Leaves of Three Ain’t No Friend to Me
I have a habit of finding souvenirs in the woods.
I usually make a point to find something unique to add to my collection. Hawk feathers, whitetail sheds, turtle shells, and the occasional shell casing from an old hunt tend to wind up back in my garage after any given outing. Most of the time, whatever I find is worth keeping and admiring, but on occasion I find myself wishing I would have just left it alone.
A couple of months ago, my National Guard unit headed to Louisiana’s Joint Readiness Training Center just outside of Alexandria. JRTC is infamous throughout the military as being just God awful between the heat, humidity, heavy rain and all manner of forest-related suck you’re surely doomed to encounter after going there.
During a rotation at JRTC, units participate in war games against opposing forces commonly known as Geronimo. The war games are as realistic as one can get, and at any given time the sheer might of the US military can be felt through the use of fighter jets, bombers, drones, helicopters, tanks, and armored vehicles shaking up the Louisiana countryside. These war games specifically designed so that visiting units cannot win. No matter what soldiers do, Geronimo always comes out ahead, so in addition to the environment, morale suffers even more so due to constant defeat, failure, and casualties. The idea is to create an environment that is more stressful and more difficult than the real battlefields overseas, and JRTC does a heck of a good job. Your entire experience at JRTC is graded at every level by observers who evaluate your overall operational readiness. This all translates to at least 10 days of non-stop, full spectrum operations in one of the most miserable climates in the United States.
Luckily, I wasn’t in the most stressful of positions and most of my time was spent tending radios and providing security in a clearing on the edge of a large field adjacent to an airstrip and a mock city. When we arrived in ‘the field’, we had the foresight to position our Humvee under a large tree. During our down time we ended up staying under the shade of this tree for the duration of the games and I actually felt sorry for those who were not able to find such an asset. I brought along my new Blue Ridge Camping Hammock from Lawson Hammock and strung it up between the tree and my truck’s hitch with hammock straps from Eagles Nest Outfitters and a couple of surplus carabiners. I’d only used it once before on our overnight kayak trip down the Roanoke, and I was eager to put it to the test. My truck was parked at a downward angle from the tree which made the hammock tilt down at one end. Sleeping was sometimes interesting, but comfortable overall and definitely better than sleeping on the ground. Towards the end of the games and after several adjustments for sagging/stretching, a rope at one end snapped, leaving a friend of mine on the ground in the middle of the night. A quick field repair with para cord ensured this would not happen again.
Probably the only good part had to be the stubborn herd of wild horses that inhabit JRTC. After years of war games in the area, the horses are completely accustomed to the noise and vehicles, to the point of hilarity. I can recall the morning when I first saw them. What a sight for sore eyes! The herd had moved out into the open under the cover of a heavy fog bank early that morning and looked absolutely stunning against the green hills. Several tanks began to move in their direction, and I was sure they’d destroy the morning’s tranquility. This was not the case, as the stubborn herd refused to move for the much larger iron beasts, even at the constant squeaking of the tracks, blows from the horn, and shouts of the crew members!
Nature began taking its toll on us the very first day. With highs in the upper 90s and soaring humidity levels, heat injuries began almost immediately. Luckily for us, our bus ride from North Carolina to Louisiana had been without air conditioning, so we were acclimated already (we didn’t think we were so lucky on the ride down). Our counterparts from northern New England didn’t fair so well, and the trend continued for the duration. Along with heat casualties, snake bites, concussions, insects, and food poisoning plagued the troops. I faired well, with the exception of sleep (thanks to my Thermocell). My truck mate was bitten by something and evacuated to the hospital after his hand swelled to twice its normal size. We later found out that he’d had a run-in with a brown recluse.
Hygiene is always an adventure under these types of conditions. There were no showers, and if you were lucky there might be a port-a-jon close by when nature calls. Baby wipes became a hot commodity, for bathing purposes. A fresh baby wipe shower, clean socks and t-shirt and a dash of body powder is heaven on earth after a few days! However certain forest sufferings can be accelerated and intensified without prompt identification and treatment, as I would soon find out.
Finally, our field exercise came to an end. Due to lack of sleep from constant operations, JRTC required us to take a 24 hour safety stand down for rest before we could move back to the rear for showers, real toilets, and decent food. My mind was preoccupied by the thought of heading home after three weeks to see my family and really just how awesome it would feel to sleep in air conditioning. I suppose those thoughts remained at the forefront of my mind when I waded through waist-deep brush to answer natures call, baby wipes in hand. I walked in circles for several minutes searching for a clear spot to ease the tension in my gut from days of MREs, watching for snakes but probably not paying as close of attention to plant life as I should have. With my deed complete, I headed back out to get some much needed rest. It would be another 24 hours before I would see a shower.
Fast forward a couple of days. With my shower complete and clean laundry in hand, it was a welcome 180-degree change from the past week. Preparations for the trip home were in full swing and my bags were packed. I itched a little here and there, but that’s to be expected after an extended stay in the woods. The night before we were scheduled to leave via bus, I decided to see the medic since my itching had not gone away, especially on my wrist and the back of my thigh. Doc took one look and the diagnosis was clear: poison ivy and poison sumac. Not a big deal. I’d had both before, and I’d even managed to bring some back from our Roanoke kayak trip weeks earlier. Cleanliness and airflow to the affected area is the key to drying poison ivy, and i knew that the latter would be an issue as long as i had to wear a uniform. With a Benadryl and some calamine lotion, I took care of the fist-sized rashes and tried to prepare myself for the long ride home. The next morning, the itching was persistent, but manageable. Keep your eyes on the prize, I told myself. You’re almost home. We boarded the bus later that afternoon and started home. My thigh was tender and itchy but otherwise fine. I knew that sitting on it wouldn’t help. I aired my wrist out as much as possible with negligible results. At midnight, we stopped in a Walmart parking lot to switch bus drivers. When I stood up, I could feel that not only was my leg asleep, but it was really swollen and painful to the touch. My pant leg was wet, and after a closer investigation in the Walmart bathroom, I saw that my leg and arm had started to weep. Normal, run-of-the-mill poison ivy reaction, aside from the painful swelling. I bought some Benadryl and a sandwich and got back on the bus.
By the time I got off the bus at 10am, my pant leg was visibly soaked from my waist to my knee. I walked with a noticeable limp and the swelling was undeniable. My efforts to dry my leg proved futile. Where it had only dripped before, the weeping turned into a steady stream running down my leg and collecting in my sock. I cleaned my rifle and night vision goggles and turned them in to the supply room as quickly as possible and got on the road home. By the time I pulled in my driveway two hours later, the folded towel I was sitting on was soaked through as well. My wife and daughter were out of town for the afternoon, so I limped in the house to the shower. I was absolutely shocked when I saw the extent of the rash. Where it had only been a spot before now encompassed the entire back of my thigh, from my waist to my knee. The entire area was a deep reddish-purple and weeping profusely, which signaled infection. The area no longer looked like a rash, but more like a chemical burn. My skin was leathery and hard to the touch. Scalding hot water was my only relief. Efforts to contain the weeping after a shower failed and I had to wrap it in rolled gauze just to ebb the flow. I needed something to stop the infection and FAST, and the usual topical treatments were not going to be enough. I searched the house to no avail. It was Saturday afternoon and I knew I couldn’t see a doctor until Monday morning at the earliest. Benadryl and calamine spray would have to do until then. Justin heard about my issue and suggested his father’s tried and true method consisting of a scouring pad and rubbing alcohol. Both sounded excellent at the time, but they would not have done anything for the swelling or infection. I tried it on a smaller patch and it actually worked. Extremely painful though. My wife got home soon after my shower. I’d explained that I’d probably need her help tending this wound, and I’m not sure she knew the extent of it. Her initial reaction was to gag and turn away, but one look at my desperation and she knew she had to suck it up. So for the next day and a half, I limped, itched, and scratched my way around the house while being very careful not to touch anyone. I showered every couple of hours when the itching got to be too much or when my gauze needed to be changed. I knew lack of air flow was negatively impacting the rash, but the weeping wouldn’t stop. Sunday afternoon, I noticed that the swelling was starting to affect my posture. I couldn’t stand up straight or place my foot flat on the floor.
Monday finally arrived and we were on the phone with the doctor first thing. As luck would have it, I got the new guy at our local practice. At first glance, he exclaimed, and I quote: “Oh my God! That’s the worst poison ivy I’ve ever seen!” Not exactly what you want to hear from a doctor. “I don’t usually give shots for this kind of thing, but you are the exception,” he said, much to my relief. I wanted to be done with this mess and quick. After a steroid shot in my non-infected cheek and a prescription for a cocktail of steroids and antihistamines, I was on my way home. A couple of hours later, the swelling was down noticeably and the weeping had slowed. My spirits improved at the first signs of progress. We continued with the gauze and topical sprays, and I showered with a special poison ivy soap that eased the itching somewhat. On Wednesday, the weeping stopped altogether and the color started to return to my skin. By the next weekend, all that remained was a large area of discolored skin that resembled a permanent scar.
So, hopefully by reading through my misfortune, you can take something away. I had the opportunity to really delve into poison ivy and to figure out what works and what does not, mainly from desperate trial and error.
First and foremost, there is a ton of information available online. Poison-ivy.org is an awesome website and helped me during treatment.
The poison ivy plant itself does not cause the rash. Urushiol is the oil that actually causes the reaction. It can be found on many types of plants including but not limited to poison ivy, poison, oak, poison sumac. Urushiol is also found on mango and cashew plants.
Poison ivy rashes can be avoided if detected early enough. By most accounts, urushiol oil can be washed off skin with cold water within 6 hours of exposure with minimal negative effects. After that, you can expect a rash in as little as one day or as much as a week or more.
Take great care to wash and rewash clothing items, shoes, or gear the you suspect came in contact with the plant. Urushiol oil can remain on material for years and can cause trouble for the unassuming outdoorsman. See poison-ivy.org for the story of a guy who learned the hard way about washing his sleeping bag after each camping trip. Yikes.
After a reaction begins, airflow and cleanliness of the area is essential.
While Justin’s removal method of rubbing alcohol and a scouring pad DOES work, it is not recommended on larger rashes.
Calamine lotion is a joke. Use this if there is no other alternative, but get to a pharmacy quickly. There are plenty of over-the-counter topical medications that work fairly well IF poison ivy is diagnosed before it gets infected. I had the best luck with IvyDry liquid spray combined with Grandma’s Poison Ivy Soap (with Jewelweed) from my local mom & pop drug store.
Above all else, situational awareness and proper identification of foliage can be your best defense against urushiol-bearing plants.