A menace worse than ticks and rattlesnakes.
When I was a kid exploring the big hardwood jungles of upstate New York I was prey to the plague of poison ivy, which was ubiquitous. I got it every summer.
These were vicious cases. When you are highly allergic to the sinister leaf you become something of a human scab for a few days. At the height of the attack I usually ended up in a doctor’s office for a shot of cortisone to open my swollen-shut eyes, the first sign of recovery. I never saw the point of Calamine lotion, except as a sticky, topical placebo. The eastern summers are hot and humid, and this only added to the misery. Swollen hands, suppurating patches on the torso and elsewhere, itchy-twitchy legs, blistered-burning feet. Sleep was impossible. The worst case I ever had was when I helped my late father burn some backyard brush. The old man thought nothing of the task. He never in his life got poison ivy that I can remember.
Living in the Rockies for the past twenty years has removed this scourge from my life. Poison ivy doesn’t exist in Wyoming — at least in the part of the Cowboy State that I lived in — or other high elevation states. But it is found along the rivers in the Southwest, such as the Colorado, and I’ve lately discovered that it’s present below 3,000 feet here in Idaho.
I recently took an eight-mile hike with a half dozen friends. We first drove sixty miles down the Salmon River to the end of the road at the border of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, then took the Salmon River Trail from Corn Creek to Horse Creek. Here on the river a thousand feet lower than Salmon, it’s warmer, greener, and thick with ticks, rattlesnakes, and poison ivy. After a friend pointed out the patches of triangular, purple-shiny leaves (Toxicodendron radicans is purple in spring, green in summer, and red in the fall) periodically appearing along the trail, I forgot about the ticks and rattlesnakes. Despite wearing jeans and hiking boots, I still stayed on the trail to better avoid those purple leaves oozing what the flora pointyheads call “urushiol,” the natural chemical that causes “contact dermatitis,” a benign sounding phrase considering its hideous consequences.
My incessant scanning of the ground in front of me detracted a bit from the enjoyment of my surroundings. In this part of the Salmon River Canyon the mountains are mostly old forest fire burns carpeted with grass and sagebrush, and in the spring what seems like millions of arrowleaf balsamroots, vast expanses of yellow shading the green. There are shelves of riverside sandy beaches that appear or disappear depending on the extent of the spring flood, and are popular with summertime rafters. The river was a heavy snowmelt roar in our ears.
There were two dogs owned by friends along on the hike. Brown and white Wirehaired Pointing Griffons running up and down the trail and charging off the beaches into the river. Dogs are common on our hikes. One woman volunteers for the local Humane Society and she habitually springs a couple from their kennels for a day in the woods. They brush against you on the trail, or you reach to pet them as they fly by, and they’re generally fun to have around. Though not in the land of poison ivy. On this particular hike I refrained from petting dogs, and even cringed if they brushed against me. A dog’s coat is another typical means of transmission for “contact dermatitis.”
We hiked as far as Horse Creek and there stopped for lunch. Horse Creek is big, maybe twenty feet wide and almost a small river in itself, and is spanned by a wooden bridge before it blasts into the river. Its water was clear and deep, and the depth was hard to gauge, as big rocks on the bottom appeared vividly lucid to the eye. Three feet? Five? Six? It added that extra hydraulic symphonic soundtrack to lunch. I liked that slice of grass and pine at the junction of river and creek because I didn’t see any poison ivy.
On the four miles back I found that I had somehow subconsciously memorized all the places where I had noticed poison ivy on the way in. Every little shaded ground patch, or the single plants protruding from waist-high rocky banks next to the trail. In the latter type spot you would think I would be more vigilant of rattlesnakes. Never thought of them.
On the way home we all commented that the landscape and the river on a fine spring day made for one of our memorable hikes. So memorable for me, in fact, that when I got home I immediately took a shower, and threw all the clothes I’d worn into the washing machine.
But I seem to have dodged the bullet. It’s been a few days now and I’ve yet to see irritated red skin, or feel that unmistakable, telltale itch.
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