getting warmers in the northern states.
Ticks generally inhabit shrubs and tall grasses. When these plants are brushed up against, the tick is given the opportunity to hitch a ride. A spring or early summer in a grassy environment in tick country is almost a guarantee you’ll be inviting some to lunch (on you). My record for most ticks on me during one hike is an astonishing 16. That was in the wilderness of South Carolina’s Cape Romaine National Wildlife Refuge. Alligators and cottonmouths were the least of my concern on that hike. My record for clinging ticks in Washington is six. It was in the Blue Mountains of Southeast Washington, a place I prefer to hike in the autumn when I only have to concern myself with cougars then (saw a big one there).
So how can you prevent feeding the ticks?
Here are a few suggestions how to avoid being ticked off!
During tick season, avoid grassy and overgrown trails.
While hiking in tick country wear long sleeves and tuck pant legs into socks
Be sure to regularly check yourself, particularly waist and sock lines during and after hiking in tick country.
If one of the little buggers has fastened himself to you, get your tweezers. Gently squeeze its head (try not to break it off or it may become lodged and infected) until it lets go. Wash and disinfect the bite area. Most ticks in the Northwest do not carry Lyme disease. The deer tick is the main culprit here. You may want to keep the tick (bag him) and have him identified to be sure it’s not a deer tick. Monitor the bite. If a rash develops, immediately seek medical help.
Best Places in Washington if you want a chance to feed (encounter) ticks include:
- Columbia River Gorge. The oak pine savannah of Klickitat (pronounced Tick-a-tat in the spring) County are infested with the buggers.
- South Sound Prairies. The oak and ash forests here provide good tick habitat.
- Lake Crescent (Olympic National Park). Due to the micro climate here, this is one of the few places in the Olympics to be on tick alert.
- Eastern Washington. The mountains (Kettles, Selkirks, and Blues) are teeming with them. The Channeled scablands and Columbia Plateau too.
The good news about ticks is that they often crawl around on you for some time before they find a place (mostly moist) to take up residence. This gives you some time to go on defense and purge the evil little critters. I’ve had them crawl down my arm while I was driving back from the trailhead. And I once had one hitch a ride on me to my hotel in Calgary, Alberta, after returning from several days hiking in Montana’s Cabinet Mountains. While showering up, I felt a pinch in a very sensitive area!
Upon returning from hiking in tick country, triple and quadruple check your clothes. Shake around like you’re at a revival. Even then, it is surprising how tenacious they can be avoiding detection. Nothing gives me more satisfaction however than finding a fried tick in my dryer’s lint screen. Last stage of defense a success!
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