The Joy of Poison Oak…and the steriods that follow

Since this is a blog mostly about hiking, and since hiking entails interaction with poisonous plants, and since my not-so-recent run in with one particular poisonous plant resulted in me being on prednisone GOING ON 4 WEEKS NOW, I thought a mini tutorial on poison oak and some of the side effects of the medications would be appropriate.

Poison oak is found on the west coast, and poison ivy on the east.  You get it from coming into contact with a chemical called urushiol (same for both plants).  You don’t spread it by scratching (unless the oil gets under your nails, which it can) and other people can’t get it by touching your nasty-ass rash (though I don’t know why anyone would ever do that), they have to come into contact with the resin itself.  If you are looking to avoid all contact, poison oak comes in the form of a: bush, vine, root, tree, stick, leaf…so really you just need to stay away from any kind of shrubbery.

With that problem solved, we move on to treatment.  After the oozy rash, sleepless nights, and looks of horror from your friends when you bare your skin (which is probably the best part of the whole experience), when you finally go to the doctor, come the steroids.  Big suggestion: MAKE SURE you are on them for long enough.  Because apparently even if it totally looks like you are healing, if the first round doesn’t completely knock it out, the rash will come back with a vengeance.

As the doctor was writing out my (third) prescription of prednisone, she finally told me that she doesn’t like putting people on this drug for a number of reasons.  Apparently it is one of the few drugs that isn’t addictive, but still makes your body stop producing some hormone or chemical or something, so if you stop taking it without properly tapering you experience withdrawal symptoms (and sometimes even with tapering you experience the symptoms).  Awesome.  Additional side effects include:

  • Increased hunger
  • Water retention/Weight gain
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Acne
  • Mood swings/depression

It reminded me of the time after my accident when the doctor decided to switch me from one anti-seizure medication to another, telling me after the fact that one of the reasons he switched me over was that side effects for the first medication I was on included gum enlargement and facial hair.

So, to summarize, if you get poison oak:

  • Go get shot up with the strongest steroid you can find.  Immediately.  So you don’t have to take this stupid drug for longer than 7 days.
  • If you do end up on drugs, don’t plan on attending any events where you will have to wear tight-fitting clothing…because they won’t fit
  • Prepare your friends, coworkers, and significant other for the joys of withdrawal (I cried during an episode of Shear Genius)

For more answers to your questions on poison oak, this site is helpful.

Hike #11: Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve–Alpine trail loop (we think?)

Location: San Mateo County

Distance: 3m (but I have no idea how far we went…guessing right around there)

Entry fee: $0

I am not even sure how to really start this entry because the hike as described in the book is absolutely 100% not where we went.  This is becoming a theme that should probably be addressed.  But I would like to thank Molly (and Paul) for waking up at the buttcrack of dawn on their day off from work to join me.

This hike started off on the wrong foot (ha) in a number of ways.  First off, it is listed as a “perfect hike to do with kids” and a great option for people with disabilities.  So really, how complicated can the trail be? I assume that we can get it done in about an hour.

Paul and I pick Molly up at her apartment at 5:45am (which I thought was a little late to get going, but considering the length and difficulty of the hike, didn’t think we would have a problem finishing in a timely fashion.)  We drove down the Peninsula, where the trail head proved to be a little further off the freeway than anticipated.  Arrival at trailhead: 6:45am.  I am already stressing about being late to work.   Entrance to the trailhead was locked, so we parked our car illegally on the side of the road…and proceeded to walk in a huge loop around 2 parking lots, struggling to figure out where to enter the park.  LESSON ONE: if you aren’t totally sure that you’re at the right trailhead, DON’T START HIKING.

After picking a trail, we eventually hit some signs for the Horseshoe Lake, which is where the book instructed us to go, and ended up…back at the main road.  Not where we were supposed to be.  Looks like we may have been hiking on the right trail in the wrong direction?  We turn around, find a new trail, think we know where we’re going…yadda yadda…I’ll spare you the details, you’ve heard this story before.  All the while my distress regarding getting to work on time is growing.

We finally made it up on a ridge…(the wrong ridge, but a ridge nonetheless)…and did get some nice views and the whole area up there is really gorgeous.  Unfortunately, at this point it was close to 8am and I was experiencing full blown anxiety about a 9am appointment that needed to be dealt with immediately.  So when we hit a familiar part of the trail again (how we got back there?  not sure), we decided to head back the way we came.  Super bummer, there is a mountain called Mount Umunhum that I was looking forward to seeing.

Hike #11: MOST HUMONGOUS FAILURE YET.  We are going back to do the real hike at a later date.

One sidenote: we did catch a coyote chowing down on a deer that had been killed by a car.  He had picked one leg bone clean and was digging into the torso.  There were organs laying around…it was gruesome.

Lessons Learned: start at the right starting point; leave earlier than you think you should for morning hikes

Flora and Fauna: egret, coot, poison oak, coyote

Hike #10 (Urban Hike #4): Outer Richmond, aka the Dumpling trail

Location: San Francisco (the Richmond)

Distance: 5.5m

Entry fee: $0

Hike #10 was cause for celebration on a number of levels.  Not only am I beyond thrilled to be steroid and gauze free, but we have now officially hit the double digits.  Way to go us.

Molly always talks about how she has never spent any significant time in the outskirts of San Francisco, so we decided to take care of that.  We headed out to the Great Highway to knock one of these neighborhoods off the list: the Richmond.

This hike we dubbed the Dumpling Trail (or, if you’d prefer, the Fatty McTubster hike).  We only actually hit up one dumpling spot for food, but we did walk by at least a four dozen others.

The Richmond, which used to be a vast expanse of sand dunes, was built up following the 1906 earthquake to rehouse the population.  It is one of the last Irish enclaves in SF (who came to the city by way of the Transcontinental Railroad) and also has huge Russian, Eastern European, and Chinese populations.  (The Russians/Eastern Europeans came in the 1920s following the Russian Revolution, and again during the Cold War.  The Chinese showed up in the late 1960s after the Chinese Exclusion Act was lifted.)  We decided to try to hit up some Irish/Chinese/Russian food/drink/music on this hike to celebrate the cultural diversity of the neighborhood.

First point of action was getting dinner, and dumplings seemed like the right sort of celebratory Chinese cuisine for the occasion.  Decision time.  Options were:

  • King of Chinese Dumpling
  • Shanghai Dumpling King
  • Kingdom of Dumpling

After much research and scrutiny, Shanghai Dumpling King won out.

Good call.  This is the place to go for all things dumpling.  The spicy dumplings were particularly fantastic.

Following dinner we made our way up to Bazaar Cafe on California with plans to hang out in the back garden, listen to some live music, and maybe grab a beer.  We walked in to find…people praying in the back garden and a poetry jam/scripture reading in the front.  Unclear what happened there.  Time to move on to Tia Margarita…because what better way to get over barging in on a prayer group than watching Shani Davis win gold while drinking a margarita the size of your head.

Sidenote: at Tia I asked the bartender for a water with my marg (hydrate before you recreate), he told me they don’t serve water.  I laughed.  He never gave me water.

So at 3 miles, in a light tequila haze, we made our way back down to Geary and over to John Campbell’s Irish Bakery (which, btw, is open until 10pm.)  This place COMPLETELY ROCKS.  We got some apple fluffers, snowballs, and scones.  Because we needed some extra calories.

Final pub stop of the night, The Plough and Stars, where we finally found our live Irish music!  These dudes were definitely Irish, and they jammed.

The final stop on the Dumpling Trail was Michelle’s new digs in Presidio Heights…which just happens to be .5 blocks away from the corner of Washington and Cherry, the location of one of the Zodiac murders.   WAY exciting.

Hike #10: SUCCESS!!  Though we didn’t hit up any perogies or brats…but don’t worry, there are more hikes to come.

Lessons Learned: The Richmond is named after the Richmond District in Melbourne, Australia; a little more research on “live music” at certain venues might be worth your time

Flora and Fauna: 

As you slide down the banister of life, may all the splinters be going in the right direction. ~Irish blessing

Hike #9.5: (Urban Hike #3.5): Western Addition Dinner Hike (Guest blogger)

Location: San Francisco (Western Addition)

Distance: 0.5 miles (I actually google mapped it)

Entry fee: $0

It’s Guest Blogger, Molly, again!  Meagan, Chrissy, Michelle and I planned on having dinner at the Bean Bag Café to catch up and hang out.  Meagan and I needed to get some more hikes in, so we planned a SF Beer Week Hike Part 2 to hit all the bars we didn’t the first time around.  We had a 6 mile route planned, but the actual hike was going to depend on Meagan’s poison oak and how far she could comfortably walk.  Guess the poison oak was feeling really lazy, so it called upon a skin infection to break Meagan out in hives and send her to emergency care.  SF Beer Week Hike Part 2: Cancelled.

The three of us met for dinner anyways, which was quite tasty.  Afterwards, Michelle left to go back to work (boo) but, we had a few hours before Chrissy had to go to a concert at the Independent, so we started a crawl of our own.  We walked a block south on Divis to Madrone, where we both had a beer and enjoyed people watching (strange people in shorts and wasted wobbly people at 7pm).  After hydrating at Madrone, we geared up for our arduous 4 block walk to Candybar.  We walked in, but weren’t feeling the wine and cheese plate vibe, so we moved on.  We hiked another block to Bar 821, which would end up being our final destination.

Hike #9.5: short, but sweet.

Lessons learned: every 0.003 miles counts, as Meagan so succinctly texted us from emergency care

Flora and Fauna: brown sugar cubes at Bar 821 look like croutons, but why would croutons be sitting in a bowl at a bar?

Hike #9: (Urban Hike #3): SF Beer Week (Guest blogger)

Location: San Francisco (SOMA, Mission, Lower Haight)

Distance: 6 miles (planned…actual – much, much shorter)

Entry fee: $0

Stop #1 - Anchor and Hope

Hello to the Meggawho Blogosphere!  Molly here guest blogging for Hike #9, which Meagan unfortunately missed.  Be nice, I’m an engineer by profession and haven’t written much since college, so bear with me.  I’ll do my best to be as witty and informative as Meagan.

I received an email from a friend informing me that SF Beer Week was happening and we decided that it would be a great theme for an urban hike.  For once, we planned our route early enough to have a bunch of friends join us.  Everything was set until the very last minute when Meagan had to leave early for Santa Cruz and nurse her poison oak butt.  However, that didn’t stop the rest of us from foraging on ahead without our fearless leader!  Allie and I got out of work early, so we decided to add the Anchor and Hope event to the hike.  I started the crawl with a delicious Czech Pilsner that has been brewed in since 1008.


Next, we walked to City Beer Store – a fun little place with a wide selection of bottled beer that you can buy beers for either to go, or you can pay a fee and enjoy it right in the store.  Next,  we were set to meet Meagan’s replacement,  Paul, at Rosamunde in the Mission…and since we thought we were in a hurry to meet him there,we decided to skip this leg of the walk and cab it over.   Here, we had a specially tapped Stone IPA that I paired with my beer sausage dinner.  Deeeelish. After fueling up at Rosamunde, we noticed our walk to Toronado was quite far and decided to get a beer to go.  At the next corner store we got a Bud Light tall boy, which we split into the To-Go cups that Allie so thoughtful brought with her from work.  But, after a few blocks of walking and the tall boy almost gone, we hopped into a cab.

Toronado ended up being the designated meeting place for a few more friends, which was great, but kinda derailed the remaining two stops on our hike.  Oh well.  While at Toronado, the Edel-Weiss beers were flowing and we started to miss our blogger extraordinaire.  So, with the aid of my awesome and handy Droid, we sent her a series of photos and texts so she wouldn’t miss out.

Having Fun
But sad at the same time (we missed you, Meagan!)

Hike #8: failure on actually “hiking,” but a success in enjoying delicious beers for SF Beer week

Lessons learned: without Meagan, I’m pretty lazy and can be talked out of actually “hiking” on an urban hike

Flora and Fauna: allie f, paul h, chrissy, allie c, ferg, carl, brian, and paul b:  awesome friends to have beers with on a Friday night.

Hikes on Hold

So that “rapidly escalating” case of poison oak from the second Mt. Tam hike has spread to my leg, side, and back, and is now a full-blown skin infection (I know, disgusting…that phrase comes in a (distant) second to mucus plug for words that should never be next to each other.)   I am on steroids,  antibiotics, benedryl…blah blah…anyway, point being, wearing clothes and walking really irritates everything.  My condition has already postponed two scheduled urban hikes…so we are officially on hold until further notice.  (This is especially disappointing because the past 10 days have been Beer Week in San Francisco, so we missed out on some awesome microbrews and presentations and tastings.)  Oh well.

Because she is such a good friend, Molly will be guest blogging to cover a few hikes that I was scheduled to participate in but couldn’t attend.   MOLLY ROCKS

Hike #8: Henry Cowell Redwood State Park

Location: Santa Cruz

Distance: 4.8m

Entry fee: $6

While spending the weekend in Santa Cruz with Emily and Ashley, two of my closest friends from high school, I figured it might be a good time to knock out a hike in the area.  Despite a rapidly escalating case of poison oak, I figured a short, flat stroll outdoors on wide, paved roads, far away from any questionable foliage with some old friends might be a nice way to spend the weekend.

Not entirely what happened.  It would be misleading to say we did this hike as described in the book.  We definitely went hiking in the Henry Cowell Redwood State Park, but our hike was 8 miles (not 4), the grade was pretty steep in some areas (not “steady and mostly downhill”), we never made it to the observation deck (despite convincing ourselves that we had), and half the time the river was on our left when it should have been on our right.

How did this happen? There are many theories.  Ashley blamed the book.  Emily blamed the guide (me).  I kind of blamed Ashley, because I was under the impression that she had done the hike before (sorry Ash) and because I lacked any other defensible rationale for our situation.

About 10 minutes into the hike we (read: I) reference the book and see that, though we have apparently walked the right distance and are in the right location, the river is on our left instead of our right.  So we are walking the wrong direction.  Weird.

Oh, well…we turn around and continue walking another mile or two following what we believe is the right trail despite the fact that we a.) are not seeing any white, sandy trails as described in the book (we blame the rain and mud and point to some white rocks on the side of the trail…”yeah, see?  there’s the white sand!”), b.) have yet to see the name of the trail we are supposed to be walking along on any trailhead post (we blame the book/trailheads being outdated),  and c.) had long since passedthe mileage marker for the observation deck according to Emily’s pedometer.

Almost 3 miles in we come across a small clearing with a bench that looks out over the valley all the way down to Santa Cruz.  “The observation deck!” we cry, wanting so badly to believe we are going the right way that we ignore the fact that there is absolutely no deck whatsoever near these benches, no “360 view” of Santa Cruz, and that there is a hill rising up behind us when the book says this deck is located on the highest summit in the area.

From here things became even less logical…we decided to take a detour (some people were getting bored with the paved road) and, going off of our location on the map (which wasn’t our real location at all), start down a muddy hill towards the river, thinking it would take us back to the car.  Wrong.  Dead ends into fallen trees and the rushing river.  There are beware of mountain lion signs everywhere, which has Emily nervous.  I pick up a big stick and start swinging it around to protect us as we walk.  Back up the hill.   Back to the fireroad which takes us to…a major thoroughfare, where a nice gentleman shows us that we have actually strayed so far south that we are now off the map entirely.

Long story short (too late), 5 miles later we made it back to the car.

Hike #8:  failure.  But good times anyway.  And we saw a really cool huge bright yellow banana slug.  Those things never get old.

Lessons learned: don’t give me the map

Flora and Fauna: blackberry bush (which I kept confusing with poison oak)

Hike #7: Mount Tamalpais, Phoenix Lake

Location: Marin (Lagunitas)

Distance: 5.3 miles

Entry fee: $0

This hike yielded some of the best flora and fauna to date.  And some of the most awesome views.  I am falling in love with Mt Tam.

Molly and I had originally planned to do the Cataract Falls hike in the same area.  We underestimated, however, the level of fun we would have the night before at Chrissy’s 29th birthday celebration (which started out at La Trappe…we should have known better).   So after a late start to the day and taking into account the puke probability, a 7 mile “moderate” hike did not sound appealing…or even really possible.  So we settled for the shorter, easier Phoenix Lake.

After driving through much of Marin (yes, we may have gotten lost on the way there), we pulled up to a line of cars waiting for a parking spot.  Wtf.  Lesson one: if you plan to do this hike, get there early.  We only ended up waiting about 5 minutes (during which we ate about half the birthday cupcakes we had baked for Chrissy the day before…we had them in the car with the good intention of delivering them on the way home.  Guess what didn’t happen.)  Anyway, we finally parked and got our hike on.

Chrissy's cupcakes

The fireroad at the early part of the hike has relatively heavy traffic…the area is very popular with mountain bikers, and the very beginning of the fireroad is full of families and dogs and people just enjoying a nice stroll around the lake.  Once you break off the fireroad onto Yolanda trail (which, surprise, we missed on the first flyby and had to backtrack to find), it empties out.

The first half of this hike is AWESOME.  To begin with, the day was beautiful.   The recent rain meant that all of the brooks and streams and waterfalls were flowing, and that the moss and mushrooms were all out and sporing (or whatever it is they do) making everything look soft and fuzzy and bright green and surreal.

We saw tons of birds (humming birds, robins, hawks, vultures–which freaked Molly out) and some really amazing views of the peak of Mt. Tam.  We also identified a few flowers and plants, including the invasive broom (duh duh duh) and bluedicks (I’m not going to say anything in case my parents read this site).

Once you complete that part of the loop, you hit the fireroad again and, after about 300 yards, branch off into what is essentially a small redwood forest.  While this part of the hike was less exciting (partially because we’ve spent a decent amount of time in redwood forests, partially because we were ready to get back to the car and eat more cupcakes) it was here that we saw some of our more exciting fauna, including: a huge banana slug (which, did you know, can weigh up to a quarter pound), and what we thought was a salamander but is actually a coast range newt.

(For all of you out there wondering what distinguishes a salamander from a newt…and I know you are….a newt is actually the common name for certain members of a family of relatively small salamanders.)

banana turd

Hike #7: hungover success!  I know I said this about the last Mt Tam hike, but I really think THIS one might be my favorite so far.

Lessons learned: all newts are salamanders, but not all salamanders are newts

Flora and Fauna: California Bay tree, broom, coast range newt, banana slug, bluedicks (which are actually purple)