A city kid raised in Boston, in my youth, my idea of wildlife was pigeons in the bus station. I never entertained the notion that one day I would be able to differentiate between the sound of a squirrel looking for an acorn and a deer walking through the woods, or care to distinguish between the two or enjoy watching a tick crawl up my sleeve and self-destruct.
My embrace of Martha’s Vineyard’s rich fishing, waterfowling, and deer hunting traditions has made me appreciate our natural environment. An unwillingness to participate in these pursuits does not preclude one from enjoying nature. But for me, hunting and fishing have been entry points to wonderful outdoor experiences I’ve enjoyed in the many hours I’ve spent on the beach, in duck blinds and tree stands on some of the Island’s loveliest properties, even in the foulest weather.
On the downside, despite travels worldwide, the Island is where I first learned about ticks. It has not been a pleasant experience. When our family lived as caretakers on a large property in Chilmark, I was introduced to the squeamish hands-on experience of pulling a blood-engorged dog tick about the size of a small grape (a ten on the ick factor scale) out of our young black Labrador pup.
Ticks are a unifying force on Martha’s Vineyard. Year-round and seasonal residents, Island visitors, dogs, cats, horses — we hate ticks. These insidious bugs wait in vegetation along trails with outstretched legs waiting to grab onto a host creature — more deer equals more ticks — that can provide a blood meal. If that host is an unlucky human, he or she risks contracting one of many tick-borne diseases, a list that grew to include more than the familiar Lyme and babesiosis. Depending on the species of tick — deer tick, dog tick, lone star tick — it now includes ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis, tularemia, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Borrelia miyamotoi, and Powassan virus.
The lone star tick is also responsible for alpha-gal syndrome, a recently identified allergic reaction to mammalian products, including red meat, dairy products, and some medications. Unlike the deer tick, which needs time to infect its host, a simple bite from a lone star is all it takes to trigger an allergic reaction in some people.
Over the years, I’ve learned to live with ticks. I try to remember to check myself for any crawlies, particularly in the spring. In the fall, I spray all my hunting clothing with permethrin, an insecticide used to treat clothing.
I’ve been bitten twice. Each time, I escaped infection. I’ll admit, by Island standards, I’ve been lucky (Lone Star Tick Bite Was Not My Alamo). But the spread of the lone star across the Island has me worried. Contemplating the absence of cheeseburgers with onions in my life should I become susceptible to an allergic reaction, I’m taking extra precautions this hunting season.
Last spring, while speaking to Patrick Roden-Reynolds, a public health biologist working in collaboration with the Vineyard and Nantucket Boards of Health on tick-borne disease education and prevention, I learned he sends his primary work and hunting clothing to Insect Shield. The North Carolina-based company produces a line of permethrin-bonded clothing that repels mosquitoes, ticks, flies, and fleas, including those that can carry dangerous illnesses. For a per-piece fee, the company will apply its permethrin treatment to your own clothing.
After researching and reading glowing reviews, I ordered Insect Shield’s permethrin-treated socks, a long-sleeve undershirt, work jeans, field shirts, a neck gaiter, and a camo hunting cap.
I also sent some clothing. For $100, Insect Shield will treat as many items as you can squeeze into a 9 by 13-inch prepaid UPS envelope. I managed to fit some socks, a light hunting jacket, and pants into it. The turnaround time is advertised as two to three weeks. My gear took about two weeks. Not bad.
When I shoot a deer, before I set out into the thick brush to recover the animal, I usually change into a pair of well-used Carhartt work pants that I’ve liberally sprayed with permethrin. I plan to replace the blood-stained Carhartt's with my new jeans. The problem is that my new pants and shirts look too good for their intended purpose. How many fashion catalogs feature a guy standing next to a gut pile?
I’m telling you all this not because I work for the company but because I want you to be safe outdoors. And I recently saw how well Insect Shield clothing repels ticks.
The other day, I headed up to Chilmark (tick-central) to check a camera and ensure the recent gale had not blown away my ground blind. I tucked my pants into my new socks. I wore my new undershirt, neck gaiter (the last line of defense before my hair), and field shirt. I was looking pretty sharp and feeling well-protected.
On my way home, I stopped to visit my friend Brian Cioffi. We were standing out in the yard. His dog, Remi, a cockalier spaniel, was romping in the brush along the driveway.
Brian called Remi. Not surprisingly, he pulled a deer tick off the dog’s coat. “Hey,” he said with a mischievous smile as he held the tick between his fingers, “let's see how well this shirt works.”
Initially, I didn’t embrace the idea. I mean, it’s a goddamn tick, and Brian is not exactly Dr. Fauci. But before I could stop him, Brian proceeded with his experiment.
The tick was rapidly climbing up my sleeve. Then it made a somersault. Hmmm, I thought, interesting. Then, it did a backflip. And it fell off my arm.
Brian had another tick and his cell phone ready. The tick scrambled up my arm as I did my best to narrate. It appeared to lose its footing. I have to admit, I was enjoying its obvious distress. The tick fell off my arm.
Did it die? I don’t know. But I know it was off of me, and that’s what mattered.