Safety in the California Outdoors

"Since 1980, there's been only one death from a snakebite here (12 last year in the entire United States). Unfortunately, a man was bitten where it seems the venom hit an artery. He got a large dose (of the venom)."

But back to the odds: Only 30 percent of snakebites deliver venom. A snake could have just used it up on a rabbit dinner, for instance, and hasn't yet produced a new supply.

But what if you're bitten, you're alone, and you're two miles from the trailhead?

Solution: Avoid reaching into places where snakes live, such as beneath rocks, into holes and other possible dens. If you are bitten, expect symptoms to appear within 15 minutes to an hour (most common) or two. If you have been hiking with another person, sit still and send for help. If you have a cell phone and it works, call for help.

But if you're alone, two miles from the trailhead, with no phone? First, Alsop said, do not pull out your 20th century snakebite kit with a razor blade. Nor should you unsheath the syringe-style venom extractor you got from the sporting goods store. And don't apply a tourniquet.

"You could cut off blood flow and end up with gangrene, resulting in amputation," Alsop said. "We don't want any of these treatments to be worse than the snakebite itself."

If you have an Ace-type bandage, cover up the wound, which could keep the venom from circulating. Slowly head for the trailhead and seek help from the nearest person, farm or ranch with a working cell phone.

What if you have to walk all the way back? Would you survive? "I believe so," Alsop said. "You should be able to make two miles in an hour."

When you find a phone, call 911. Chances are, poison specialists will be patched in to the call. You could be flown out, at some expense. Expect a hospital stay of three to five days. Most victims recover fully.

Problem: Spider Bites

Of all the spiders in Northern California, the one to be most wary of is the black widow. The Poison Control System gets about 800 calls per year statewide. Though you're just as likely to encounter them around your home as out on the trail, the black widow has the most potent bite.

To differentiate, they're about a half-inch to 1 1/2 inches in diameter and shiny black with a big, round belly. Their telltale identifier is an orange or red mark that looks like an hourglass on the underbelly. They like quiet, dark places: woodpiles, weed piles, attics or nesting spots under the eaves of a roof.

"They'd prefer not to have their webs interrupted," Alsop said. "They don't seek out humans, but if you molest their nest, they will defend."

You might be bitten gathering wood for a campfire or cleaning out a cabin.

Danger zone: As with snakes, some black widow bites do not transmit venom. If you are bitten, you'll know within an hour if venom is in your system. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, and severe muscle cramping in the back, shoulder, belly and thighs.

"Very painful; often the callers are crying," Alsop said.

The good news: She knows of no fatalities from black widow bites.

Solution: Patrol the campsite or cabin well before bedding down. In the morning, shake those shoes before putting them on. Spiders may have moved in. Be especially careful when disturbing woodpiles, weed piles and dark areas known to be occupied by spiders.

If you are bitten, plan on a trip to a hospital emergency room for treatment, probably painkillers and muscle relaxers.

Problem: Mountain Lions

Sightings of mountain lions, particularly closer to urban areas, have increased in recent years. The animals are looking for more food sources; humans are increasingly residing and exercising in the big cats' habitat. The mountain lion population hasn't increased substantially, but sightings and the infrequent attacks on humans have been reported more frequently, and have been more widely publicized. Mountain lions, also known as cougars, are shy animals and prefer avoiding contact with humans.

Danger zone: Encounters are so rare, there are no statistical trends to analyze. But mountain lions have attacked and killed humans, including several varying scenarios in California in the past decade. One well-known case occurred in Auburn.

Solution: Mountain lions see and smell humans before we see them. Exercising alone in cougar-populated areas is discouraged. Mountain runners and hikers often carry bells or other noisemakers to scare off wild animals. Exercising with a dog or dogs is not a deterrent to potential mountain lion sightings. Experts suggest "making yourself as large as possible" if you see a mountain lion. Chances are, a cougar sighting will be brief and the animal will vanish quickly.

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