A friend once asked me, mockingly, “Do you consider nature benign?” I instantly pictured what he pictured: me floating barefoot through wildflowers, head in the clouds and a benevolent smile on my face, hugging rabbits and kissing beetles, oblivious that a few paces behind me in the flowers bobbed the fuzzy tipped ears of a mountain lion, presumably with a slavering grin on its face.
“No,” I said. “Of course not.” And I gave him a dirty look.
In fact, I am a scaredy cat. I’m always thinking about the dangers out there: lions, ticks, froth-mouthed foxes, sneaker waves.
But fear’s no better than obliviousness. It’s better, say sensible outdoorsy types, to arm yourself with caution, information and concrete practical things like tweezers, insect repellent, a life jacket and a buddy. And maybe a big stick. Something bad could still happen, but you’ll likely increase your potential for continued happiness (and survival).
Between 2000 and 2005, 38 people drowned in Humboldt County, according to the Six Rivers National Forest’s river manager Bob Hemus. Of those, 21 drowned in freshwater and 17 in saltwater. Thirty of them were males. The age group with the most (10) drownings was 20 to 29.
Hemus says this is the time of year when our rivers are most treacherous. Hot weather melts the snow quickly, rivers rise cold and swift, and the potential for cold-water drownings increases.
“I can tell you story after story,” Hemus says. “Two years in a row, we had HSU students drown in rivers. One scenario is, a person who lives at the coast where it’s cool then travels to Orleans, where it’s hot. But the water’s cold. Maybe add alcohol. And you jump in, and your body starts to shut down. The water can be 50 degrees, if not colder. Do you know the 50-50-50 rule? A 50-year-old man can swim 50 yards in 50-degree water. That’s not very far. Sometimes people go out and they can’t get back. I remember one time, a guy dove into a creek and never came up. It was Memorial Day weekend, it was 105 degrees out, and Dillon Creek was probably running in the high 40s -- fresh snowmelt.”
Deceptively swift currents, submerged snags and boulders -- whose configurations may have shifted since you last were there -- can also trap you. Murky water can hide too-shallow water for diving. Learn current conditions, Hemus says, know how to swim, don’t go out alone and wear a flotation device. Life jackets are sleek these days, so there’s no excuse to not wear one swimming, boating, fishing or otherwise cavorting. And never go into the water to rescue someone -- you may drown, too. Instead, reach out to them with a stick, or throw them a rope or an ice chest to grab onto. If that fails, go for help.
As for the ocean, a sudden huge wave – a sneaker -- can occur any time of year, says Troy Nicolini with the National Weather Service. Three to five people drown at the beach each year in Humboldt and Del Norte counties, he says.
“We hear so many stories where waves just knock people down and drag them out to sea,” he says. “It happened to two rangers a few years ago, and they were on dry land.”
Stay far from the water when you’re at the beach, he advises, and if you have to be near it, never take your eyes off it. And, no matter your age, wear a life jacket. If you do get swept into the ocean, swim parallel to shore to escape the current, then swim to shore.
The likeliest threat out there is lurking in that delicious-to-behold dish on your picnic table, says Kevin Metcalfe, with Humboldt County Division of Environmental Health. Yep, food poisoning. Advice: keep the hot hot and the cold cold.
Another danger can hide in that pretty creek upon whose bank you’ve just belly-flopped so as to take a deep, slaking slurp from the burble. Don’t do it, lest you want weeks of the roiling tummy -- requiring heavy hitting antibiotics -- courtesy of Giardia lamblia, a microscopic, cyst-encased critter. Bring your own drinking water, or boil, filter or treat that stream water.
Then there are the mosquitoes. Brian Cox, director of Humboldt County Division of Environmental Health, says Humboldt’s mosquitoes tend to be mere nuisances. But if you travel inland, say to the Sacramento Valley or Bakersfield, you could run into a West Nile virus-carrying mosquito. Wear insect repellent with DEET.
DEET can fend off ticks, too, which here and elsewhere can carry the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, which can cause Lyme disease, whose symptoms range from fever and headache to full-on travails of the heart, joints and nervous system. There may or may not be a bull’s eye rash at the bite site.
Becky Kent, an avid hiker, was bit by a tick in August 2006 while picking blackberries at the Mad River Hatchery.
“I was more worried about the poison oak than ticks,” she says.
The next day, at a spot on her leg that had itched in the night, there was the tell-tale rash. Her doctor prescribed antibiotics, which she took for a month.
“Then, in mid-2007, I got all kinds of crazy symptoms,” says Kent.
She had vertigo for five months, she lost her sense of smell (which has not come back), she had general fatigue, sight problems and her thoughts were scattered. She couldn’t sleep. In December, a blood test confirmed that she still had Lyme disease.
Now, a prolonged cocktail of antibiotics later, she’s on the mend. Her advice: “Be alert when you’re in the woods. They’re in the bushes. They have been known to drop from trees. Wear long pants [light-colored, so you can see ticks], and tuck them into your socks. Wear long-sleeved shirts. Use DEET. Don’t sit right on the ground -- use a ground cover. And check yourself carefully when you get home.”
Mary McKenzie, a Humboldt County public health nurse, says the best way to pull out a tick is to grab it with tweezers close to your skin and pull straight out. Put the tick in a baggie with a water-moistened paper towel -- not alcohol, because that’ll kill bacteria -- and bring it to the health department to be tested. Get to the doctor immediately if you see a rash. McKenzie also says not to use sunscreen-insect repellent combos, repeat applications of which could lead to a toxic-level of DEET. Apply them separately, and reapply DEET less frequently because it lasts longer than sunscreen.
Lion attacks are rare. According to the California Department of Fish and Game, between 1890 and 2007 there were 16 verified lion attacks on humans in California. Six of those attacked died (two from rabies, in 1909). And only one of those attacks was in Humboldt County -- on Jim Hamm, who was hiking one day in January 2007 with his wife, Nell, in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Nell Hamm clobbered the lion, which had Jim’s head in its jaws, with a stick, then jabbed it with a pen, then again whacked it with the stick until the lion let go. Jim survived. Nell and Jim are back to hiking again and have returned many times to the trail they were on that scary day. But she has advice.
“Be aware of where you’re going, and talk to the park ranger,” she says. “Find out about the weather, the terrain, and just the general area and what to watch out for -- fallen trees, that sort of thing. And don’t ever hike alone. Jim and I, if either of us had been alone that day we wouldn’t be alive.”
If you see a lion, don’t run -- it triggers the predator response. Stand your ground, make yourself look bigger by raising your jacket or pack above your head, yell. If the lion attacks, fight back.
Also, remember that cell phones often don’t work in the backcountry.
Black bear attacks are infrequent as well. There’ve been 12 recorded black bear attacks on people in California since 1980, according to the DFG -- two in Siskiyou County and one in Trinity. The attacks often involved a sow with cubs, or a quest for food or garbage.
Finally, there are the rabies-deranged animals -- the skunk that rampages through camp, the bat that flies through an unscreened window at night and bites you while you are sleeping. These are rare but riveting events. Avoid any staggering, sick animal and report it to authorities, says McKenzie. If you’re bit by an animal, try to catch it so it can be tested for rabies. And seek treatment immediately -- even if, in the case of a bat found in your home, you’re not really sure if it bit you. Rabies, untreated, will kill you. Besides, you can get an infection from an un-rabid bite.
Metcalfe says that since 1954, in Humboldt County, 161 skunks have tested positive for rabies, 48 bats, 78 foxes, one bobcat, 13 domestic cats, 34 cows, one coyote, six dogs, five horses and one possum.
This one might seem obvious, but you really oughta wear sunscreen and a hat and keep kids under six months old out of the sun altogether. Who needs skin cancer?