Finding and Collecting Cottonwood Bark
By Alex Bisso
Part 5 — Miscellaneous Hazards and Related Comments
Collecting cottonwood bark is always hard work and under hot conditions this can be hazardous – especially if the job requires hauling or carrying bark considerable distances and through high grass or thick brush. Most important is to bring and drink a lot of water. I have also found that eating salty chips help water retention and reduction of cramping. While these precautions have saved me from heat exhaustion or stroke, I still have had to deal with severe leg cramps either while driving home or while collecting the bark on a number of occasions. Once, in a very remote area, my legs cramped so bad that I could not walk through the thick grass to get back to my Blazer. I had to lay on the ground in the shade of a tree for almost 40 minutes before I could stand up and stumble stiff-legged to the vehicle. In spite of more water and salt my legs continued to cramp when bent and I resorted to sitting it the cold water of the river for about 20 minutes to be able to drive home – and still I had to stop, walk around and stretch the backs of my legs some to be able to continue driving. Because of that experience I try to bring someone with me when I go to a really remote area.
It seems like every year someone gets accidentally shot by a hunter. I do not want to be one of those statistics, so when collecting in hunting season I always wear at least an orange hat or vest. The only person likely to be in an area where I collect bark is a hunter and I want him to be able to see me clearly.
Animals, Snakes and Insects
Large dead and/or broken/fallen trees that are shedding cottonwood bark are havens for various animals, snakes and insects. Besides harmless game and other birds and deer, I have come across fox, coyotes, skunks, porcupines, and badgers using the areas where I collect bark. To date I have not come across a bear although a landowner told me that there was one in her yard (adjacent to where I collect) last fall and Fish and Game personnel say black bears regularly travel long distances along the Yellowstone river corridor where I do a lot of collecting. I have frequently found snakes, both under fallen bark or in the space between the bark and the tree while collecting. So far they have only been garter snakes, racers and bull snakes. However I have occasionally seen rattlesnakes on the roads near where I collect so they are definitely a hazard watch out for when collecting bark.
Worst of all to contend with are insects and they definitely demand precautions. One I really dislike but must contend with is ticks – especially in the springtime. They are thick in the spring everywhere I collect. My typical routine for dealing with them is:
Pants bottom: Either, 1) tuck my pants bottoms into my socks, secure with rubber bands, and spray all around my ankles and legs with deep woods off or equivalent or 2) double up my pants leg so I can spray the insides of them and my socks and then turn them down and spray the outside. Shirt: Definitely a lightweight, light colored long sleeve shirt, tucked in securely. I spray this and everywhere else, including around the edges of my hat and collar. For my neck, face and head I put spray in the palm of my hands and wipe it on to avoid contaminating my eyes and glasses. Sometimes I also wear a protective mesh over-shirt or a mesh head-cover. When I get home, all clothing comes off for a close inspection inside and out. I have been amazed by the number of ticks I have found inside of folded seams inside of my pants and shirts after being out in tick season. If you neglect to do the thorough clothing inspection immediately upon getting home, you are likely to later find ticks crawling on the beds, furniture or walls in your housOf course the clothing inspection is followed by a through body inspection and hot, soapy shower. I have also learned that it is best not to bring a dog along for company during the tick season. My body has become a sensitive tick detector and I can feel one if it moves anywhere on me – sometimes even when it is not there!
Mosquitoes also can often be too bad for repellent sprays alone require the mesh over-shirt or head-cover for protection. In one area this summer they were so bad the river flooding that even with these precautions, it was intolerable to try to collect bark. I quit and swore not to return there until after a freeze. Bees are another fearsome insect to expect and beware of – especially paper wasps and yellow-jackets. They can hurt you and ruin a trip if you do not have some wasp spray available to deal with them so that you can continue collecting. Other creepy and potentially hazardous insects to expect include centipedes and spiders (including black widow and brown recluse). These are often found around fallen bark, on the bark and between the bark and the trees when it is removed. I have never really had a problem with these and find that being watchful and wearing a good pair of gloves is sufficient protection.
Some plants like various hitch-hikers and cock-a-burrs are just bothersome but some can be really mean. The ones that one should be prepared for when out in the boonies collecting cottonwood bark include wild rose bushes and other thorn bushes and thistles as well as locust thorn trees, Russian olive trees, which also have thorns, and stinging nettles. These plants seem to like the same river-bottom areas as large cottonwoods and especially like to grown in an area where a large tree has died and/or fallen down. Good gloves are helpful as are sturdy pants such as Carharts or others made of tightly knit, canvas-weave fabric. Although they are cooler in the summer, I always regret wearing lightweight pants because invariably when I do I wind up with numerous thorns imbedded in my thighs and legs, especially on and above the knees which have to power through thick areas, etc.. When going through areas thick with stinging nettle, especially in the late summer and fall when it grows tall, it is important to keep your hands and arms up high to avoid the plants brushing on your bare skin.
Since it has been a couple of years since I last “had the itch”, I forgot about a frequently present unfriendly plant hazard to bark collecting. Poison Ivy is very often found in areas with large cottonwood trees and seems to like both the shady areas under the trees and the very brushy areas around fallen/dead trees. I know from experience that wearing shorts to collect bark in such areas is not a good idea and that long sleeve shirts and gloves is a good idea. Also, don’t leave your pants inside out after collecting because your wife might get the itch from reaching in the legs to turn them right-side out for washing – mine did at least once. Scrubbing with a lot of soap in the shower, soon after getting home, to remove any poison ivy residue/sap is highly recommended as well.
Alex Bisso is a woodcarver, and collector and seller of cottonwood bark and other found wood. To view some of Alex’s carvings and cottonwood bark supply at Be So Good Wood, click HERE.
Copyright 2013, All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.