Willoughby: Tiny pests we wish Aspen winters would eliminate | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Tiny pests we wish Aspen winters would eliminate

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
If ticks were this big, we would see them coming, but the small vermin escape notice until they dig into our skin.
Public domain image/Pixabay

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a somber warning in May: Tick borne diseases have been rising for years and they leaped to far greater numbers this past year. Mosquitos and fleas spread these same diseases, but ticks have accounted for the greatest increase. Ticks spread Colorado tick fever and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

The number of ticks has increased and may reach a new peak this year. Theories abound about the cause of the increase, such as changed bird migrations and global warming. Also, mild winters may allow earlier tick seasons with more ticks.

The winter reprieve from ticks erases all memory of their annoying presence. But too soon after a spring hike, we must separate ticks from dogs, or gently extract a saw-mouthed tick from tender body parts. These unpleasantries bring to mind two stories from my years at Aspen Country Day School.

ACDS took all students on outdoor education trips each year. Kindergarten got one overnight, with more trip days added as students progressed through the grades. After the lower grade kids developed throughout a school year, they took their trip in spring. One year when I taught a combination third- and fourth-grade class, I took my students on a five-day trip to Mesa Verde.

Well into a hike, student Sasha Suzawith showed me a tick crawling on her skin. Most students would be in tears, but Sasha — familiar with the wee beasts — reacted calmly. Realization slowly took hold that not just one tick had hit the jackpot. Dozens crept about on their prospective host, seeking a Sasha-blood meal. Slow to recover from recoil, teachers and volunteers gradually grasped that if Sasha had ticks, then surely the rest of the class had them too.

We began a search. On other students, we found surprisingly few of the parasites. Sasha had led the line of students throughout much of the hike. And ticks like some people more than others. The reason Sasha had remained calm: She had experienced life as an unfortunate magnet for ticks. By walking at the front of the line, she may have saved more fearful students from a horrifying experience.

In the valley of ACDS’s Castle Creek campus, climate differs from that of Aspen. Spring warms things up much later and snow may linger toward the end of the school year. Students and teachers suffered literal cabin fever. When I taught there during the 1970s, cabins housed kindergarten and first grades. Music Festival folk had named the structures Tristan and Isolde.

One spring, kindergarten through fourth-graders and their teachers could tolerate Castle Creek winter no more. We left the dreary valley in search of spring. We loaded up the bus and aimed for the Sunnyside Trail, a somewhat-less-than-muddy path that winds up Red Mountain. We started our climb at the intersection of McClain Flats Road and hiked through the lower section, acres of sagebrush. Our minds swaddled in sunshine, we anticipated magnificent views that would open up as we ascended the trail. We gave no thought to Aspen’s tick population, centered in sage, perhaps the national breeding ground for the little suckers.

No more than a half hour up the trail at kindergarten speed, one student wailed, “Help! Something’s crawling on me.” Within nanoseconds, others felt the same somethings. A bug-smart student said the four-letter word and the whole tribe turned hysterical. God bless teachers and their many talents, including tick removal.

As the tick population grows and tick-borne diseases rise, ride the gondola and hike at high altitude until after tick season. It’s sage advice.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.