Enjoy But Stay Aware Of Your Surroundings
September 1, 2021
When I was a kid, the only things I worried about when I was camping or hunting were bears and mountain lions. As it happens, I've only seen lions two or three times in my life, and each time the lion was hightailing it away from me. And sad to say, I've never seen a bear in the wild.
However, I have had plenty of narrow escapes and a few times when I didn't escape some of the dangers that you might run into when you're enjoying Arizona's great outdoors. Most can be avoided if you simply pay attention to where you are going and what is around you. Here are some dangers you might not think of, as well as how to avoid them and what to do if you get into trouble.
I love to search for springs, and when I see one on a topo map I can't resist searching for it. This got me into big trouble a year or so ago, in the desert north of Lake Pleasant. Believe it or not, I got into poison ivy. In the desert. I never even knew it until the next day, when my face and eyes started to turn red and swell up, along with my hands. The doctor at the Urgent Care knew what it was, but it took quite a while for it to go away. Yes, there is poison ivy in Arizona. Don't find out the hard way like I did. Remember: Leaves of three, let it be.
If You Do Get Into Poison Ivy
Now I carry alcohol wipes with me – if you do get into poison ivy, clean your skin with soap and water or alcohol as soon as possible. If your dog gets into it, wipe his fur down so it doesn't get on you or your kids. I had to wash all my clothes and my hat with very hot water, plus wash down everything else I thought I may have brushed against in the Jeep. I washed the dog, too, even though she and John were smart enough to stay back and let me bushwhack through the underbrush.
Careful Of The Cactus!
Another plant that can get you into trouble is, of course, cactus. Most of them are benign if you keep your distance, but teddy bear cholla is another thing. Pieces of teddy bear fall off and the ground around a stand of them can be completely covered. If your dog gets into them, he'll try to take them out, using his mouth, which only makes things worse.
Quail hunting can be great in cholla, but we just don't go around that stuff at all. When I was a kid, our dog got into cholla, got it in his mouth and all over. A trip to the vet got the cactus out of him, but he was sick for days. It's nasty stuff, so keep away from it.
Every year when we are dove hunting I see rattlesnakes. They seem to be everywhere in warm weather. I know a lot of professional quail guides who won't take their dogs out until late November when it's cold enough for the snakes to be sleeping. Dogs are curious, and will walk right up to a rattler, so your best bet for a desert or hunting dog is to take him to Snake Avoidance Training. Desert Creek Sportsman's Club does it a few times a year, and you can call them at 623-512-8496.
Also, Midwestern University's Animal Clinic has rattlesnake vaccine. We had Mochi vaccinated, but that doesn't mean if she gets bit we don't have to take her to the vet immediately. But we want to do everything we can to keep her safe. We've even seen rattlesnakes on the trail at the Ben Avery Sporting Clays Facility. If you do see a snake, just go away. I've never had one chase me. And do be aware that unless your dog has had avoidance training, he will most likely go straight for it, so even when your dog is leashed, keep an eye out for snakes.
Stay Safe From Rattlers
To keep yourself and your kids safe from rattlers, keep your eyes and ears open. Don't put your hands down anywhere until you've looked, and be especially careful around holes and caves. Wear over-the-ankle boots, thick socks, and long pants. Avoid tall grass and underbrush. If you need to go over a log, step on instead of over in case a snake is on the other side. If you hear the rattle, take off.
Here are two things to know about rattlesnakes: They don't always rattle before they bite, and they can swim. If you or someone else in your party is bitten, stay calm; call 911; wash the bite area gently if possible; remove any jewelry or clothing that might cause problems with swelling; keep the bite below heart level, and get the victim to medical care ASAP. DON'T do any cutting, sucking, icing, or anything else to the bite wound. Try to stay calm. According to the Forest Service, fewer than 1 in 600 snake bites results in death, and almost a third of them don't even contain any venom.
Gila Monsters: Admire From A Distance
Gila Monsters rarely bite unless you mess with them. They will try to get away first, and they'll hiss and open their mouth wide to scare you off if you get too close. I've seen many of them, and never had one hiss or gape at me, but I've never tried to touch one either. They are venomous and the venom is channeled in their teeth, so when they bite, they hang on and chew. Just leave them alone. They are beautiful, but admire them from a distance.
We have come across bees many times on our adventures, but I've only been stung once. I tend to keep my ears attuned to the sound of buzzing, and we haven't gotten close enough to a big hive to trigger them into an attack. Thank goodness. We saw a huge hive in the cleft of a big cliff on the Verde River once – it had enormous slabs of honeycomb and thousands of bees. We got out of there in a big hurry.
Also, we were exploring a natural arch we saw on a topo map of the Vulture Mountains, and when we got to the arch, it turned out to be a big cave that had three entrances. It was at the top of a hill so you could see right through, but when I got near the back of the cave to take a photo of the entrances, I heard buzzing behind me. The photo suddenly seemed unimportant, and we got the heck out of there.
Yellow Jackets, Hornets
Yellow Jackets and hornets can also be a problem, but there are things you can do to avoid getting stinging insects riled up. Wear light-colored clothing with a smooth finish. Don't use scents – the last thing you want is to smell like a flower. Don't bring bananas. Seriously. Cover as much of our body as you can and stay away from flowering plants.
If just one insect is flying around, stay calm. Swatting at them might make them sting and release chemicals that call the rest of the hive. If you do get attacked by several, run away as fast as you can and get indoors or in a vehicle if possible. Africanized bees will even hover over water and wait for you to surface, so jumping in pond isn't a good idea. If you're allergic to bee stings, you should carry an EpiPen with you when you're adventuring.
If You're Stung
If you're stung, wash the sting with soap and water. Remove bee stingers with a credit card or by scraping your nail over the site. Don't use tweezers or squeeze the stinger – it can force more venom into the sting. I always carry children's chewable Benadryl with me in case of a sting. You can also carry After Bite or a Stingeze pen with you – they help with mosquito bites too. You can get them at drug stores or outdoor stores.
Black widows and brown recluse spiders are the main ones to avoid. The brown recluse has a dark head and an area on its back that is shaped like a violin. We all know the spooky black widow spider with its long smooth legs, solid black body (although not all of them are black), and the red hourglass on the bottom of the abdomen. The brown recluse is shaped similarly but is a dull brown color. They are most active at night and believe it or not, they are often in buildings.
Brown And Black Bites
Their bites can cause disfiguring, necrotic wounds. The black widow spider bite causes chest pain, muscle tightness, and cramping. Neither of these spider bites typically kills anyone, but they are nasty and best avoided if possible. Watch for the messy webs that black widows make, and keep your hands out of small dark crevices. Be especially careful if you are exploring old ruined buildings.
Tarantulas live in deep burrows that they line with silk so the sides don't collapse. They usually come out to hunt at night, and they can get to be as big as 4 inches long. They hardly ever bite, and their venom is not considered dangerous, but it might cause allergic reactions. In the fall, the males go out looking for female company, and you might see quite a few of them crossing the road. Coming home from Bartlett at night I'd get out and shoo them off the road with a paper cup or something so we didn't run over them. They'll leave you alone if you leave them alone.
There are mines all over Arizona and not all the mine shafts have been fenced off. Even some of the fenced-off ones are easy for a dog or a kid to get through to. Something about a big gaping hole in the ground just makes you want to go look in it. They are incredibly dangerous, not always marked on maps, and can be hundreds of feet deep. There are some in the Belmont Mountains that have been fenced off with large metal bars set in concrete because of people falling hundreds of feet to their deaths there.
Don't let your kids wander around unsupervised, and keep your dog leashed. Hunting dogs are particularly prone to falling into shafts and over cliffs, because if they smell a bird, nothing else matters. They'll follow it no matter what.
Mines Marked On Map
On a topo map, mines are marked with a symbol that looks like two picks crossed over each other to make an X. If you see an area on the map that has a lot of those, you might want to be extra vigilant. But remember, they are not all marked. Also, places where there used to be wells and windmills often have very deep holes and some of the pipes are big enough for a small kid to get stuck in. I've found deep cisterns with deep sides that would be nearly impossible to climb out of, some with water in them – who knows how deep?
So just keep your eyes open and be careful. If you see a pile of lumber on the ground, leave it alone. It could be covering a shaft. With adits, or shafts that go into the mountain horizontally, be very careful. There could be snakes, bees, or anything in there, including vertical shafts. Stay out and stay alive.
Do you know what a "widow-maker" is? It's a tree with big, overhanging branches that could break off in a wind and fall on you. Don't pitch your tent under those. We like to find a spot that has plenty of trees around it, but a nice open area for the tent. Another thing to watch out for is cliffs, and believe me, there are plenty of them out there and you might not see them until you're right up on the edge. I've lost count of how many of my friends have had their dogs go over a cliff. It can be a real job to rescue them.
Use A Topo Map
Use a topo map – there are apps for that. My favorite is simply called Topo Maps. If you see an area near you that has contour lines that are VERY close together, it's a cliff. Leash your dog. This Topo Maps app is very useful because it shows water, mines (but not all!), cliffs, etc. Simply download the maps you need before you go out – I downloaded the whole state of Arizona – and they will work whether you have cell service or not. You'll see exactly where you are on the map, and the dot will move when you do. It's cool.
The point of all this is not to make you afraid or stress you out, but to remind you that you do need to keep your eyes open and recreate responsibly. In particular, keep an eye on pets and children. Like I said, I've spent untold hours outdoors hiking, camping, hunting, and fishing, and I've gotten poison ivy once and was stung by a bee once. That's it. I've seen plenty of snakes and other creatures, as well as cliffs and mine shafts, but since I keep my distance from those things, I've been able to enjoy seeing them without getting hurt. If you stay aware of your surroundings you can enjoy the beauty of Arizona safely.
What We Bring Along
I have a small cross-body bag that I sling over my shoulder every time we hop out of the Jeep for a short stroll. Here's what's in it:
• First Aid Kit – just a small one
• Satellite phone – we have a Garmin InReach Mini that we can use to text our kids if we get into trouble and have no cell service. It was about $300 and costs $13/month for service. It's worth it for us because we are out all the time. It also has an SOS button if we get in real trouble.
• Topo Maps app (on my phone, with entire state of Arizona downloaded)
• Chewable Benadryl
• Alcohol wipes or package of body cleansing wipes (in case of poison ivy)
• Metal comb – to get cactus off people and dogs
• Tweezers – for smaller bits of cactus spine, NOT for bee stings
• Unscented sunscreen