As a former law enforcement officer, I’ve always thought “Hill Street Blues” (NBC 1981-1987) was the best police drama of all time. One of its characters, Sgt. Phil Esterhaus, conducted a roll call at the beginning of almost every episode which he dismissed with the words, “Let’s be careful out there.”
The good sergeant’s admonition was spoken to fictional characters, of course, but it’s valid for those of us who dare to step beyond the sidewalk to become hunters, gatherers, hikers, bikers, boaters, ball players or even backyard gardeners. I certainly don’t mean to imply that the Midwestern outdoors is in any way as dangerous as a big city street — especially a fictional one. That said, even taking accidents out of the equation, there are things and situations lurking out there that are waiting to threaten the comfort or even the life of the unwary.
Hyperthermia is the medical term for what happens when the body is unable to regulate the upper limits of its internal temperature. Hyperthermia is responsible for a sizeable majority of all potentially life-threatening outdoor incidents during the hot weather months. The classic symptoms of hyperthermia include various combinations of excessive sweating followed by no sweating, fatigue, disorientation, an inability to make simple decisions, and unconsciousness. Seek medical attention immediately, because, in extreme cases, death can be added to hyperthermia’s list of symptoms.
As I’ve learned from personal experience, severe hyperthermia can leave a lifelong sensitivity to heat in its wake. Fortunately for those who pay more attention to what their bodies are trying to tell them, heat-related disorders are easy to prevent. Avoid spending long periods of time outdoors during the middle part of the day, when the sun’s rays are their strongest and most direct. Drink plenty of cool water, but limit consumption of beer and caffeinated soda.
Mosquitos, ticks or chiggers have been the bane of countless outdoor experiences. These bugs — yes, I know ticks and chiggers are not insects — are seldom anything more than an irritant, but when they are more, they can be a lot more. In the United States, malaria and yellow fever — two of the mosquito’s favorite gifts that keep on giving — have been at least temporarily eradicated, but they’ve been replaced by the for now far less common — but equally dangerous — west Nile virus.
Ticks can transmit so many diseases it’s not fair that the miniature vampires don’t get sick themselves. Lyme disease is currently the most talked about tick-borne malady, and, since its aftereffects can last a lifetime, it’s worthy of serious concern. But if you’re not interested in a case of Lyme disease, the mighty tick can substitute tularemia, ehrlichiosis, or babesiosis, any one of which can make you wish had paid more attention.
I’m not aware of any diseases that are transmitted by chiggers, although there may well be some. But then when a couple hundred of them burrow into the skin under your waistband, they really don’t have to do anything else to make you miserable.
Most problems with ticks, chiggers and mosquitos can be greatly reduced by wearing a long sleeved shirt tucked into the waistband of a pair of long pants with the cuffs duck taped to the top of 11-inch boots. Wear a cap and add a bug proof head net — which doubles as the best face mask you’ll every use — when either the ticks or the mosquitos are especially pesky. A good insect repellent fills the final chink in the outdoorsman’s anti-bug defenses.
Missouri is home to copperheads, several species of rattlesnake, and a few cottonmouth water moccasins, all of which are venomous. Nevertheless, being bitten by a snake is extremely unlikely if you pay attention to where you put your hands and feet and use common sense if you do encounter a snake.
Healthy small mammals are, at worst, a minimal threat to humans. That said, a mammal of any size or species can be extremely dangerous to people if the animal is infected with rabies or one of several other transmittable diseases. If you encounter a wild animal that shows no fear of people, drools, staggers, is obviously sick, or is out and about at an unusual time or in an unusual place for that species, give it a wide berth. Do not attempt to capture it or give it any type of assistance no matter how well intentioned. Instead, contact a Conservation Agent and tell him or her exactly where and when you saw the animal.
Finally, a surprising number of Missourians are concerned about the state’s increasing numbers of mountain lions, black bears and coyotes. Yes, there are documented fatal attacks on humans in other states by all three of those species, and it’s true that the frequency of such encounters is increasing every year. Even so, people who venture into Missouri’s outdoors face a danger of being eaten by a large wild animal that’s so astronomically remote that it can be — and should be — forgotten. If you absolutely have to be worried about a large animal, keep an eye out for the bull in that pasture you’re sneaking across to get to some forbidden farm pond.