Bugs and snakes and bears, oh my!

There are many places in the world where being outdoors and staying alive don’t mesh well. South African waters harbor 2,000-pound great whites that ambush their prey from below; Australia is home to saltwater crocodiles known for snatching unknowing victims; and the milky sap of the Caribbean manchineel tree is so poisonous that indigenous tribesmen once bound prisoners to its perspiring trunk as a form of torture.

Happily there are few equivalent dangers in the North Carolina mountains, but here are some things to watch out for, especially in the warmer months ahead.


Spiders, yellow jackets, mosquitoes and ticks are at the top of the list of insects to avoid in Western North Carolina.

Asheville physician Dr. Andrea Gravatt notes the differences between the region’s two most dangerous spiders, the black widow and the brown recluse, in appearance, bite symptoms and treatment: “The black widow spider is shiny, black and has a characteristic red hourglass mark on its abdomen. Only the female is considered to be venomous. The bite feels like a pinprick or burning that may go unnoticed. Within a few hours there is a redness or hivelike area that may have a halo or appear bluish in color. Pain may develop which may descend down the extremities, and abdominal pain with vomiting may develop. Sweating and difficulty breathing may also occur. Symptoms may last for seven days if untreated. Rarely, death may occur.”

Gravatt says victims should apply ice to the area, make sure their tetanus shots are current, and seek medical care and therapy, including pain medications and muscle relaxants. Antivenin may be indicated in some cases.

The brown recluse spider, on the other hand, “is brown with a characteristic violin or fiddle shape pattern on its head/upper back. They are usually found in clothes, closets or old blankets and bite victims on the arms or legs. Initially, there may be no sign of the bite. Within a few hours there is itching, swelling and tenderness over the bite. A grey halo may appear and, within a few days, a necrotic area that ulcerates appears on the skin. Fever, muscle aches and in some cases bleeding disorders may occur.” To treat a brown recluse bite, says Gravatt, “apply ice to the area. Antihistamines such as Benadryl should be taken. Clean the wound. Tetanus shots should be up to date. Seek medical care for therapy, including observation for bleeding problems. An antivenin is not available at this time.”

Mike Carraway, a biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission who works out of Canton, notes that the most common insect attacks come from yellow jackets and hornets, which become much more aggressive toward late summer. One way to avoid complications from their stings is to carry an EpiPen, a pocket-size epinephrine injector that helps counter an allergic reaction, says Carraway, advising people to ask their doctor about the device.

Local mountain biker Doug Milch, 56, maintains that a little strategy goes a long way when it comes to yellow jackets. It’s best, Milch says tongue in cheek, to be the first rider in a group on a single-track trail, because the leader stirs them up and those following get stung.

Ticks and mosquitoes pose a different set of threats. To avoid contracting Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain spotted fever (from ticks) or West Nile virus (from mosquitoes), wear protective clothing and use insect repellents to defend against stings. Mary Hudgins, 53, says she’s found alternative herbal repellants helpful. “Daub a little drop of Amaretto on your pulse points: wrists, behind the knees, temples, jugular, etc.,” says Hudgins.

Other insects, such as gnats and horseflies, are just downright annoying. For runner Jennifer Purvis, 27, “the biggest hazard in running in the summer months is inhaling bugs.” Purvis, a vegetarian, consoles herself by thinking, “It’s extra protein.”


Various kinds of snakes inhabit our mountains, but the only venomous ones to watch for are rattlesnakes and copperheads. Even with them, about one-third of the bites are dry, meaning no venom is introduced into the bloodstream. And forget such outmoded techniques as shocking, cutting and sucking, or icing the bite area, says Tod Schimelpfenig of the Wilderness Medicine Institute: It’s better to spend that time getting to a hospital.


Outdoors enthusiasts are most likely to encounter bears around dusk or dawn. Attacks by black bears, the only species in the East, are extremely rare, says Carraway of the Wildlife Resources Commission. If you see one, stop and yell to let it know you are there, he says. Most of the time, the bear will run off before you even notice it.

Bill Finley, 64, remembers an encounter he had while jogging at Bent Creek a couple of summers ago. “I rounded a curve in the trail at the crest of the ridge. Wiping the sweat from my eyes and blinking, what I initially perceived as a dog was a large black bear, and running around her feet was a cub. After what seemed a small eternity, mom and cub exited the trail into the brush.”

If a bear doesn’t move, back away slowly. If the bear does attack, stand your ground and fight back (preferably with pepper spray).

And if you’re camping, remember to hang food and other scented items in a tree away from your cooking and sleeping areas.


The threat of aggressive dogs isn’t limited to the city. Joanne Moss, 41, was attacked by dogs on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in 2004. “I was out on a morning run [when] I was attacked by a group of five or six dogs,” she says. “The dogs were on a walk with their owner, and none of them were on leashes. The owner saw her dogs attack me and literally just walked away from the scene. I had to go weekly to [the hospital] to receive rabies vaccinations.”

Asheville Animal Services Supervisor Brenda Sears says hikers shouldn’t run from an approaching dog. “You do not want to excite the natural tendency of the animal to chase,” she says. “Instead, face the dog without making direct eye contact, and speak calmly to it. Looks are deceiving. Pay more attention to the behavior of the dog than its breed.

“If you believe a dog attack is imminent, do what you can to distract the dog,” Sears continues. “Find a ‘sacrifice item’—any sturdy object you can offer to the animal to bite. If you have a weapon of any kind (especially pepper spray), use it as soon as the attacking dog is in range. Otherwise, consider dropping to the ground in a ball, using your arms to protect your face and throat areas.


Poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac are three plants found in this area that cause contact dermatitis. After exposure, the affected individual usually has about 10 to 15 minutes to remove the poisonous oil from the skin, using soapy water, says Schimelpfenig. It may take three to four days for the skin irritation to become evident, and itching can last a couple of weeks.

Preparation and prevention are the best strategies for avoiding these backcountry perils. Medical treatment isn’t generally available, and by the time the affected person makes it in from the trail, it may be too late.

[Asheville resident Jonathan Poston can be reached by visiting www.aoanewsletter.com .]


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