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Eagle Crag,
or The Great April Fool Tick Experiment

1 April 2001

By: George Wysup

Leaders: George Wysup and Penelope May

This April 1, 2001 trip was postponed from a rainy March 4. 10 hikers converged at foggy Aguanga at 8 a.m., all remembering the first day of PDST. Besides the leaders there were: Pat Arredondo, JoAnn Griego, Laura Joseph, Edith Liu, Lynn Nebus, Kate Rogowski, Alois Smrz (that's correct, no vowels), and Ron Zappen. All claimed to be prepared for 18 miles.

The small 4WD caravan negotiated the 5.4 miles of dirt road to the Cutca trailhead without incident. The road is rutted from the winter rains, but is not a problem for high clearance vehicles. The fog was now far below our 3800' altitude. At the trailhead, leader George warned of the hazards - poison oak, rattlesnakes, and ticks. As it turned out, the poison oak was sparse and we encountered nary a snake. The ticks were definitely present.

We hit the trail at 8:45 and shortly signed in at the box in Cottonwood Canyon. Point man George immediately noted several of the tough little blood-drinking arachnids crawling up his pants legs. A note on tick behavior is in order at this point.

The little rascals cling to grass, buckwheat, and other low growing plants so as not to miss out on their most common hosts - rabbits, coyotes, and varmints. They also love deer and, best of all, Homo Sapiens. They are quick to jump onto anything that disturbs their perch. Most jump on to humans at about shin level, and in the front, though some of the slower witted ticks get a late start and land in the gastrocnemius area. They immediately start climbing straight up, searching for warm, hairy skin to drill into. They are easy enough to see by the hiker wearing light colored pants, and they can easily be picked off. Once a tick reaches the promised land it begins drilling for blood, but not before injecting an anaesthetic so that the host remains unaware. The tick proceeds to drink up, inflating in size to about the size of a coffee bean. They don't drink much, so what's the problem? Well, 'tis not so much the tick as it is the tiny organisms that infest the tick. In olden days, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever was the curse; more recently it is Lyme disease. Experts say that there is no problem with contracting Lyme disease if the tick is removed within 24 hours. Maybe. I don't trust 'em.

In short order I plucked off a couple of dozen of the little buggers. They varied in size from flea to fly size. I noted a unique opportunity to experiment. The goals of the experiment were 1) to see if the leader of a file attracted most of the ticks, and 2) to see if the tick density changed on the return. For the first time as a leader I had no problem with people wanting to go ahead of the group. I was the ordained leader/tick picker. The rear echelon attracted few ticks, perhaps 25 total among 9 people. I attracted and plucked off 81 ticks by the time we reached the summit. A concern is the count of ticks that we didn't see.

I offered to give up the lead for the return trip but had no takers. I attracted "only" 29 ticks on the return. The other hikers saw far fewer than on the ascent. I consider the difference between 81 and 29 to be very significant. Why the difference? It is possible that time of day or temperature can contribute; I doubt that. My hypothesis is that the ticks that were attracted by the group when going in constituted the vast majority of the tick population along our route, and that the ticks are slow to reposition once they are drawn to, and repelled by, a host. This notion was strengthened by the observation that the vast majority of the lurking ticks attaches to host #1 in a row of 10 possible hosts. This implies that ticks are very efficient in detecting and attaching to a passing host but, on the other hand, are not so quick to reposition for a second attack.

Is there a lesson here that applies to the hiker? Well, you might want to take along a few dogs (someone else's) that like to blaze the trail. Certainly wear light colored trousers, the better to spot the ticks. Check for them every few minutes, especially after walking through thick grass, lest they reach the neck area.

In other parts of the World, tick birds are commonly spied riding on cattle and game animals. Ticks are their principal foodstuff. North America has no tick birds that I am aware of. Perhaps we can import a few thousand and establish a population, as we did with starlings.

Back to the hike: we garnered the summit at 1:30 p.m. The recent snows have knocked some trees over the trail that was so clear on my last trip in March of 2000. Brush is growing back after the excellent maintenance job done, reportedly, by Alan Coles and his merry band.

After reveling on the summit for 30 minutes we retraced, arriving at the SUVs at 6 p.m. Total elapsed time, trailhead to trailhead, was 9 hours 15 minutes. The hike was quite scenic, though the wildflowers were scarce.

Epilogue: I had no resident ticks when I arrived home for the pre-shower examination.

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