Health and Safety
A visit to Minnesota is not completely devoid of risk, but none of the potential concerns are extreme, and simple common sense is pretty much all you need to stay safe and healthy. 911 is the statewide emergency number.
The first thing a winter visitor to Minnesota has to understand is that wind chill is not just something northerners talk about. It is real and it can be very dangerous. The wind-chill factor is an estimated measure of the rate at which exposed skin will lose body heat due to the combination of wind speed and temperature.
So, for example, if the temperature outside is 5°F and the winds are blowing at 30 mph, your body will feel as if the temperature is 19°F below zero and the winds were calm.
A low wind chill (or just a low temperature) can quickly lead to frostbite, the freezing of skin. The initial symptoms of redness and pain are followed by a loss of feeling and color. Fingers, toes, ears, and the tip of the nose are most susceptible. If your skin does freeze, rewarm it slowly by immersing the affected area in warm (not hot) water. If that is not possible, use body heat, an armpit for example. Do not use a heat source, such as a fire or radiator, because the affected areas can burn easily.
As it thaws, the skin turns red and painful with a severe tingling or burning sensation. If damage was limited to the skin, there will probably be no long-term effects, but if blood vessels were damaged there can be serious complications. Severe cases need immediate medical assistance.
Another cold-weather concern is hypothermia, a life-threatening condition where core body temperature falls below 95°F, the point at which the body can no longer produce enough heat to warm itself. Symptoms come on slowly and include uncontrolled shivering, slurred speech, confusion, drowsiness, loss of coordination, pale and cold skin, and bluish lips. Because the cold affects brain function, the victim may not even be aware of his or her own condition and must rely on companions, even when insisting he or she feels fine. Hypothermia can occur even in the summer if you spend too much time in cold lakes.
Anyone suffering from hypothermia needs immediate medical attention. If that is not an option, get the victim out of the cold as best as possible. People with hypothermia are at high risk for cardiac arrest, so be as gentle as possible if moving them. Remove any wet or constrictive clothing and cover them with warm blankets or a sleeping bag. A metallic emergency blanket that conserves body heat should be in every backpack and canoe; they weigh just a couple of ounces and cost just a couple of dollars.
Warm the body SLOWLY, starting with the chest, neck, head, and groin. In the wilderness, sharing body heat, skin-to-skin, is the best method of recovering victims. If they are conscious, give them warm (nonalcoholic) beverages and food. Even someone found out in the cold, unconscious and with no apparent pulse, should be treated. Many people who appeared dead on initial examination have been revived.
Prevention is the best medicine for cold-weather ailments. The key to staying warm in the winter is to wear loose-fitting layers. Not only is this the most effective for warmth, but you can shed layers as your exertion level rises, avoiding sweating, which leads to later chills or worse. A thin layer of wool, silk, or synthetics that can wick away sweat should be worn against the skin with a wind- and waterproof breathable outer shell as the top layer. Insulating layers of wool and lighter-weight polyester fleeces will keep you warm even if wet.
Cotton should be avoided as much as possible because it retains moisture. Over half of body heat lost escapes through the head, so a good hat, one that covers the ears, is a must. Mittens are warmer than gloves and large ones can be worn over gloves. Your feet, which are exposed to the most moisture, need warm socks, preferably a thin inner sock, a wool outer sock, and warm waterproof boots.
The biggest concern for those venturing into Minnesota’s outdoors is Lyme disease, but like most things, with just a bit of simple protection there’s no need to worry. This bacterial disease is transmitted by the bite of the tiny deer tick. Deer ticks are smaller, and thankfully much less common, than wood ticks, which don’t carry the disease. It is important to note that bites rarely lead to infection, and the incidence of the disease is much lower in Minnesota than New England.
Lyme disease is almost always caught from May through July when nymphal-stage ticks are feeding. Adult ticks can also spread Lyme, but since they are much larger (an unfed nymph is no bigger than a poppy seed, while the adult grows to sesame seed size), people are much more likely to spot them and thus remove them quickly. A tick must be attached for at least 24 hours, usually 48 or more, before the bacteria can spread. If you have become infected, a distinctive “bull’s-eye” rash may occur at the site of the bite in 7 to 14 days, and it might be accompanied by fever, fatigue, headache, muscle and joint pains, and other flu-like symptoms. See a doctor if any of these symptoms occur following a bite. In almost all cases, if diagnosed in the early stages, Lyme disease can be cleared up with standard antibiotics.
While not life threatening, if left untreated it can lead to arthritis or complications of the nervous system or heart. Prevention is easy: Wear light-colored clothing so you can easily spot any ticks crawling on you, tuck long pants into socks to reduce access to the skin, and use a good insect repellent. Do a daily tick check on yourself and your pets after spending time outdoors. Remove embedded ticks with tweezers by grasping as close to the mouth as possible—do not grab the body as this might squeeze the infected contents into the wound—and slowly pull. Cleanse the bite with an antiseptic.
Minnesota has a few bloodthirsty flying insects that can be serious annoyances. Only a few species of black flies (sometimes called buffalo gnats) can bite through the skin with their razor-like mouths, but when they swarm around your head they can be pretty irritating. Thankfully black flies produce just one generation a year and they only feed over a three-week period, generally from mid-May through June. They are only active during the day.
Mosquitoes are the most likely to put a damper on summer fun. Jokingly referred to as Minnesota’s state bird on many postcards and coffee mugs, mosquitoes feed from May until the first frost but are most abundant in the early summer and are rare in the fall. Southeast Minnesota, away from the Mississippi River, is relatively mosquito free due to the lack of lakes.
Repellents containing the chemical DEET last the longest and are the most effective (though they do little to discourage black flies), but there can be side effects if too much is absorbed through the skin; this is primarily a concern for long-term use and most people use it with absolutely no problems. Still, to be on the safe side, use a brand containing no more than 35 percent DEET (those with higher percentages aren’t much more effective anyway), do not put it directly on children’s skin, and do not use it at all on children under two.
Effective non-DEET repellents using oil of lemon eucalyptus and picaridin are available too, though they have to be applied more frequently. Long-sleeved shirts and pants are also helpful, and a hat makes a world of difference with black flies.
No matter how clean and pure the water looks in Minnesota, you should never drink it straight from the source or you might just win weeks of diarrhea, abdominal cramps, bloating, flatulence, fatigue, and nausea. The culprit is Giardia lamblia, a hardy single-celled parasite found in lakes and streams worldwide. Symptoms begin one to two weeks after ingestion and continue for one to four weeks in most people, though chronic infections can last months or years and lead to weight loss and nutritional deficiencies.
Giardiasis, as the illness is called, usually resolves itself, though a doctor should be consulted if there is dehydration, blood in the stool, or symptoms that persist beyond two weeks. Children and pregnant women should see a doctor immediately. Water can be purified by boiling (one minute is enough for Giardia and most other biological hazards, but five is often recommended to kill them all), filtering (choose one with an absolute pore size of at least one micron, 0.2 is best, or one NSF rated for “cyst removal”), or treating (iodine kills almost everything, though it doesn’t taste so good).
Coming into contact with poison ivy might cause a red rash, blistering, and extreme itching that can last up to two weeks. Poison ivy is found in wooded areas throughout the state and prefers moist, shaded spots; it is common along riverbanks, paths, and fencerows. It grows primarily as a woody vine; however, if it is growing in full sunlight it will become a shrub. The primary method of identification is by its leaves, which grow in groups of three—always remember “Leaves of Three, Let Them Be.”
The size and shape of the leaflets can vary considerably, but are usually 2–4 inches in length with pointed tips, smooth or toothed edges, and shiny faces; the middle leaflet has a longer stalk than the two on the side. Small yellowish-green, five-petaled flowers bloom in May–July, and clusters of small white berries emerge from August–November. In the fall the leaves turn red.
If you are unlucky enough to brush up against poison ivy, wash the area thoroughly with cold water (hot water will open your pores and make the reaction worse) as quickly as possible. You generally have at least an hour to wash away the poisonous urushiol oil before it is absorbed into the skin. Washing with rubbing alcohol during the first six hours can also help remove the oil and prevent or diminish symptoms.
Ask a pharmacist about lotions to relieve the itching, though if it is severe you should see a doctor. A pre-exposure, over-the-counter lotion called Ivy Block reacts with the urushiol, blocking the allergic reaction. It must be applied 15 minutes before contact and lasts up to four hours.
Thin ice claims several lives each year in Minnesota. Generally speaking, ice four inches deep is considered safe for walking or skating, five inches for snowmobiles, and eight to twelve inches for cars and small trucks. The main problem is that ice is never uniform. Ice formed over currents will be weaker, so be especially cautious around bridges, outside river bends, and near the lakeshore. Also, don’t assume that just because you see tracks that the ice is safe. Many Minnesotans, ever impatient to begin their winter rituals, rush out too early. Local bait shops, resorts, and sheriff’s departments are your best source of advice. If you plan on going out on a lake or river, carry something sharp, such as picks or screwdrivers, to pull yourself out with if you fall through. If you are driving on a lake, keep your windows down to facilitate a quick escape.
Despite their reputation, bears are more of a nuisance than a danger. Bears are common throughout northern Minnesota, but while attacks on humans are not unheard of, they are extremely rare. If you do run across a bear, stay calm and back away slowly; it will likely leave the moment it senses you. Occasionally bears will woof, snap their jaws, slap the ground, stand upright, or make a bluff charge. While frightening, these actions are not a prelude to an attack. If you are in your campsite, or for some other reason it needs to be the bear that leaves instead of you, shout, bang pots, or throw rocks and wood at the bear.
Do not be gentle, though make sure it has an escape route before you begin. Capsaicin (hot pepper) sprays are another effective, and harmless, bear repellent. Food raids are the real concern with bears, since they will seek out and eat anything that even smells or looks like food. Keep your campsite clean: Never eat or store food in your tent, do not burn or bury food scraps at your site, and store all food and anything else with a strong odor, such as toothpaste, in your car. If you are camping in the wilderness, hang your food in a tree 10 feet off the ground and 4 feet from the trunk and any branches. There are many campsites in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness without large standing trees, so it would be wise to take a bear-proof storage container—local outfitters sell and rent them. These precautions must be followed even on islands, since bears are excellent swimmers.
Just two Minnesota snakes—the timber rattlesnake and the massasauga rattlesnake—are venomous, and both are rare and found only in limited areas in southeast Minnesota, primarily right along the Mississippi River. Both are timid and slow to rattle or strike. Bites are rare and rarely fatal; in fact, it has been over a century since anyone has died from a snakebite in Minnesota, but snakebites should still be treated as a medical emergency.
First, keep the victim calm and limit physical exertion as much as possible. Squeeze and suck venom from the wound. Remove jewelry since swelling can occur rapidly. Keep the stricken limb below the heart. Attempt to identify the snake, killing it if possible, but do not waste time or put yourself at risk; observing symptoms gives a doctor enough information to choose the proper anti-venom. Get the victim to a hospital as soon as possible. Note the times that symptoms first occur. DO NOT cut the wound, use a tourniquet, or apply ice. These treatments do more harm than good.
Of all the animals in Minnesota, Bambi is the one most likely to do you harm. Annually there are some 20,000 deer–vehicle collisions reported in the state, and the Minnesota Department of Transportation estimates that twice as many go unreported. These crashes, or crashes as a result of attempts to avoid deer, cause an average of $2,000 in damage per car and even result in two or three deaths annually.
Always keep an eye out for deer, especially in wooded areas and where deer warning signs are posted. Deer will cross roads throughout the year and at any time of the day, but they are most active at dawn and dusk and during October and November (while in rut and thus moving around much more than usual) and March and April (when some of the year’s first greenery sprouts on roadsides).
If you spot one anywhere near a road, decelerate as safely as possible—panicked deer will sprint off unexpectedly in any direction, and if you see one deer there are likely to be more nearby. And, though instincts say otherwise, hitting a deer is often safer than swerving out of its way, which might result in losing control of your vehicle. According to the DNR, studies have shown that whistles and other warning gadgets attached to vehicles do not frighten deer.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition