A Life In The Woods



Algonquin Park Packing and Old Growth White Pines

(Photo by jerryw387 Canoe on Pinetree Lake, Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario. Taken on August 12, 2008 Some rights reserved)

It has been a couple years since I had the opportunity for a multiday canoe camping trip in the backcountry. I am looking forward to a 4 day trip with a group of friends into the heart of Algonquin Provincial Park in search of some old growth white pines, not to mention some new memories around the camp fire.

We are traveling as a group of 4 with two canoes. So my thoughts have turned to preparations. We are all experienced canoeists and backcountry campers with all our own gear.

When planning a trip it is good to consider traveling light, but also having some elements of redundancy in your kit.Mountain Equipment Co-op has a packing list available on their website for Algonquin newbies.

Here is my personal packing list as well as our communal packing list

Personal Packing List

  • Map
  • Compass
  • Trip Plan left with friends of family
  • First Aid Kit(s)
  • Binoculars
  • Notebook
  • Pencils
  • Shoes
  • Hiking Boots
  • Socks
  • Underwear
  • Bathing Suit
  • Clothes (short and long sleeve)
  • Warm sweater
  • Rain Coat
  • Shorts/Pants
  • Lifejacket
  • Hat
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug Spray
  • Headlamp
  • Flashlight
  • Matches/Lighter/Firestarter
  • Backpack
  • Dry Bags
  • Sleeping Bag
  • Sleeping Pad

Communal Packing List

  • Camping Permit
  • Tent
  • Tarp
  • Stove/Fuel
  • Utensils
  • Food
  • Water
  • Water filter
  • Toiletries
  • Toilet paper
  • Canoe
  • Paddle /Extra Paddle
  • Duct Tape
  • Bailer
  • Rope
  • Carabiners
  • Hatchet/Axe/Saw

*Change of clothes at take-out point.

What would you suggest adding or subtracting to this packing list? (Be sure to leave a comment below) Planning and packing is always an interesting exercise in economy of both space and weight. You don’t want to under pack or over pack, you just want to be prepared. Over the years I have packing for my trips quite refined and rarely come out of the backcountry with clean clothing (which means I used it all as planned).

Below is a video I found of some adventurers who visited a stand of virgin old growth White Pines (Pinus strobus) which can reach over 35 m (or about 10 storeys) in height and about 3 meters in circumference (12 feet).

The majestic white pine (Pinus strobus) is the provincial tree of Ontario. They were historically used for masts on British Royal Navy ships and were specially reserved for the British Crown by being marked by the Broad Arrow. This protected or reserved status eventually led to the Pine Tree Riots in New Hampshire in 1772.


Human Borrelia miyamotoi Infection in Canada

Recently I was reading #WildMed topics on Twitter and saw @ExpeditionDocs tweet about an interesting article in NEJM: Human Borrelia miyamotoi Infection in the United States. I have previously written about Lyme Disease (Borrelia burgdorferi) in an article on this blog with my friend and amateur entomologist Scott Willis (The Low Down on Lyme Disease) as well as on the Family Medicine Reference blog (The Low down on Lyme Disease).

Krause et al. (NEJM Jan 27 2013) state:

Borrelia miyamotoi, a spirochete that is genetically related to the species of borrelia that cause relapsing fever, has been detected in all tick species that are vectors of Lyme disease.1,2 It was detected in Ixodes scapularis ticks from Connecticut in 2001 and subsequently has been detected in all areas of the United States where Lyme disease is endemic.

So this got me wondering about the prevalence of this spirochete in Canada given that we also have Ixodes scapularis. After a quick literature search I discovered an article titled, The prevalence of Borrelia miyamotoi infection, and co-infection with other Borrelia spp. in Ixodes scapularis ticks collected in Canada. Antonia Dibernardo et al. found that Borrelia miyamotoi infection (in ticks) was present in all provinces of Canad except Newfoundland. Thus Dibernardo et al. said,

Given the widespread distribution of B. miyamotoi, infection due to this agent should be considered in patients who have been exposed to blacklegged ticks in Canada.

What should be stressed is that there is a key methodological difference between these two studies. The first study in the US was looking at human serology tests to, “provide evidence of B. miyamotoi infection and the prevalence of this infection among people in the United States” (NEJM Jan 27 2013). While the latter study in Canada, was looking at specifically at infections in I. scapularis ticks (rather than humans).

Krause et al. conclude (NEJM Jan 27 2013) “The identification of B. miyamotoi antibody in 18 of our study patients, including seroconversion associated with symptoms in 3 patients, suggests that B. miyamotoi infection may [emphasis added] be prevalent in areas where Lyme disease is endemic in the United States”.

The Canadian study found on overall prevalence of less than 1 % for B. miyamotoi. They also noted:

Few ticks were co-infected, however a third of B. miyamotoi-infected ticks and a quarter of A. phagocytophilum-infected ticks were also infected with B. burgdorferi and co-infections of B. miyamotoi and B. burgdorferi occurred more frequently than would be expected by chance.

Overall these were two very interesting articles to read and further remind me of the importance of regular tick checks while working or playing in the outdoor environment. I particularly like the well summarized conclusion in the Canadian paper with the clinical so what statement:

The relatively limited (though expanding) distribution of blacklegged tick populations in Canada [22,28,29] and the lower prevalence of B. miyamotoi infection in these ticks means that at present the risk of infection of humans in Canada would be lower than in parts of the USA [6]. Nevertheless, our study indicated that B. miyamotoi is present across a wide geographic range in Canada, and clinicians should consider B. miyamotoi infection as a possible diagnosis, alongside Lyme disease, Anaplasmosis, Ehrlichiosis, Babesiosis and arboviral infections, in patients suffering from suspected infectious disease who have potentially been exposed to ticks in Canada.

Happy hiking! Comments or questions just drop me a line below.


1.  Krause PJ, Narasimhan S, Wormser GP, Rollend L, Fikrig E, Lepore T, Barbour A, Fish D. Human Borrelia miyamotoi infection in the United States. New Engl J Med. 2013;368(3):291–293. doi: 10.1056/NEJMc1215469.

2.  Dibernardo A, Cote T, Ogden NH, Lindsay LR. The prevalence of Borrelia miyamotoi infection, and co-infections with other Borrelia spp. in Ixodes scapularis ticks collected in Canada. Parasites & Vectors. 2014;7:183. doi:10.1186/1756-3305-7-183.



I am going to be heading out on a little adventure in January to explore some of the Patagonian wilderness in Southern Argentina and Chile.

After learning about Darwin’s explorations while aboard the Beagle and recently reading a fascinating book of historical fiction called Darwin’s Shooter I couldn’t resist the urge to visit Patagonia.

Inspired by curiosity


While driving home from a busy shift I recently listened to a new SMACC podcast Dangers of the Deep: Exploration Medicine by Dr. Glenn Singleman who recounts his his experiences as physician to James Cameron and his team who explored the depths of the Mariana trench.

Two great insights from Dr. Singleman were to consider how explorers are likely to die and how to mitigate this risk. He also suggested developing a detailed and logical plan of action that can be defended in the event of an accident. Great food for thought.

The podcast is available here:

Also check out this video of James Cameron talking about how he inspires and motivates his teams.

Ibuprofen for Altitude?

Photo by Kerem Titiz
Photo by Kerem Titiz

Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is a condition that affects many outdoor enthusiasts and tourists every year.

Diagnosis of AMS is based on:
1. A rise in altitude within the last 4 days
2. Presence of a headache
3. Presence of at least one other symptom
4.  A total score of 3 or more from the questions below.
0-3 scale of symptoms related to: 1) Headache 2) Gastrointestinal symptoms 3) Severe nausea &/or vomiting 4) Fatigue &/or weakness 5) Dizziness/lightheadedness 6) Difficulty sleeping

See: Lake Louise Score for the diagnosis of AMS.

Study objective: Compare ibuprofen versus placebo in the prevention of acute mountain sickness incidence and severity on ascent from low to high altitude.

Methods: Healthy adult volunteers living at low altitude were randomized to ibuprofen 600 mg or placebo 3 times daily, starting 6 hours before ascent from 1,240 m (4,100 ft) to 3,810 m (12,570 ft) during July and August 2010 in the White Mountains of California. The main outcome measures were acute mountain sickness incidence and severity, measured by the Lake Louise Questionnaire acute mountain sickness score with a diagnosis of ≥ 3 with headache and 1 other symptom.

Authors conclusions: Compared with placebo, ibuprofen was effective in reducing the incidence of acute mountain sickness.

My conclusions: This small double blinded placebo controlled RCT was well designed and relevant to those who plan to travel from low to high altitude. Currently the only medications with indications for prevention of AMS are Acetazolamide and Dexamethasone both of which can be associated with potentially serious side effects and safety concerns.

The authors main conclusion supporting the use of Ibuprofen is based on Table 2.

Variables: Placebo, N42; Ibuprofen, N44

Difference in Estimates Between Treatment Groups, OR (95% CI)

AMS incidence (%)  Placebo 29 (69) Ibuprofen 19 (43)  OR 0.3 (0.1–0.8)
AMS severity: peak LLQ score, mean (SD) Placebo 4.4 (2.6) Ibuprofen 3.2 (2.4) OR 0.9 (0.3–3.0)*

LLQ = Lake Louise Questionnaire. *Reported as the mean difference in percentage.

My main concern is the relatively small overall sample size and wide confidence intervals for the difference in AMS severity and potential for overlap (meaning no true difference) between AMS severity in the placebo and ibuprofen groups. One surprising finding for me was that the Ibuprofen group had a similar incidence of headache (0.6 (0.2–1.6)) compared to the control group, but decreased incidence of GI complaints (OR 0.3 (0.1–0.8)) which is the opposite of what I would have expected. That said the difference in headache finding was not statistically significant.

My bottom line is that until I see further studies supporting the efficacy of Ibuprofen for the prevention of AMS, I will not be endorsing this prevention strategy. While the risk of adverse events is quite low, as would be the cost of treatment, I still remain skeptical.  What I would like to see in future research is further validation of this finding in a larger study. I would also like to see a well designed head-to-head non-inferiority double blinded RCT comparing Acetazolamide, Dexamethasone and Ibuprofen, although given the difficulties of recruiting adequate numbers of participants for altitude related research, I won’t be holding my breath.

Reference: Lipman et al. Ibuprofen prevents altitude illness: A randomized controlled trial for prevention of altitude illness with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories. Ann Emerg Med. 2012;59:484-490 2011;39(7):1607-1612.

Simple ideas for preventing Acute Mountain Sickness: 1) Follow a strategy of staged ascent (Category 1A) 2) High carbohydrate diet (Category 2) 3) Until acclimatized moderate physical activity 4) Maintain adequate hydration.  (Wilderness Medical Society Practice Guidelines  5th Edition – High Altitude Illness)

On the proper use of personal locator beacons


Two climbers’ distress call from the top of Mount Andromeda launched a full-scale rescue operation and has subsequently put the proper use of personal locator beacons (PLBs) under the microscope.

By Bob Covey read the complete article here:

Wilderness Rules of Engagement

Here are some humorous and easy to remember rules of thumb for Wilderness Medicine.

Ice fields of the Perito Moreno glacier, Argentina. License AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by MrHicks46 via Flickr
Ice fields of the Perito Moreno glacier, Argentina.
AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by MrHicks46 via Flickr

Rule 1: I am number one.

Rationale: You can be of no help to others, if you injure yourself. Be sure to use personal protective equipment and ensure your own safety and that of your team members when trying to provide patient care in a wilderness context.

Rule 2: Always use the other guys stuff first.

Rationale: If you need to make improvised litters or splints for evacuating a patient from a wilderness setting, use their gear if possible.

Rule 3: Replace your sweat, not your water.

Rationale: To avoid electrolyte derangement it is best to replace fluid with substances which contain electrolytes. If the patient has gastroenteritis consider the use of oral re-hydration solutions.

Rule 4: Hypothermia is a leadership issue.

Rationale: Hypothermia occurs when the exposure to cold overwhelms the body’s ability to produce and retain heat. Proper clothing for the environment, along with adequate nutritional intake can go a long what in preventing hypothermia.

Rule 5: If you don’t know a knot, tie a lot.

Rationale: While having proper knowledge of knot tying is critically important in mountaineering and sailing, if you lack the specific knowledge to tie sound knots, extra knots can provide redundancy against potential knot slippage.

Rule 6: Proper preparation prevents piss poor performance.

Rationale: Just like in a resuscitation, wilderness medicine scenarios can devolve into a scene of chaos. The person who is able to control that chaos is the person who is able to do what is needed for their patient and team. Maintaining composure and control will ensure your safety and your patients safety.

Rule 7: Three Bears, not too much, not too little, just enough.


Screen shot 2013-09-14 at 7.42.39 PM

Yosemite time lapse made by photographer Shawn Reeder, with music by Shaun Paul. One of the most spectacular time lapse movies I have ever seen. It will make you want to go for a hike. Words cannot describe the beauty of this video. Check it out for yourself.

Found via:

The low down on Lyme disease

31530344-Lyme3Have you ever sat beneath a tree during the summer afternoon, and found yourself wondering if it might be raining? Saying “I just felt something land on me!” Only to realize it wasn’t rain, it was insects falling from the tree?
This actually happened as we were hosting our prestigious Wilderness Medicine Debate Society debates as part of a Wilderness Medicine Elective for medical students hosted by Wilderness Medical Associates International. Following the debate we informed students of the presence ticks and someone in the group let out a gasp, “Tick…OMG!” Apparently students had heard about tick borne illnesses.

Many participants were already aware of the connection between ticks and Lyme disease.  Thus we reminded participants about the importance of regular “Tick checks” after outdoor activities in tick endemic areas. A simple, yet effective way of reducing your risk of acquiring Lyme disease, this recommendation got a good giggle from the group, maybe because it was also noted to be “a great way to really get to know fellow travellers on a trip!”

This is the second in a series of collaborative blog posts related to insects and infectious disease with my good friend Scott Willis.

Ticks are small eight-legged arachnid parasites that need to feed on blood to grow and survive. They latch onto mammals, birds, reptiles, and humans by piercing the skin to get a blood meal. Usually people will find ticks attached to their body after walking through a forest, before the tick has started feeding. Once the tick has started feeding (sucking blood) it becomes engorged, meaning the abdomen becomes larger and turns greyish blue in colour. What makes ticks so medically relevant is that they can carry all sorts of diseases, such as Lyme disease, babesiosis, and anaplasmosis. Many species of ticks carry the Lyme disease causing spirochete bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. Not all tick species carry Lyme disease however. The most common and widespread tick that can pass on Lyme disease in southern Ontario is the deer tick (Ixodes scapularis) – also known as the blacklegged tick.

Blacklegged ticks have a 2 year lifecycle, going from egg, larva, nymph, adult to egg. Each phase must get a blood meal and feed before maturing to the next stage. More often than not the nymph stage is the main source of transmitting Lyme disease, since they need the blood meals to grow and develop and are easily hidden on the body. They are most active during mid-May to August. The blacklegged tick’s range stretches from southern Ontario, Quebec and most of Eastern United States. They are most commonly found in deciduous forests, since this is where white-tailed deer are found- the tick’s animal host.

The risk of a patient contracting Lyme disease when bitten by a tick depends on many factors. First the longer the tick has been attached to the person, the greater a chance of transmission. People can feel the tick before it starts feeding and can easily get it off their body. Many however do not feel the tick bite and the tick can stay attached to the body and continue feeding for days. Studies suggest that it takes up to 36-48 hours for the bacteria to be transmitted when feeding. This can easily be prevented by tick checks at the end of the day. Not all blacklegged ticks contain the bacteria for Lyme disease, with an estimated 25% of nymph ticks having Lyme disease and 50% of adults.

One of the main tools in predicting whether or not someone has Lyme disease after a tick bite is to use entomological evidence. Identifying the species of tick that bites a patient as a blacklegged tick can help in diagnosing Lyme disease. After getting bitten, it is advisable to have your patient keep the tick and bring it in to be identified. It can be dead or alive and simply kept in a container, like a zip-lock bag. It is suggested though that when the patient is removing the tick, be as careful as possible to avoid damaging it and thus preventing proper identification. Also keep the tick in a container with damp wrapping to prevent dehydration of the sample. Dehydration of the tick makes identification extremely difficult.

The primary means by which Lyme disease is diagnosed based on physician-observed clinical manifestations and a convincing history of exposure to an infected tick.

Identifying ticks is done by process of elimination. The only other common tick that might be confused with a blacklegged tick is the dog tick, which is commonly found on pets. Dog ticks are not capable of transmitting Lyme disease since they are not very good hosts for the bacteria. You can identify blacklegged ticks from dog ticks by their size. Blacklegged ticks are very small, smaller than other ticks that they may be confused with. Usually the nymphs are only 1 to 2mm in diameter, compared to the dog tick, an equally common tick, which is 3mm. The size difference is very noticeable. Also dog ticks have very definitive white markings on their back that the blacklegged ticks lack. Examine the white markings in the picture below on the dog ticks.

31530335-Lyme2This picture is a good indicator of the size difference. On the top are unfed adult blacklegged ticks and on the bottom are adult dog ticks. You can also note the white pattern on the “back” of the dog tick.
If you are trying to identify a tick, the internet has many wonderful resources!

This is a wonderful place to start! There are pictures of all stages of ticks for different regions (Southern Ontario would be Northeast/Midwest). It evens offers the different tick’s abundance.

This site offers a dichotomy key of-sorts. A bit more entomology lingo is present though, so this is recommended for the more seasoned tick identifier.

It is important to note that if the tick is engorged, it makes the tick harder to identify, and you must focus on legs and upper part of the body. Identifying ticks can be challenging, if you are not comfortable with attempting to identify the tick then you can send it to an expert. Ticks that have been kept by the patient can be sent to a provincial laboratory for identification and Lyme disease testing. If the tick is identified as a blacklegged tick, it will be sent to the National Microbiology Laboratory (NML), where they will test it for Lyme disease using polymerase chain reaction along with any other potential pathogens. This service is provided by the Public Health Agency of Canada, and they use the data of Lyme disease positive ticks to monitor the tick’s spread. It is important to note that even if the tick tests positive for Lyme disease or that the tick that bit them was identified as a blacklegged tick, this is not a 100% guarantee that your patient has contracted Lyme disease. Additional blood tests should be ordered and symptoms must be considered.

Blacklegged ticks becoming increasingly difficult to identify when they become engorged.
Generally IgM and IgG antibody blood tests are ordered for diagnosing Lyme disease in the patient, however it is often negative in the first weeks of the illness so if there is recent onset if symptoms or characteristic EM rash it may need repeating. Depending on lab resources, more sensitive PCR testing can also be done on the blood sample. If the patient is suspected of contracting Lyme Disease overseas its is important to test should using a C6 based assay as other serologic test may not detect infection with European species of Borrelia.

As always these tests are not 100% definitive and, as with all evidence-based medicine, everything must be considered before a diagnosis. Having entomological evidence as discussed in this blog can make ruling Lyme disease in or out much easier.

The concern is that Borrelia infection  (Lyme Disease) can result in dermatologic, rheumatologic, neurologic, or cardiac abnormalities. The typical incubation period is 3-32 days according to the CDC. It has been reported that anywhere from 70-80% of patients develop a rash, known as erythema migrans (EM) within 30 days of exposure to B. burgdorferi. EM is described as a red expanding rash (with or without central clearing) often accompanied by symptoms of fatigue, fever, headache, arthralgias or myalgias. Infection can also spread to causing more serious complications and conditions like meningitis or carditis with atrioventricular heart block. Untreated infection can progress to cause arthritis, peripheral neuropathy, or encephalopathy.

We must stress though that prevention is your most important tool in the fight against Lyme disease. If you are going into an area where blacklegged ticks are known to exist, stick to paths and wear long clothing. There are many commercial repellents available, but ones containing DEET or permethrin are your best bets. Perform tick checks at the end of the day. If you do find any ticks, use fine-tipped tweezers to remove it. Remember that the earlier you catch the tick, the less chance of Lyme disease transmission.

Knowledge is the best tool in the identification of blacklegged ticks and prevention of Lyme disease.

CDC Health information for International Travel 2010 – The Yellow Book

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