Leeches in my breeches

I suppose there are things to be afraid of in the Adirondack wilderness. Once a generation there’s a murderer on the loose.

I hear people tell of their fear of hearing coyotes howl, but when was the last time you heard of a coyote attacking a human?

The only victim of an Adirondack rattlesnake bite I’m aware of was in the early 1970s, and he fully recovered.

I had a relative during a recent visit voice her worry about bears. I said, “When was the last time you heard of a bear attack in the Adirondacks?” I was reminded of the guy who picked up a cub and was assaulted by the cub’s mother, so I modified my comment to, “Unprovoked attack.”

But there is one animal that mere mention strikes terror in the hearts of the bravest souls — the common leech.

Admit it, as soon as you read the word leech you thought, “Yech,” then had visions of Humphrey Bogart getting back onto the African Queen, with the evil buggers stuck to his chest. It turns out he hated leeches as much as the rest of us. They had to use rubber leeches in the movie.

If you’ve ever had the misfortune of having leeches attach themselves to you, what did you do after you screamed? If you had a saltshaker nearby you doused the critter with salt. If not, you ripped it off immediately. And when you did you were too freaked to notice the stream of blood running down from the wound — you were just relieved it no longer stuck to you.

Ok, let’s examine what you had. It was probably an American Medicinal Leech (Macrobdella decora), the most common of about 50 North American species. After they bite, they leave a Y-shaped wound and blood trails down your body. It flowed freely because after gnawing into the skin it released the blood thinner hirudin so the blood didn’t coagulate and could be easily consumed by the leech.

You may worry about North American leeches sucking all your blood, but you should be relieved to know they aren’t big eaters. In fact, they go long intervals between feedings. Some go as long as a year. Also — luckily for us — they don’t depend on mammalian blood and are usually sustained by the blood of turtles, fish, frogs and frogs’ eggs. You were just an opportune food source.

As far as leeches in other parts of the world? Yes, they do enjoy mammalian blood. Even worse, they’ve been known to crawl into one’s nostrils and migrate up the throat to the larynx. Worse still, they attach themselves to your esophagus swelling on your blood to the point where they may cause suffocation … But only occasionally.

Now, I’m here to tell you that leeches get a bum rap. You probably know that they were used medically for bloodletting for thousands of years. The idea was the removal of blood from a patient helped prevent illness and cure disease. But it was wrong. A perfect example: George Washington died with the “help” of leeches when nearly 40% of his blood was drained.

But that was a couple of hundred years ago. We no longer use leeches for medical purposes, right? Not so fast, Binky. According to Rod Rezaee, MD, otolaryngologist and head and neck surgeon at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, “Despite all the technical advances in modern medicine, in certain post-surgical situations, we do still rely on one of nature’s most primitive organisms — the leech — to assist us in achieving a good outcome.”

For some reattachment operations, skin grafts and plastic surgeries for cancer and trauma, leeches come in handy. Chemicals in leech saliva keep the blood flowing in the damaged area, allowing time for new veins to grow and the existing ones to widen and accommodate more blood flow.

Even if leeches didn’t have modern medical uses, they deserve credit as devoted parents. One species has even developed a brood pouch providing its young with half-sucked food and nurses them with an albuminous secretion. Plus, Google “buying leeches” and you’ll find hundreds of sites — and not just for fish bait. I even found a video on keeping leeches as pets.

Being the Zen outdoorsman I am, I try to be one with leeches. If I get one on me, I nonchalantly pluck it off and continue on my way. That is, except on one occasion.

It was 1979 and we were wrapping up the first NCCC Wilderness Recreation Leadership Practicum. After we’d sent the students off on their final hiking expedition, the staff hiked back to a spot on the Cold River where we’d stashed our canoes and planned to paddle back to Long Lake Village.

As I stood in knee-deep water and tied the canoes together, I felt a tickling on my feet. I wrote it off to some minnows nibbling my toes, something that frequently happened. Ten minutes later I hopped into the lead canoe and noticed four healthy leeches clinging to my ankles. That didn’t bother me too much. But what did were the 100 one-inch-long baby leeches covering my feet and toes. I don’t recall the exact string of four-letter words I shouted, but after I pulled off the adult leeches, with my heart pounding and my hands shaking, I tried to remove the one-inch offspring. Easier said than done.

They were small, slimy, and slippery. They were too small to suck on to me but also too small for me to grab them. I tried and tried to pull them off. Finally, I ended up pulling off my shirt and started using it to rub the tiny varmints off. I rubbed my left ankle until it was raw then worked my way down the instep to the toes, then in between them. Especially in between them. It seemed to take forever. I then moved on to the right ankle and started all over. When I was done, I held up the shirt. It was less a shirt and more modern art. A shirt canvas with thin black lines of leeches stretched out in all directions. With a couple of swipes, using the well leeched shirt, I wiped the remaining beasts off the floor of the canoe.

I finally started paddling down the river, my nerves fried and my anxiety level off the charts.

By the end of the day, I had a painful sunburn. Why? Because sure as shootin, I certainly wasn’t going to ever wear that shirt again.


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