Safety in the California Outdoors

Dana Gard has completed 100-mile mountain running events in the Sierra Nevada and 100-mile mountain bike races in the Rocky Mountains. The 60-year-old retired architect from Citrus Heights knows the challenges of nature as well as any accomplished endurance athlete.

Yet, despite his fitness and mountain savvy, Gard and other outdoor lovers have to face up to some naturally occurring hazards: snake and spider bites, scorpion and bee stings, waterborne illnesses, altitude sickness and allergic reactions to things such as poison oak.

We know it's wild out there, and sometimes the very wildness we seek confronts us.

Gard is a five-time finisher of the Western States 100, the annual June trail trek from Squaw Valley USA to Auburn. He's in shape, but as he discovered, the effects of altitude sickness can be just around the next high-elevation corner.

"I remember leaving Robinson Flat (mile 30) at the Western States 100 one year and feeling all the symptoms--headache, nausea, lightheadedness," Gard recalled.

So, let's take a look at some outdoor hazards, see how they play out, then offer solutions from wildlife, poison-control and health experts.

Among all the other advice they dole out, there's one key tip: Take a cell phone. If it works, if could save your life in an emergency.

Problem: Altitude Sickness

Triggered by oxygen deficiency in rarefied air, altitude sickness, also called altitude illness or high-mountain sickness, most often results in symptoms similar to a hangover--headache, poor appetite and nausea. Moderate cases can include vomiting, shortness of breath while at rest, a raspy cough and coordination difficulties. More severe cases include disorientation, severe physical weakness and a persistent, wet cough.

Danger zone: Onset seems to come at elevations of 5,000 to 8,000 feet. Extreme cases can result in conditions defined with the acronyms HAPE (high-altitude pulmonary edema) and HACE (high-altitude cerebral edema). Both conditions can be fatal. At winter and summer resorts such as Squaw Valley (elevation 6,200 feet), medical personnel treat a steady, year-round number of altitude-sickness cases.

Solution: Preventive measures include increasing water consumption and eliminating alcohol and medications such as tranquilizers and sleeping pills. During some high-altitude competitions--such as the Leadville 100-Mile Mountain Bike ride in Leadville, Colo. (held on a trail course between 9,000 feet and 12,000 feet elevation), Gard got relief using the inhaler Proventil prescribed by his physician. He's also learned that spending a night or two at lower altitude and gradually increasing elevation will help you acclimate.

Problem: Giardia

It's hot. You're on the trail and out of water. That beautiful mountain stream you've been hiking alongside looks inviting. You cup your hands and take a drink. Or, even more innocently, during a morning of fishing, you use your teeth to try to undo a knot in your fishing line. Or the water droplets from a paddle splash during a canoe trip go right down your hatch.

Danger zone: A few days or weeks later, you fall ill with a variety of stomach ailments: diarrhea, gas, cramps and perhaps nausea. You go to the doctor and discover you have a fairly common waterborne illness called giardiasis. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta describe it as a "diarrheal illness caused by a one-celled, microscopic parasite, giardia intestinalis (also known as giardia lamblia)." Somehow, the infected feces of an animal or a person has entered your system.

Solution: The CDC advises outdoor enthusiasts to never drink "recreational water, untreated water from shallow wells, lakes, rivers, springs, ponds, and streams." Always bring plenty of fresh water on trips. Invest in a Camelback or other water-bladder backpack capable of storing an ample water supply for your outing. On longer trips, make use of a water filter and pump to purify water you take from a river, stream or lake.

Problem: Snake Bites

Northern California is your home, but you share it with the Northern Pacific rattlesnake. Like you, this rattler likes the outdoors. You're going to cross paths someday, and you might get bitten.

Danger zone: If it does happen, odds are you'll survive. "A person should not die from a bite," said Judith Alsop, director of the Sacramento division of the California Poison Control System, headquartered at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.

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