From where I was stood, balanced on top of a huge pile of dead trees stretching 200 meters down the front of an old damn, I could see no good way forward. Eli rested his hands on top of my head, and solemnly surveyed the scene from his perch on my shoulders. We were searching for a new swimming hole, and had spent the past half hour thrashing through weeds, unsuccessfully attempting to avoid the poison ivy lurking in the underbrush, climbing over boulders, and balancing on logs. We found an old damn which funneled water into a disused/crumbling hydroelectric plant; the original thought was that if we walked out this damn towards the middle of the river, we might find a good spot in front of the damn where the water backed up. The massive log jam in front of us, the product of decades of floods and storms, proved my intuition was wrong.
It was at that moment that I realized that the word “explore” really just means “to make lots of mistakes.”
I said as much to Eli, who really just wanted to swim. He informed me we were “esplorering,” so I took that as his blessing to continue. We backtracked (back down the damn, over the huge logs), then crossed from the damn to an island on a fallen tree. A short walk and a short wade later, we found a beautiful, isolated gravel bar next to a section of river that was the perfect depth with a sandy bottom, and enough movement in the water to keep it fresh and not stagnant. We splashed and swam until it was time to head home for dinner. Eli fell asleep on the way home, which is as good a measure of an expedition’s success as any.
The whole experience caused me to reflect a bit on exploration. I was only half serious when I said exploration really just means making lots of mistakes, and yet at the same time making mistakes is a huge part of exploration.
In order to make my musings more formal, I looked up the actual meaning of explore in the dictionary. This is what I found:
EXPLORE: A transitive verb.
1) To investigate, study, or analyze.
2) To become familiar with by testing or experimenting.
3) To travel over (new territory) for adventure or discovery.
4) To examine, especially for diagnostic purposes.
Definition #3 is a no-brainer, especially for the purposes of this blog. But I think I like #2 best; in a nutshell, its exactly what we were doing last night. We figured there would be a good waterhole somewhere in the area we were exploring, and set off to test our hypothesis.
Failure and mistakes are inherent to the process of exploration. As famously pointed out by The Princess Bride, “Anyone who says differently is selling something.” Look at Ernest Shackleton, my favorite explorer. He lost his ship to the ice, and his crew had to survive on whatever they could until rescued. Hardly auspicious, yet we view Shackleton as a successful explorer. Why? Because of how he responded.
Since making mistakes is an inherent part of exploration, fearing those mistakes shouldn’t hold you back. Instead, the best explorers focus on responding to mistakes and challenges in positive and well-considered ways. Back to Shackleton. After he lost his ship, he undertook a daring voyage in an open boat to an isolated whaling village to get help for his men. He ended up rescuing all of them.
We’re not all Shackleton, or J. Michael Fay, or David Livingstone, or Ed Viesters. But we can explore nonetheless.
Because explore is just a big word that means to make lots of mistakes.
Well, I took another of those blogger breaks, which I’m ashamed to admit have been fairly frequent in the past year. However, my posts should pick up again now.
Paramedic school is over!
We finished the classroom portion of the class on July 28th. I finished my last field ride (working as a paramedic student in an ambulance, with actual patients) on August 3rd. I took the psycho-motor exam (which is fancy talk for an exam testing how well I can do the practical skills of paramedicine, like intubate, start IV’s, calculate drug dosages, manage an emergency scene, perform patient assessment, etc. etc.) on August 9th, almost a year exactly from when I started the program.
At this point, the only thing standing between me and certification as a paramedic is the written exam, which I will schedule sometime in the next two weeks. I have four attempts to pass a long, multiple-choice exam. Of course, I hope to knock it out on the first shot! I’ve been enjoying having some additional time off now. It’s a bit of a shock to go from working long stretches of time without a break, to having regularly scheduled days off.
To celebrate, we took a quick trip to Northern VA and Washington DC. The primary reason was that our friends Chris and Kelly had invited us to a Nickel Creek concert. They were fantastic! One of the only bands I’ve ever been to that sounds as good in concert as they do on recordings. Eli also enjoyed the concert, spending a great amount of time dancing and yelling “Nickel Creek! Nickel Creek!” (he’s a big fan).
We also visited the Air and Space Museum and the National Zoo, which were big hits with Eli.
Now that paramedic school is over, I hope to begin to repair some of the physical damage the past year has caused. I had hoped that I would be able to exercise regularly, but it became apparent about a third of the way through that many times there would just not be enough hours in the day. I also had to choose food based on the “How quickly can it be ready, and can I eat it in the time period before I get my next call?” scale. I also became addicted to Red Bull. Yes, I know its terrible for me, but when you have to be alert, but don’t have enough time to get adequate sleep, you have to make sacrifices. I’m not proud of it, but I did what I had to at the time. I know I’ve gained some weight (truth be told I’m a bit afraid to step on the scale right now–I will be forcing myself to face reality later tonight).
Now that life has slowed down, I plan to start making healthier choices, and to start exercising again. I also hope to start doing the things that help me relax. I miss cooking and trying new recipes, visiting historic sites, and yes, hiking and rock climbing.
So, hopefully more updates and mountain-based musing soon!
We went to the farmer’s market yesterday; as we walked in, we were handed cards by two happy looking individuals, who informed us that there would be a solstice party at a local vinyard. We thanked them, pocketed the cards, and continued on our way.
It was only at that point that I realized it was the first day of summer.
I’ve had this entire weekend off, and its been like coming up for air after swimming underwater across a swimming pool. Its wonderful, you can’t believe how long it’s been since you last took a breath, and you find yourself a bit disoriented. I’ve had my head down in paramedic school, and did the math recently; I discovered that I had only had four days off between March 21 and June 16.
I’m so close; I just completed my final hospital shift, and I’ve been approved to begin my field rides. It will be another month-long push without any days off until the second week of August, but I’ll be set to test on August 9. After that, just the written exam will hopefully remain between me and being certified as a paramedic.
In other news, Eli started his education in the art and science of rock climbing today. I was attempting to put marking tape on some new equipment–a set of #4, #6, and #7 Black Diamond hexes–and he insisted on going through my equipment. So, I talked to him about stoppers, and carabineers, and one inch tubular webbing. I’m not sure how much he caught, but he enjoyed it. I used to do the same thing with my dad’s equipment when I was little.
We’ve been going to the river a lot, and exploring the wonder of moving water. We continue to explore the urban green spots in Richmond. On a recent hike, Eli learned about crossing creeks on rocks, and also modeled by Wild GUYde hat. We also recently discovered a (new to us) swimming spot.
I found a nice spot at the edge of a small rapid; I was able to brace my feet and sit nicely, with a nice eddy to my left and the flume running over my right shoulder. Eli had a great time body surfing in the flume, as I kept a firm grip on him (of course…). I found out later that we were apparently making onlookers nervous; a woman approached me later and said “We wanted to let you know that if anything happened, and you lost your grip on him, we were all going to jump in, and I know pediatric CPR!” I thanked her for her willingness to help, but assured her that as a former river/climbing guide/lifeguard/current EMT/Paramedic student, I had it covered. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated her concern…I just believed it to be a bit misplaced. Good thing she won’t be there to see when Eli actually starts rock climbing with us.
I’m going to do something a bit different for this blog. Normally, this blog is about my personal adventures and experiences. I’m about to take a page from my other blog’s book, and write about a health/safety/medicine-related topic. Incidentally, if you’re interested in this sort of thing, take a glance at Mountain Rescue Blog; I talk frequently about outdoors related medical and rescue related incidents.
When I say the phrase “Poison Ivy,” what images and emotions does this bring to mind? For me, it brings to mind a childhood spent itching. I have always been very sensitive to its effects. In fact, the running joke in my family is that I can get poison ivy simply by standing downwind from it. Not quite true, but it sure felt like it growing up.
In my time as an outdoor enthusiast, I’ve spent a lot of time with folks who know nothing about poison ivy, with those who think they know something about poison ivy, and those who are self-professed experts on the subject. I’ve heard all sorts of schemes about how to identify it, some of which are quite complicated. Most of these involve somewhat fuzzy rules like “poison ivy has leaves with red on them somewhere,” or “poison ivy has notched leaves.” The problem with these is that a) neither are always true, and b) they require a great deal of interpretation.
My method is for identifying poison ivy is very simple, and relies on identifying three features that poison ivy always has. This is because I am a simple minded individual. And I was trained as a biologist, which means I automatically seek the most simple method of classifying things. If the plant in question meets my three criteria, it is poison ivy. If one is missing, it is not. It’s as simple as that. So simple, in fact, that I was able to reliably identify poison ivy by the time I was six years old. So, for the good of all, today I’m going to share “Ethan’s Definitive Three-Step Method of Identifying Poison Ivy.”
Ethan’s Definitive, Three-Step Method of Identifying Poison Ivy: Or, Lessons of Hard Experience
Step 1: Does the Plant in Question Have Three Leaves?
Everyone knows this one. “Leaves of three, leave them be” is the only identifying feature of poison ivy that many are taught. Poison ivy always has three leaves; any other number is not poison ivy. So, 1 leaf, two leaves, four leaves, five leaves, it really doesn’t matter. Three is the magic number.
Step 2: Does the Plant in Question Have No Thorns?
Poison ivy does not have thorns. I will repeat myself for emphasis: Poison Ivy Does Not Have Thorns. If the plant in question has thorns, it is not poison ivy. There is a plant in the area I grew up called the bramble which looks very much like poison ivy (including three leaves). The only significant difference is that the bramble has thorns, while poison ivy does not.
Step 3: Does the Middle Leaf Have its Own Stem?
This one requires you to look closely (not too closely…). You want to find the middle leaf of the group of three. It should have its own extended stem which holds it out from the two side leaves. The two side leaves should attach directly to the central stem. This is important as it separates poison ivy from several other species which have three leaves and no thorns, but have the middle leaf attached directly to the central stem. You can see what I mean in the picture below.
That’s it. It’s as easy as identifying these three features. If the answer to all three questions is “Yes,” then the plant in question is poison ivy. If the answer to even one of these questions is “no,” then the plant is not poison ivy. It’s that simple.
Poison ivy presents in several other ways. Poison ivy can present as a bush, an isolated ground plant, or as a vine which climbs a tree or other structure. When the vine climbs something, the vine looks like its covered in hair. This led to the expression in my parents house that “vines that are hairy are scary!” Poison ivy can also have berries if it grows large enough.
There are some other features that some have used to identify poison ivy. The problem with these is that they are often true, but are not universally true. So, I’ve included a few of those too, with my reasons for why they should not be used to identify poison ivy.
Some Misconceptions: Or, Mistakes Made By Those Who Now Have Rashes
1. “Poison Ivy always has notched leaves. If the leaves aren’t notched, it’s not poison ivy.” This is actually not universally true. While some poison ivy plants do have notched leaves, not every plant will have them. In fact, I’ve seen poison ivy plants where some leaves are notched, while other leaves attached to the same plant are smooth. I’ve included a picture showing just this phenomenon here. One plant, all clearly poison ivy, but great variation in the shape of the leaves. The notches are certainly something to keep in mind, but they should not be thought of as a universal feature.
2. “Poison Ivy always has a reddish tint to the centers of the leaves or the stems.” Also not universally true, but true enough that it has become fairly well trusted. I’ve certainly seen poison ivy with a reddish tint that would fit this description. However, I’ve also seen just as much poison ivy that is deep, deep green with no hint of red. Again, something to be aware of. But maybe not something to base your identification off of.
3. “Poison Ivy does not grow up trees.”
Flatly not true. Poison Ivy grows up trees quite happily. In fact, the vine can sometimes take over the tree, and send out vines which look like branches. It ends up looking like a poison ivy tree.
So, let’s see if you can use my rules to identify some poison ivy. I’ve included some pictures that I’ve been taking around Richmond (this has made my work partner laugh at me a bit; I view it as being for the common good).
Is this poison ivy?
You might be deceived if you just look at the tip of the plant. It has no thorns, and the middle leaf does appear to have an extended stem. However, it has more than three leaves, so this is not poison ivy.
How about this?
The shape is very similar, and it does not have thorns. However, it only is one leaf. Additionally, what would be the middle leaf does not have its own stem. So this is not poison ivy.
How about this?
This is a trick question, and actually a pretty important teaching point. This picture has Poison Ivy in it, over there on the left side of the picture. The plant on the right side, however, is not. Notice that it has extended leaves, and no thorns. Also the leaves do generally look like poison ivy leaves. However notice that this plant has five leaves, which means it is not poison ivy.
This five-leaved plant is called Virginia Creeper, and it is very common. In fact, it grows in the same places as poison ivy. So generally, if you see Virginia Creeper, keep your eyes open because, chances are, there is poison ivy somewhere close.
How about this?
Three leaves? Check! Extended middle stem? Check! No thorns? Hard to tell from this distance, so I’ll just tell you. Check! This is indeed The Evil Weed. Note how there is not a hint of red anywhere in the leaves or stems, and that while some of the leaves are notched, just as many are not. The leaves are shiny due to the oils which cause the rash we all know and love.
How about this?
Sure looks like poison ivy, huh? No thorns? Extended middle stem? It even has a reddish tint to the middle stem and notched leaves. What about three leaves? This is another trick question. Several of the leaf clusters do indeed have three leaves. However, if you look closely, you’ll see that the lower, more mature leaf clusters have five leaves, which means that this is not poison ivy.
How It Works: Or, Why Poison Ivy is Such a Pain in the Butt
Poison Ivy isn’t really poisonous. What gives you the rash is an oil or resin secreted by all parts of the plant (root, stem, leaves, berries, and vine) called urishiol. Urishiol essentially causes an allergic reaction (the technical term is dermatitis) which is the uncomfortable rash with itching and weeping that we experience when we get involved to closely with poison ivy.
The allergic reaction can vary by how susceptible individuals are. My grandfather never got poison ivy, and claimed it was because he had Cherokee in his lineage. On the other hand, I got poison ivy like it was my hobby.
You can get poison ivy externally on exposed skin. More worrisome, you can also get poison ivy internally if you inhale or ingest the oils. This typically happens when poison ivy or materials which have urishiol on them are burned. The oil is sent into the air in the smoke, and if inhaled can cause inflammation in the airway. Don’t underestimate this; it can actually cause critical injuries and sickness (the idea of this used to scare the crap out of me when I was a wildland firefighter). So, make sure you look at where you pick your firewood up from, and check your firewood before you toss it in the fire. Avoid firewood in thickets of poison ivy, and logs which have hairy vines growing on them.
Dealing with the Scourge of Poison Ivy: Or, “Help, I’ve Recently Found Myself Standing Up to my Navel in a Poison Ivy Jungle.”
Coming in contact with poison ivy is not the end of the world. In fact, preventing poison ivy after contact is relatively straight forward. Basically, you have to clean the urishiol oil of yourself, your equipment/clothing, or your pet as quickly as possible before it causes an allergic reaction.
The best way to do this is to take a shower within about two hours of exposure; sooner if possible. It is best to take a cool or cold shower, as this causes the pores in your skin to close and is thought to make the oil not absorb into your skin as well, and just rinse off the surface. I also recommend using a detergent to clean your skin instead of a soap. Because of the physical properties of oils (the same properties which cause the oil and water/vinegar in your Italian dressing refuse to mix), plain water and soap are not fully effective at removing oils from your skin. Detergent is able to stick to both water and oil at the same time, and removes the oils much better.
You can also use a commercial product to clean your skin. I swear by Technu, which smells awful but does the job very well. Basically, swab the exposed part of your anatomy (exposed to poison ivy, you dirty-minded fool, you) with the stuff, let it sit for 5 minutes or so, then wash it off. Technu can also be used to clean your pet, where it is used much like a shampoo.
Cleaning clothing and equipment is fairly easy. Clothing can be washed. The washing machine with detergent is pretty effective at removing the oils. Technu can also be used to wipe down equipment and can be put directly in the washing machine with clothing. Bear in mind that if you do not wash your boots/equipment and the poison ivy oil remains on them, you can get poison ivy after the fact if the oils transfer to your skin.
Getting poison ivy, if its bad enough, may actually be worse than the end of the world. The key is to catch it early. And don’t scratch. Therapy focuses on relieving the it, and getting rid of the rash by drying it out.
I’ve found that cleaning the rash with Technu, allowing it to sit on the skin for five minutes, and then washing the Technu off dries the rash out, causing it to disappear within about a week. I usually then follow up after the Technu with a local anesthetic cream which removes the itch. Products like the old standby calemine lotion, or topical benedryl compounds work very well. There are also some commercial products made specifically for this on the market, such as “Ivy Foam,” which I found works very well.
If the rash is bad enough, persists, or is in (shall we say) uncomfortable or important areas, or if it somehow got into your airway or esophagus, you should go see your doctor. He or she can treat it with steroids which would clear it up fairly quickly.
Conclusion: Or, “Thank God, He’s Finished!!!”
Basically, I hope this gives you a tool you can use. If you have questions, or pictures of plants you think are poison ivy but are not sure, feel free to email me. EDZook@gmail.com.
This should not suprise anyone. After all, Mel and I are both super ADD, and we’ve spent a lot of time (both before and after we got married and had a kid) exploring the great outdoors. I guess you could say he got the outdoors bug honestly.
It is refreshing to see him discover it all for the first time. On a recent hike, we found a beetle the other day, trucking along through the undergrowth. Eli hunkered right down, and followed it through the leaves.
Daddy: “No, beetle.”
Daddy: “Yes, beetle.”
And just like that, we now know what beetles are, and what to call them, and that they are different from spiders. Schemata in construction before my eyes.
And we have discovered puddles. Puddles which jump and splash everywhere when you charge into them at a run, and then spread in concentric ever-expanding circles when you stop suddenly in the middle. Puddles which leave your shoes sodden and muddy, but leave you feeling happy just from the sheer messiness of it all. He takes such intense joy from running back and forth through a puddle; I remember I could do it for hours once too.
On a recent hike, I saw the beginnings of a life-long love for green spaces; it made me happy. We took a family inner-city hike on the Buttermilk Trail, a multi-use trail which runs along the south bank of the James River. Eli insisted on leading us, and set a rapid pace. I had to almost jog to keep up as he trotted up the trail, his gleeful squeals of “A hike! A hike!” floating behind him. We had fun; we got sweaty, learned about moving off the trail for the mountain bikers, and brushed up against so much poison ivy that we made a special trip to the edge of the river to wash off (I’m happy to report that nobody got poison ivy).
He may not every know what its like to be rich; in fact, I’d say his chances of that are about nil considering the callings that Mel and I have accepted (both in the bottom 4 on the list of lowest paid adult careers, if recent information is to be believed). He probably won’t have his own car when he’s 16, and I’m not even sure he can count on ever seeing Disney Land (heck, I never have). But at least he can be assured of lots of adventure outdoors. And really, in my book, I think that’s better than all that other crap anyway.
Snow came to Richmond a couple days ago; this after several days of balmy, beautifulness in which I biked to work, wore short sleeves, and ran in shorts. In protest, I grumpily went back to wearing jackets, and also started thinking about what I wanted to do once it becomes warm enough to be outside for longer than 6 minutes without snot icicles starting.
I have a menu over there at the top of the blog called “Dream Adventures.” I haven’t updated it in a bit, but my mind was wandering a bit during paramedic school today, so at my lunch break I decided to update it with a few new ones I’ve been thinking about lately.
In no particular order…
Climbing in the Bugaboos: I’ve been following Mark and Janelle Smiley for the past two years or so. They are working on being the first married couple to climb all 50 climbs from the famous book 50 Classic Climbs of North America. You can follow them at their website, and be sure to spend some time watching their films. Pretty much all of them count as adventures they’d like to have.
At any rate! Several of their adventures take place in Bugaboo Provincial Park on the South Howser Tower and Bugaboo Spire. The rock looks amazing. Tall, clean, alpine granite, with bold lines. Clear blue skies, with mixed alpine approaches (that is, walking across glaciers and snow, followed by technical rock). The pictures I’ve seen are stunning, and the routes look amazing (and several come in right at about 5.9, so challenging and sustained, but not impossible). Plus the name is awesome. Bugaboo. Only the Canadians.
The difficulty is getting there. The largest city close to the Bugaboo’s is Calgary; Banff is the closest town of any size. That’s way out in western Canada. So this is a pipe dream at this point. Still, I can look at pictures, watch the Smileys, and dream…
Backpacking the Wild Oak Trail: Slightly different from climbing the Bugaboos in several ways. For one, it’s backpacking instead of alpine climbing. For two, I may actually be able to accomplish it.
The Wild Oak Trail is located in the George Washington/Jefferson National Forest, near where Mel and I used to live (my parents still live there). I used to work for the US Forest Service district which runs the trail, and even did trail work on it. The trail is a 27 mile long loop, which runs along some beautiful ridges and through some of the nicest forested terrain around.
I’ve been thinking of doing this trail for awhile now. It’s about the perfect length for a hard-pushing two day mini-adventure, or for a leisurely three-day backpacking trip oriented towards family time. I might actually try to use it as a stress-reliever at some point, when the demands of paramedic school leave me needing some time away from the city.
They hold a trail race at the Wild Oak Trail each year. What makes me feel like an underachiever is that there are some stalwart overachievers that do 100 miles (basically, the whole loop four time), before nonchalantly sauntering home to eat massive amounts of pasta.
We spend a lot of time at the river. Eli loves the water, and the green spaces which surround the river, while not Shenandoah National Park or the George Washington National Forest, at least remind Mel and I of home. Whenever we go down to the river, I always find myself watching the kayakers. I learned how to roll a kayak many years ago. Today, I couldn’t do it to (literally) save my life.
However, there are some good programs around here that I could learn from. So, I’ve made it my goal to learn how to kayak on whitewater before I leave the RVA.
There will definitely be more as I come up with them. These are some of the better ones I could come up with off the top of my head. HOpefully, as the weather gets better you’ll start seeing more posts about actual adventures, instead of posts about what I’d like to do and pretty videos…
…And it is beautiful. This is a time lapse video shot in Yosemite National Park, which I found on the National Geographic website. It features some of the major landmarks in Yosemite, but shot from some lesser seen perspectives. I’ve seen something similar from these guys before, but I believe this is their second, better, effort. For best results, maximize the screen, turn down the lights, and turn up the sound. Let it load totally before you hit play, you don’t want to have to pause while it buffers.
Also, for you Richmonders, Dominion RiverRock is coming up! A mountain sport festival here in RVA, over the weekend of May 17-18. Which, incidentally, also happens to be my birthday weekend, so one additional reason to party. Website at the link, and the Facebook page is pretty awesome; befriend me on Facebook or check out my profile if you want to get the link to it. Or you could just search for it. Whichever.