Given the opportunity, I would venture to say most people enjoy spending time outside. This is certainly the case for many microbiologists.
Our home state of Minnesota is nicknamed “The Land of 10,000 Lakes.” We’re lucky to have many beautiful state parks to spend time in. I personally enjoy tent camping along the North Shore, a popular scenic stretch of land along the coast of Lake Superior north of Duluth, MN. An abundance of wildlife, hiking trails that include secluded rock beaches and waterfalls, and basic amenities like clear, running water make the North Shore a haven for outdoor enthusiasts.
Although I do enjoy camping in a tent, I most definitely would not enjoy backpack tenting. Though similar in nature, there’s just something intimidating about the idea that once you’re “out there”, there’s no turning back. I like to be able to at least see my car…you know, just in case the white flag needs to be waved. You don’t necessarily need to be out of mobile phone range to encounter the following, but I’m not looking to increase my chances.
Backpacking is hard work. You don’t have the luxury of dragging a cooler of water with you, so you’re forced to make due along the hike. That beautiful, crystal clear lake is a master of deception. Certain precautions need to be taken before filling your water bottle. Otherwise you might be asking for a big gulp of Giardia, Cryptosporidium, Escherichia coli and whatever else the body of water may be hiding.
Choosing your source may be the best first step you can take. Water taken from fast running streams, away from farms or obvious signs of wildlife, will be the freshest. If water needs to be taken from a lake, try to find the area where a stream enters the lake rather than where a stream exits.
Once you’ve gathered your water, a variety of options exist to combat the potential contaminants. Boiling water (at a rolling boil) for a minimum of one minute is collectively the most effective method against the widest range of pathogens. Filtration is more effective when dealing with protozoa than with bacteria, but can sometimes be failure prone. Chemical additives like iodine and chlorine are more effective on bacteria than protozoa.
If you want to get creative, there’s even a UV light system designed for disinfecting drinking water while camping, but you’ll have to lug the device around with you and concern yourself with proper water turbidity
Ask any Minnesotan about mosquitoes and you’ll probably hear a few expletives in the description. These insects are no stranger to our area and can be downright ferocious in a wet, wooded forest (especially secluded hiking trails). Mosquitoes can also carry some pretty serious diseases like Malaria, Chikungunya virus, West Nile virus and Zika virus. Luckily it’s highly unlikely that you’ll contract many of these pathogens from Minnesota mosquitoes, although the West Nile virus does maintain a regular presence in our state. Mosquitoes also carry the parasite Dirofilaria immitis which is responsible for heartworm in dogs. Simple stated: everyone hates mosquitoes.
Your options to protect yourself from mosquito bites basically comes down to either sheer avoidance of the outdoors or dousing yourself in some very potent mosquito spray (containing DEET). A few superstitious folk may also say that wearing loose, light-colored clothing can help you avoid these flying pests, but that has always been up for debate in my mind. If you’re a dog, you’ll probably be on preventative heartworm medication year round.
Ticks add a whole other dimension to outdoor biting pests. Let me just start by pointing out that ticks are technically an arachnid, like a spider or a scorpion, which is just gross. Their whole purpose is to take as much blood from their hosts as possible in order to continue on with their life cycle. Lyme disease, babesiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tick paralysis, and even an aquired allergy to red meat are just a few of the diseases that can be associated with tick bites – and that’s just the North American variety of ticks!
Lyme disease is most common in Minnesota and is technically caused by the spirochete bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi. Once the host is infected, the body responds by developing a large rash, flu-like symptoms and (if left untreated) arthritic-like joint inflammation. Treatment for Lyme disease is a 28-day oral antibiotic varying from doxycycline, amoxicillin or ceftriaxone depending on the stage of illness. This typically does the trick, but occasionally B. burgdorferi will require additional treatments due to flare ups.
Unfortunately, tick prevention is right up there with the mosquito methods. You can try bundling up head to toe in some sort of clothing covering every inch of your body, but it won’t matter much. They like to burrow. Your best bet is to spray any exposed skin with bug spray (containing DEET) and immediately shower as soon as logical.
Needless to say, you’ll encounter a lot of microorganisms when you brave the great outdoors. To what extent you’d like to rub elbows with these pathogens is completely up to you. Just know that this post only scratches the surface of what may be hiding in mother nature’s beauty. But I would encourage everyone to push themselves outside their comfort zones because the view is always worth it!