Ticks and Gorges

Old-fashioned paper maps label it the “Linville Gorge Wilderness.” Wilderness. Let that sink in for a moment and let the word roll from your mouth slowly … willlldernessssss. It’s pretty word for a beautiful place where you could fall to your death and lay undiscovered for weeks.

The Grand Canyon of North Carolina, as it’s known, is about a quarter mile deep, 12 miles long and part of more than 11,000 acres of protected woodlands. It also has lots of ticks. It’s also where I got Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever early last summer. The absurdity of me contracting a rare disease is especially poignant considering it was my first time backpacking into a wilderness.

American Dog Tick

With another relatively warm winter behind us, the tick population is likely to be high again this year. Be prepared!

How to Tell if You Have Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever

You can’t. You have to go to a doctor to know for sure, and even your doctor may not be able to tell conclusively. The rule of thumb: if you’ve been in the woods around ticks and two weeks or so later develop cold and flu-like symptoms, proceed immediately to your doctor and let him know you’ve been in contact with ticks. He will likely begin treating you with antibiotics as a precaution and do a skin biopsy to verify the diagnosis.

In my situation, and I’m very fortunate in this regard, an itchy, hive-like rash on my wrists came first. I went to my primary doctor thinking it was an allergic reaction. She agreed and prescribed prednisone and a topical itch cream. The cream helped the itch, but prednisone had no effect, and in fact the rash began spreading up my arms and appeared on my ankles. So my primary doc forwarded me along to my dermatologist for further examination.

The same day I went to the dermatologist, which was a little more than a week after starting the prednisone and about two weeks after my backpacking excursion, I woke up with a sore neck and shoulders, a runny nose and a sore throat. I didn’t think the rash and cold symptoms were related at all and didn’t initially mention them to my dermatologist.

My appointment was with the P.A., who was puzzled the prednisone hadn’t worked and pulled in the M.D. The M.D. said the key words “radial rash” (a rash that begins at the extremities and works its way in) and began asking the right questions. Have you been in the woods? Do you have any achiness or stiffness in your neck? Do you have any cold or flu symptoms? Yes, yes and yes! I began doxycycline that day and was feeling better within a week.


I went into the gorge armed only with a DEET-based insect repellant. The rest of the summer, my kids and I treated our socks, shoes and hats with permethrin before venturing into the woods. We spent a lot of time in the woods last summer without any further tick incidents, so I highly recommend adding this extra protection to your outdoor adventures. You can find it at most drug stores and at outdoor equipment retailers. Here’s the version I bought from REI.

Was it worth it?

I watched ticks swarm across the net windows of the tent, heard terrifying beasts snuffling through our campsite in the dead of night, got so sore from a probably-too-heavy pack that I couldn’t walk right for days, but it was worth it. Linville Gorge is beautiful, and the company was delightful.

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